Issue 8: Adam Piette on The 20th Century in Poetry & New Poetries V

Review of:

The 20th Century in Poetry

edited by Michael Hulse & Simon Rae 

(London: The Ebury Press, 2012). 860 pp.

ISBN 978 0 09194 017 1. hb £25.00.

New Poetries V: An Anthology

edited by Michael Schmidt & Eleanor Crawforth

(Manchester: Carcanet, 2012). 248 pp.

ISBN 978 1 84777 131 5. pb £12.95. 

Anthologies used to be able to define an era, like Palgrave's Golden Treasury or Donald Allen's The New American Poetry, 1945-1960, or were used to launch a school or defend a patch as with Conductors of Chaos; but more and more they are used to showcase a poetry press’s own stable of young bloods, in a seductive act of one-up-poet-ship. The anthology presents as a series of shop windows, odes and epics displayed on the page like pepperpots, toasters, chaises longues. Or it has a magazine feature role, the new poets like the latest movie’s youngest most languid stars interviewed in hotel daylight by trend-chasing reporters. In the vicious world of poetry, this commercialism will invite sneering disdain, despite the rejoinder that anthologies are practically the only poetry the public will buy. And yet, as these two anthologies prove, there is life in the beast yet: served as they are by more rigorous standards, by discriminating and serious taste.

            If any anthology aimed at Golden Treasury status it is the luscious and absurdly generous book edited by Michael Hulse and Simon Rae. The 20th Century in Poetry has a visionary and liberal patron backing it, the bookish millionaire Felix Dennis, who has bankrolled the project by paying the royalties on the hundreds of poems still in copyright. This gave the initiative enormous scope to range where the editors could find good work, enabling them to act as patrons in their own right to poems in English from around the world. The massive 860 page hardback is also a monument to the other ambition driving the editors, historical coverage; for the anthology is structured according to years (mostly of publication), so we get seven big sections (from ‘1900-1914 Never Such Innocence Again’ to ‘1989-2000 Endgames’), but every year featuring, with two to ten poems per year. The big poems are there, with extracts from The Waste Land, Wilfred Owen and Keith Douglas, Pound’s ‘E.P. Ode pour l’Election de son ‘Sepulchre’, through Berryman, O’Hara, Lowell, to Muldoon, Armitage: so in a sense this matches the Norton anthology of twentieth century poetry in providing texts enough to savour the canon. But nothing would be further from the actual experience of reading this anthology from start to finish than canon-fodder suspicions. The matchless robust English and openness to the estrangements of experience under 20th century historical compulsions that Michael Hulse revealed in his wonderful translation work with W.G. Sebald are here demonstrated in terms of taste. Hulse’s taste, as shown by the selection, is for longish, more narrative poems, written for the most part in an English toughened by modernism yet open to the shocks and traumas of the stories being told: engaged in the world of history and engaged too with a readership prepared to live out the language with attention, fellow feeling, care. The effect is oddly unsettling as one reads through the years: the Great War and modernism happen simultaneously, but as stories along the way. The historical events are covered as they occur, the two world wars, Cold War with the Cuban missile crisis, the big social changes of feminism, civil rights, decolonization, etc., but intimately, in poems that take the news deep into individual, family and community psyche. The events reverberate along the century too, as poem after poem returns and feels again the pasts of the hundred years as they accumulate.

It is as a strange and exhausting sequence, perhaps, that one might best engage with this tremendous anthology. Decades emerge with a special tone, as with the desolate darkness felt by poets in the millennial 1990s. Years will string together through common theme, creating an exhilarating daisy chain effect: the quiet thoughtfulness of the editors acts as companion to this sequential prompting. For instance, 1940 begins with Henry Reed’s ‘Lessons of the War’ which ends, in its ‘Judging Distances’ section, with awful militarizing of pastoral, the instructor training his men to be able to shoot lovers lying in fields from hundreds of yards. The effect is sinister, of course, but nowhere more so than when the voice speaks of the problem of ‘dead ground in between’. The anthology then moves to Alun Lewis’ ‘Then it Rained’, another phony war training camp poem, where the soldiers have their ‘Groundsheets and blankets spread on the muddy ground’. Reed leaks into the Lewis, in other words, through the coincidence, making the soldiers spectrally the lovers being targeted on dead ground. The next poem is Betjemans’ ‘In Westminster Abbey’ which prays ‘Gracious Lord, oh bomb the Germans’, picking up on a line from the Lewis poem before, ‘we talked of girls, and dropping bombs on Rome’, at the same time as its imaging of the swelling ‘vox humana’ in the Abbey and the old lady’s ‘cry’ looks forward to the next poem, Roy Fisher’s ‘The Entertainment of War’. Fisher remembers seeing the garden where his aunt had died ‘like a burst pod filled with clay’ whilst hearing ‘the bombs / Sing’. The music of such coincidental repeats of theme and term mirrors the common experiencing of the war.

The editors freely include memory poems in the historical sequence, as with the Fisher reminiscence, and this adds immeasurably to the dreamy, time-saturated experience of the whole volume. The sequences that are created become curiously memory-like, strands of understanding that connect us back and through and along textual bloodlines, filiations and recall-flashes that link up a very odd band of sisters and brothers. To move, as we do in the 1970s, from Nemerov on Vietnam through Durcan, Heaney and Mahon on the Troubles to Elizabeth Bishop’s ‘The Art of Losing’ makes hers an even more palpable poem of loss, for the ‘disaster’ she forces herself to write in the last line resonates not only with the 76 years we have spent in the century’s company (all 554 pages of it by the time we get to Bishop) but also with the warfare we have just been hearing stories of from America and Ireland.

            There is great melancholia in the selection, as poet after poet senses time passing, the weight of years, the dreadful co-presence of death and lethal history (just next door). It is a Sebald-shaped choice of stories in its bias towards poems of destruction, withering away, mutability, but this is also a selection which aims to register odd community across time and dead ground. Another example of fine sequential patterning from the 1960s: we have Berryman’s incomparable Dream Song 41 (and it is a tribute to the editorial taste that we so often get something unexpected but extraordinarily fine with such plum-picking) with its fugue on Celan’s ‘Todesfuge’, broken, maddened by Holocaust death: ‘When I used to be / who haunted, stumbling, sewers, my sacked shop / roofs, a dis-world, ai!’ That cry reverberates through the next poem, a selection from Basil Bunting’s masterpiece, Briggflatts, with its meditation on art and death: the extract zooms in on a stonemason chipping out gravestones, ending ‘It is easier to die than remember. / Name and date / split in soft slate / a few months obliterate’. Spookily and hauntedly, the next poem of 1965 is Iain Crichton Smith’s ‘Old Woman’, opening ‘And she, being old, fed from a mashed plate / as an old mare might droop across a fence’. The Briggflatts rhyme carries over and sings again in the old woman’s dis-world of decay and many dyings: ‘where had died / too many waves to mark two more or three’. These last lines segue into the next poem, Bishop’s ‘Questions of Travel’ with its opening line ‘There are too many waterfalls here’. It shows wonderful tact and a broad intimate familiarity for such rhyming connections to occur: they show a special kind of wit, as though stringing pearls in tribute to lost times and so many dead.

            The selection is not uniformly gloomy either, despite the editorial decision to track an often violent history. For many of the poets offer up their ways of coping with memory, history, forces in the world, as friendly companionship to the equal reader, or as education, chivvying, sentimental, persuasive, as when Les Murray takes us into the world of his autistic son, or Tony Harrison into an old people’s resthome. There are affectionate, comic, surreal poems in most decades; but the total effect is of a certain seriousness, the kind that furrows the brow yet expands mind and heart. It is not an exhaustive anthology, and has the usual head-slapping gaps (no Olson, no Oppen, no Clampitt, nothing much in the innovative way, etc.), but it makes up for this with a very committed bias towards other Englishes, especially Australian and New Zealand poetries. It is part of the curious time travelling effect of reading this through that one takes in Slessor, Smither, O’Sullivan and Nortje as part of a global anglophone experiencing of 20th century history. It has an expansive effect, yet still measured through the same exacting Sebaldian, Hulsean taste: the South Africans, Australians, Canadians and Australians more than match, so often surpass the Brits and Americans in the claritas and truth-telling clairvoyance this volume cherishes. This is a superb anthology, something beyond crediting (to get all this for the price of a night out), rich as a treasury yet full too of Time, of 20th century times we are invited to remember, provisionally, as our own: its sequences sing through destructive years, an astonishing chorale of voices, sequences of stories and acts of witness with consequences in our own times and minds.

            Michael Schmidt’s selection of emergent poets from Carcanet and PN Review resembles the commercial anthologies I began with only in the abstract. This is the fifth volume, the second to be selected in collaboration with Eleanor Crawforth, which, if they were all added together, would outstrip even The 20th Century in Poetry. This anthology cannot match Hulse and Rae, but what it does do is to present work in a manner which does it justice, and I cannot see how such an act of presentation, careful, selfless and meticulous as this is, differs in any way from a good Penguin Book of, or New Oxford Book of. The poems have all been subjected to Michael Schmidt’s exacting and intricate attention, which means they have a purity of line, rhythm and diction, a flawlessness that is not so far removed from Hulse’s taste. Taste here implies more than a voguish savouring: it is rather a manner of engagement of the imagination with words that raises the stakes through exactness and discriminations of meaning, a plain style without niche rhetoric or bandstanding antics. This is often mistaken for ‘mainstream’ biddability; but it is here a late modernist sustaining of language attention and syntactical rigour. And given the sequential felicities of the Hulse and Rae volume, it is no surprise that such taste also coincides in the choice of good sequences. From the many fine poets in New Poetries V, two stand out, and stand out as outstanding experiments in sequence writing. Michael Schmidt’s intention in ordering the selection was to ‘emphasise the difference between the poets’; so there was no attempt to string similar work together. The two poets are therefore set very far apart in the volume itself: yet they share this sequential imagination.

Tara Bergin opens the anthology, and, responding to the editors’ desire that the poets speak a little about their compositional process, sounds an old-fashioned note, quoting Emily Dickinson, talking of the long labour, the ‘lengthy planning and thought’. The old-fashionedness comes through, though, not in some neo-Formalist cerebral puritanism, but in a second-sighted, period voicing of styles of mind, as though from earlier last century. ‘Portrait of the Artist’s Wife as a Younger Woman’ is a monologue of a woman maddened by what feels like interwar patriarchy. The prose poem ‘You Could Show a Horse’ collages together descriptions of horses in battle, a Great War nightmare. ‘Glinka’ seems to issue from a pre-Russian Revolutionary dream. All the poems have a formality to the theme, yet the voicing and line technique is bold, edgy, risking or withholding violent energies. ‘Red Flag’, for instance, engages with its hinted drama obliquely, telling of a girl who wreaks revenge on a soldier who touches her whilst teaching her how to shoot: the derangement of the lines comes through in the sing-song menace. She’ll wear the soldiers’ torn red flag‘as my Sunday Dress’, ‘walking on the ‘moor / where they practice with their guns’. Bergin’s Dickinsonisms are strategic registering of antiwar feminist imaginings tainted by the red flag of militarism: as such, the poet’s own sense of inhabiting a twenty-first century war culture seeps through.

            Bergin manages to sustain a historicist and thematic focus that makes the selection read as a kind of sequence; the very different poems circling round art, war, gender discover their own common ground because of the long gestation of the poem; i.e. because she has taken pains and lived with the ideas sequentially and at length. Near the end of the anthology we have a more recognizable sequence, the astonishing ‘Hennecker’s Ditch’ by Katherine Kilalea, a South African poet who I should say will soon be coming to do a PhD here at Sheffield. The sequence was commissioned by and read out on BBC Radio 3’s The Verb and then published in PN Review. It has a chaotic form of woven unhinged happenings, stricken noticings, punctuated by occasional epistolary sections addressed, mysteriously, to Circus. As Kilalea admits in her proem, there’s no narrative except for hints at some kind of journey into dread, and the identifiable selves in the sequence float in and out of coherence as dream Is and yous and thems. The performance of the lines is uncanny, frightening, like sequences of shots from horror films, the shots where nothing happens but may do or may have done. The technique is reminiscent of Auden’s in The Orators, a courting of unconscious aggression merged fantastically into ordinary English:


Dear Circus,

Past the thicket, through the window,

the painéd months are coming for us –


See the bluff, the headland, announcing

the presence of water.

See the moths.


Somehow, and I am not sure how or even what this means, the rhyme of ‘months’ and ‘moths’ is unearthly and ominous, sickening at very deep levels. Again, this builds like some Deep Image poem, yet is odder, freakier, more powerful than that, for Kilalea is unleashing lyric itself, and the darkness hidden in the lyric impulse - Tennyson’s dreadful hollow, his gloomy thickets; Pope’s browner horror – yet politicized and psychotic with the hint of Le Carré’s Circus, the coded violence of something rotten in the state. The six sections of the poem extend the lyric and make a more complex, timebound and dramatic story from the fragments, a ‘rickety house’ where the ordinary meets its dark other: ‘Barbed wire around the fisheries’; ‘The Audi keys lay heavy on the table’. This is great writing, partly because of the brave embracing of such dark forces, ultra-Gothic, mind-entrancing; partly because of its bleak sensing of the links between mad form and manic experiences at that edge. Any anthology of new work that discovers any true poet is rare enough: this finds two exceptional poets, Tara Bergin and Katherine Kilalea, which proves what a superb editor Michael Schmidt continues to be. But then that’s just a matter of taste, isn’t it.

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