The Harvill Book of Twentieth-Century Poetry in English
Michael Schmidt (editor) Harvill, 728p
Looking at the past 100 years of poetry in English is like reconsidering the nature of time. The past doesn't stay settled. Things don't develop in an unbroken line, smoothly accumulating and evolving. There isn't really a line. It's more of an uneven and shifting map of hot spots. There are clusters and constellations, bursts of fruition and longueurs. Few neat connections can be made from movement to movement or poet to poet. There have been some around whom one can describe a circle, while others have affinities that criss-cross all over the place, looping around the world or back through thousands of years.
The century began so frighteningly well that it's hard to feel proud of what's happened since. The best of this early work is still more radical, more fresh, than much of what's appearing now. In the years before the first world war, poetry was keeping up with the new age of cubism and quantum mechanics. Modernism in general, and imagism in particular, carved out new poetic territory as well as new ways of mediating it. Although the Georgians prevailed over the British scene (well upholstered, crafted, dull), they were eclipsed by the cosmopolitan and vivaciously stylised work of Ezra Pound, T S Eliot and H D.
Along with their compatriots Marianne Moore, Wallace Stevens and William Carlos Williams, these Americans were to be hugely influential. All six were born within ten years. Their influence has been so pervasive that those coming to their most famous poems for the first time may realise they have been affected by them already. Eliot's "The Love Song of J Alfred Prufrock" with its opening lines: "Let us go then, you and I,/When the evening is spread out against the sky/Like a patient etherised upon a table"; Stevens's "Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird"; or the original fridge-door poem, Williams's "This is Just to Say" - "I have eaten/the plums/that were in/the icebox . . ." These may now be anthology standards, but they can still spring their surprises.
Behind this avant-garde lay a constellation whose reputations demonstrate that what is most obvious, most graspable about a poet becomes that for which they are best known. Thomas Hardy's guilt-ridden elegies to his dead wife or his fragile heralding of the new century in "The Darkling Thrush" are less familiar than his Wessex novels. A E Housman's "blue remembered hills" have become a byword for nostalgia, whereas the poet's terse evocation of that "land of lost content" is something far more complex. Yeats's "bee-loud glade" of "Innisfree" remains better loved than his later articulation of an increasingly centrifugal world in which: "Things fall apart, the centre cannot hold." The American farmer-poet Robert Frost is praised for his vernacular, and for his evocations of nature and working on the land, in poems like "After Apple-Picking" and "Birches". Yet Randall Jarrell wrote with great insight about "the other Frost", whose darkness was such that it made "pessimism seem a hopeful evasion". Frost's "The Witch of Coos" is one of the most disturbing poems I've ever read.
The poetry of the first world war is one part of the century's map that is being redrawn, with greater interest in the overlooked work of Edward Thomas, Ivor Gurney and Isaac Rosenberg than in that of Owen, Graves or Sassoon. Perhaps we are just more in tune with Thomas's roads that "go on/While we forget, and are/Forgotten"; Gurney's reveries; and Rosenberg's delicate abstractions. Their near contemporaries, David Jones and Basil Bunting, considered difficult and obscure with their extreme compression and fragmentation of language, are also enjoying new interest. It can take time to catch up with a poet, as can be seen in the late flowering of the reputations of Emily Dickinson or Gerard Manley Hopkins.
The years between the wars belong to W H Auden and Louis MacNeice. Not so much modernist as modern, they have undergone a reversal, with MacNeice now being cited more often than Auden as an influence by younger poets. These days, what Auden had to say about poetry crops up in reviews of almost anything, but it is MacNeice's poems that are invoked. They have a quality of disturbance and precarious perspective, "The drunkenness of things being various", that speaks to our times.
The second world war was better served by the agonised surrealism of Paul Celan, the ironic absurdities of Bertolt Brecht or that formidable witness Anna Akhmatova, than by any British contribution. Keith Douglas, who died in action at the age of 24, stands out. The freewheeling reportage of his "Cairo Jag" prefigures the American poets of the pop art era such as Frank O'Hara, who was in fact his contemporary: "Marcelle drops her Gallic airs and tragedy/suddenly shrieks in Arabic about the fare/with the cabman . . ." It could be from Lou Reed.
In the 1950s and 1960s, the most interesting poets writing in English were once again American. There were those like Robert Lowell and Elizabeth Bishop, allies and opposites, who served an apprenticeship in formal poetry which they then broke out of. Both have strongly influenced a number of British poets. They could work in sonnets and rhyming quatrains but found their most powerful expression in a formally conscious and sophisticated kind of free verse. Lowell's scaldingly detached use of autobiography led to his being labelled a "confessionalist" along with Anne Sexton and Sylvia Plath. It is an unattractive and misleading label that, with its still-burgeoning number of adherents, has much to answer for.
The more popular American style, shaping both poetry and prose, could be characterised as a relish of vernacular, narrative, locale, pace and capaciousness; and an enthusiasm for what's different and new, mobile and modern. The country continued to be a crucible for poetic experiment with the Beat Poets and the Black Mountain School, as well as the development of consciously black and feminist poetics. There is now another lull as recent American poets have tended to be academic, abstruse, more proficient and less exciting.
In the last 20 years, the focus has shifted to Ireland and, in particular, the North, with Seamus Heaney, Michael Longley, Mebdh McGuckian and Paul Muldoon. Scotland has been turning out good poets for most of this century, from Norman McCaig and Sorley McLean who wrote in Gaelic (contemporaries of Auden and MacNeice) to Edwin Morgan and, in the 1990s, Kathleen Jamie and Don Paterson. The former Commonwealth has come into its literary own, led in poetry by the Australian Les Murray, whose epic gift is on a level with that of Ted Hughes. In short, the best of the past 100 years of poetry written in English has been by those from somewhere else. Only Hughes stands out in recent years as an English poet of the same calibre as Heaney or Murray.
This end of the century is too close to judge, a point Michael Schmidt makes in his Twentieth Century Poetry in English. He includes only four poets under 40, and offers a decent amount of poems by fewer contributors than might now be the anthology norm. Among them are several of the overlooked, including Charlotte Mew, who has suffered from being neither Victorian nor modernist, but something pivotal in between. Several others seem deservedly obscure but, overall, this is a satisfying selection that reminds us that Lawrence didn't just write about animals, Betjeman wasn't always jolly and Plath is more interesting for her collapsed perspectives than her self-exposure.
Schmidt's criterion - to select "poems which engage a reader solely because of what they do with language"- defines poetry as autonomous and proactive. Peter Forbes's Scanning the Century looks at poetry being responsive. His focus is on historical events and cultural phenomena, and draws not only on poetry in English but that in English translation. Pound is often quoted as saying that poetry is "news that stays news". The trouble is that real news does not often make good poetry. Forbes has chosen many good poets not at their best, but bogged down in or overwhelmed by their subject. Those who succeed find indirect approaches: Carol Ann Duffy's "Translating the English" defines the British 1980s through the corruption of language; Liz Lochhead borrows from MacNeice, turning his "Bagpipe Music" into "Muzak" while matching his satire.
Forbes says he is pitching his anthology on a middle ground between high art and populism: "direct, comprehensible, shapely poems that reflect the world we know . . ." This not only undersells poetry but undersells his book. It reminds me of recent attempts to promote poetry according to 1990s values of access, innovation and populism, which is not the same thing as showing how it has reconnected with the world. It could be sold as an adventure or on the joy of difficulty, a different matter from being obscure. Including pop lyrics in an anthology, as Forbes does here, will only encourage people to think less of poetry and expect less from it.
Such is the current emphasis on poetry's public place that scant attention is paid to the ways poetry talks about poetry as well as about the world. Schmidt's anthology reflects the pleasure poets take in talking to, and taking from, one another across time. He includes Gurney on Thomas, Bunting on Pound, and John Ashbery on John Clare. Poets retell each other's stories, as can be seen in the recent spate of versions "after Ovid". They continue to adapt each other's forms and metres - the alexandrine, the haiku, the sonnet.
Forbes rightly gives considerable space to science and technology. Inventions have influenced poetry as much as events - above all, their impact on ways of seeing. One of the greatest cinematic poems we have is MacNeice's "Soapsuds", which elides and fades like a film. Derek Mahon's "A Disused Shed in County Wexford" moves from mushrooms growing in the dark to the Holocaust, a scale that veers from that of the magnifying glass to that of a satellite. (These are my examples, not Forbes's.)
Lack of conviction has come to occupy the same position in this century as the struggle for faith did in the last. Bleak confrontation is more our thing, like that of Jarrell who echoed Lear, "nothing comes of nothing", but denied redemption: "Pain comes from the darkness/And we call it wisdom. It is pain.". This crisis has hardened into an irony that can create what the critic David Kalstone called "satirical distance". What with the distance already in place with so much of the experience described being anecdotal or media-conveyed, the reader might end up matching the writer's shrug.
Both these anthologies are considerable achievements and both contain plenty of good work. The difference is that Scanning the Century fits poetry into a map of the world, whereas Michael Schmidt's approach is to map the world of poetry, and to show how subjective, lively and changeable that map can be.