Pockell compiled this collection “to provide a small, easily portable volume that would contain the essential works that most readers would expect to find in a book of the best poems.” While this elliptical pronouncement seems to suggest that a readers’ poll determined the selections, the editor makes no secret of his criteria. While one may disagree with some of the choices, this has considerable breadth for such a slim volume. A good deal of space is reserved for the classics (beginning with Homer and Sappho and including the 23rd Psalm and Shakespeare’s 18th Sonnet), but, of necessity, few works of any length are presented in their entirety. A large proportion of the poems tend to be lyrical, owing to the editor’s predilection for poetry that, according to Auden’s definition of verse, qualifies as “memorable speech.” Perhaps he has gone a little too far in this direction by offering Friedrich von Schiller’s “Ode to Joy”—a work that was ennobled by Beethoven’s choral setting but sounds somewhat clunky when read straight. Nevertheless, the editor strives to earn the volume wide appeal, presenting poetry of interest to younger readers as well, such as Clement Clarke Moore’s famous Christmas poem and Edward Lear’s “The Owl and the Pussycat.”
Stephen Spender said that great poetry is always written by somebody straining to go beyond what he can do. Occasionally, an editor attempts to do the same, and succeeds.