For more than 200 years, male British authors (usually poets, usually in pairs) have co-written or co-edited collections, anthologies or scholarly travel journals. It’s a tradition that is in surprisingly rude health, with recent examples and forthcoming festivities marking the 50th anniversary of a collaboration that sold shedloads. The subgenre’s fundamental challenge (how – and how much – to write as “we”?) remains unsolved, however, as is the mystery of why female or mixed doubles pairings in all kinds of writing are comparatively rare. Do try, though, to avoid potentially hurtful comparisons to Bro (buddy) movies, Bro-country acts or rappers duetting: the writers involved are sensitive chaps.
Lyrical Ballads by William Wordsworth and Samuel Taylor Coleridge, 1798
The inspiration and template for all subsequent poets’ pairings, but not in terms of shared workload: almost all the “ballads” were by Wordsworth, who wrote the lengthy “I” preface alone – it seemingly sniffily called Coleridge’s offerings (only four but including The Rime of the Ancient Mariner) “the assistance of a Friend … for the sake of variety”. So later collaborating poets were given no example of how to write as “we”.
Letters from Iceland by WH Auden and Louis MacNeice, 1937
At a time when male duos were proliferating in comedy, musicals and screenwriting, Auden and MacNeice teamed up as travel writers in a book that interweaves their contributions – only “Their Last Will and Testament” is a combined effort.
Journey to a War by WH Auden and Christopher Isherwood, 1939
Auden reverted to his regular writing partner for a trip to China, with the resulting book similarly mixing prose and verse, Auden writings and Isherwood writings.
The Mersey Sound, 1967
A rare instance of a trio instead of a duo. Packaging Adrian Henri, Roger McGough and Brian Patten together, capitalising on the ascendancy of “Mersey beat” bands in pop, in a paperback that invited you to see it as an album, Penguin produced one of the biggest selling poetry books ever. Its golden jubilee will be celebrated in Liverpool this summer.
The Rattle Bag edited by Seamus Heaney and Ted Hughes, 1982
Two giants came together to make an eclectic choice of verse for the classroom and general reader, but they too were miserly about joint writing – far from being a Wordsworth-style manifesto, their stiff “we” introduction has only 250 words and much of it is excitingly devoted to how their selection is ordered. Followed by The School Bag in 1997.
The Penguin Book of Contemporary British Poetry edited by Blake Morrison and Andrew Motion, 1982
An influential anthology, but remembered for Heaney publicly objecting (“my passport’s green”) to his inclusion. The Penguin Book of Poetry from Britain and Ireland since 1945, edited by Simon Armitage and Robert Crawford, somewhat sheepishly followed in 1998.
Moon Country by Simon Armitage and Glyn Maxwell, 1996
Then in their 30s, the bardic buddies followed Auden and MacNeice’s footsteps to Iceland for a radio series. A later joint excursion – most such collaborations involve a second date, it’s only polite – took them to Brazil.
Deaths of the Poets by Paul Farley and Michael Symmons Roberts, 2017
The pair’s second prose travelogue (after Edgelands) takes the Bro book genre to another level by riskily adopting what one reviewer called “a royal ‘we’ that makes it seem as if the book was written by committee” – and can make them come across as a slightly comical indivisible double act, like Thomson and Thompson in the Tintin books or Gilbert & George.
The Zoo of the New edited by Nick Laird and Don Paterson, 2017
Published this week, and as a wide-ranging, non-geographical anthology clearly influenced by The Rattle Bag. Chattier and longer than the earlier books (though not much longer), their “we” introduction is unusual for such male-edited selections in agonising about the under‑representation (“one in four-and-a half of the poems”) of women – at least better than Heaney and Hughes’s 10 out of 130, they defensively point out.