Pastoral fatalism

The New Penguin Book of English Verse

Edited by Paul Keegan <em>Allen Lane, The Penguin Press, 118

Anthologising must be a hellish business. First, you have to come up with a coherent organising principle, preferably one that hasn't been done before - or, if so, then not recently or not well. Then you have to decide what to include and, crucially, what to omit. And, after that, you have to listen to the critics complain about why the whole thing fails to work, or why this or that poem really should have been in or out. It's like trying to curate an exhibition of everything ever painted.

The first problem, at least, is one that Paul Keegan, the editor of the New Penguin Book of English Verse, did not have to face. His subject is the whole of English poetry from 1300 to the present day. But cutting out the one problem only sharpens the next: do you have this soliloquy from Hamlet or that from Lear? (In this case, however, Keegan has given us neither, preferring instead the sonnets and some less obvious passages from Cymbeline and The Tempest.) A book such as this is, in one sense, an attempt to define that rather frightening construct, the canon; it is also an idea of order, as Wallace Stevens might have said. But it is a job for which Keegan, as poetry editor of Faber & Faber, is evidently well qualified.

His innovation (although his introduction claims he is merely following a pre-20th century tradition) is to chuck out the usual plan of placing poets one after the other in a long chronological line like so many laurel-crowned marmoreal figures ascending Parnassus, each a little higher than the last, coming a little closer to our familiar modernity. Instead, he runs the poems themselves chronologically, in order of their first printing (or their first known appearance in manuscript). It's an excellent idea, because it restores primacy to the poems, rather than to the poets. So you find a pastoral Rupert Brooke popping up next to Ezra Pound's imagism, and a popular ballad such as "Lord Randal" rubbing up against William Cowper writing about snails. And the unknown poet Anonymous, for once, receives his (or her) due as an equal influence.

Keegan's method allows the reader to gauge more easily than usual the stylistic tensions and contradictions that appear in different ages, the various responses to similar events in the world of the time. Thus you get a sense of the texture of the age, which is at once more blurred and more complex. Most importantly, it makes plain that the evolution of English verse is not a steady, pre-ordained progress from medieval lays to free verse. There are lacunae in the record where nothing much happens, and times where you encounter a developmental quantum leap.

If there is a problem with this book, however, it is with the 20th century. For one thing, it is impossible to decide on a cut-off point that is anything other than arbitrary. Just where do you draw the line? Keegan's solution is to exclude any poet born after the early 1950s, which is fine - it's not possible to cut a clear and coherent line when the threads, as it were, of the poetic cloth are still attached to the loom; and anyway, line-drawing is a pursuit best left to purists and pedants.

The real difficulty is the lack of any poetry from beyond these shores. True, there are the inevitable Americans - Pound, Eliot, Plath - as well as Thom Gunn, who hasn't lived in Britain for many years. But in a book that is trying to trace the development of competing styles and influences, the lack of anything from abroad - especially from across the Atlantic, but also from Europe or the Commonwealth - leaves a huge gap in the evolutionary record. Reasons of space mean that this is an impossible demand - and this book is big enough as it is - but still, it leaves one with a strangely dysphonic sense of hearing only one side of a conversation, or rather only one out of a hubbub of chattering voices. That said, this is a remarkable, and essential, anthology.

Kenneth Baker's Book of Landscape Poetry suffers from different and deeper defects. Such a book comes to the reader laden with preconceptions and expectations of bosky dells, babbling brooks and yew-shaded churchyards. Baker has avoided a straight chronological arrangement, dividing his material into 37 sections, each devoted to a particular theme such as "Order and Wilderness", "Working the Land", "Moors, Heaths and Barren Places". Nothing wrong with that, but there's a danger that an anthology celebrating the British landscape will be weighed down with a nostalgic, not to say elegiac, air. In contrast to Keegan's book, its whole focus is backwards, to a pastoral ideal, and the implied invocation to protect any green still left irritates. Although there are quite a few poems from the past century here, the sense is of a gradual falling away from an imaginative engagement with the land we live on.

This is a shame, because it's something we used to be rather good at. But it's not clear to me, after reading this book, what a modern British landscape poem might be, or might be for. For one thing, the very term landscape is something of an anachronism, echoing the 18th-century idea of man imposing picturesque order on nature. These days, we talk of "the countryside", a place of haughty fox-hunters, fuel-crazed farmers and dormitory villages, defined merely in opposition to the city, where most of us actually live and work. Then I think of Derek Walcott's vibrant evocation of his native St Lucia in The Bounty and can't think of any contemporary poet who could or would write that way about Britain. Perhaps this is one poetic tradition that is going the way of the ox-drawn plough.

Adam Newey writes regularly for the NS books pages