Book: In the country of the mind

Michael Schmidt wants poetry anthologists to get over their hang- ups about time and place
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Scanning the Century:

Penguin Book of the 20th Century in poetry

Peter Forbes (editor)

Viking, pounds 20, 480pp

The Firebox:

Poetry from Britain and Ireland after 1945

Sean O'Brien (editor)

Picador, pounds 9.99, 511pp

The Penguin Book of Poetry from Britain and Ireland since 1945

Robert Crawford and Simon Armitage (eds)

Viking, pounds 10.99, 343pp

If, like Peter Forbes, you were scanning the 20th century in verse, where would you begin? You would ask which poems have actually done things: formed opinion, taken on new subjects, renewed language or found words for the voiceless. Rupert Brooke's "If I should die..." made patriots. In 1936, Edgell Rickword's "To the Wife of a Non-Interventionist Statesman" entered the bloodstream of the Left. Auden's "Spain" and George Barker's surreal "Calamiterror" did more than reflect on events; they made things happen. Later, Thomas Kinsella's "Butcher's Dozen" addresses the Widgery report after Bloody Sunday and sticks in the English craw; it remains at the political heart of Irish poetry.

Sorley Maclean revived Scots Gaelic and applied it to Spain, Scotland and the human heart. Hugh MacDiarmid found a new-old language for Scotland and gathered into it a century's hurricanes and the Prosperos who conjured them. For 40 years, Kamau Brathwaite has been finding language for Caliban to talk with Sycorax. What of Robert Lowell, whose sonnets touch on Vietnam, Martin Luther King and Robert Kennedy? And song writers? Leonard Cohen, for example: "Give me crack, anal sex,/Take the only tree that's left,/Stuff it up the hole in your culture"; or Noel Coward, with icy charm taking our temperature.

Scanning poetry in translation, we come to Aime Cesaire's Cahier d'un retour au pays natal, in which Sartre saw Black consciousness take form. In Europe, Marinetti and D'Annunzio figure; from other political zones, Seferis, Machado and Guillen read and write the century. In Latin America, Octavio Paz considers what may prove its most intractable legacy: the demographic tragedy of the Third World.

Some of these poems would find a place in your anthology. Not one features in Forbes's. His book reminds us how good Bernard Spencer can be, how funny Gregory Corso, how important translation. Less happily, it introduces us to Mark Halliday, whose work "embraces the American flux". Halliday, and that description of him, hint at larger problems.

Forbes does not date the poems. We can't be sure if a piece is witness, retrospect or appropriation. Much of the century's story has not reached Forbes's ears in verse form: Latin American upheavals, Japanese atrocities, religious ferment and change. What of Asians in Africa and the West Indies, Chinese in Indonesia, Indian Partition? Forbes doesn't discriminate between "the" and "a". He tells "the story" and speaks of "the flavour of the century", captured with "the tang" of newsreel and "the zest" of song. We expect something citrussy, then: a lemon?

The book has 39 compartments. DIY, Jobs, Nature, Love and Sex, the Holocaust: things like that (and the Bomb) are sub-anthologies with prose introductions. This is a secular book, with God a species of history. Forbes confesses to "a longstanding fascination for the history of the century and a passion to understand its dynamics". What more could we ask from a guide? Certain technical credentials, for starters. Moods matter less than facts, and facts less than dictions. That's a boring thing about poetry: it's not what it's about, but how it's about, that matters.

In Forbes's opening compartment, which disposes of the century's first 14 years, poems by Eliot and Kipling knock the rest into a cocked hat. Yet Forbes starts with an extract from Brodsky's "History of the Twentieth Century: A Roadshow". Brodsky's Marconi says: "Regular speech has its boring spoils:/ it leads to more speech, to violence,/ it looks like spaghetti, it also coils./ That's why I've built the wireless." This is doggerel: knowing, rib-prodding, unfunny.

Forbes keeps explaining E=mc2 and twice chides the physician William Carlos Williams for scientific ignorance. With history, it's sensible to disagree with his every opinion. In his account, events occur to challenge poets: "the blind annihilating capacity of the Bomb is a challenge to poets greater even than the Holocaust". The Muse of History chuckles to herself: "Try to get your stanza around this!"

Against the modern and postmodern idioms, Forbes proposes chronology: the primacy of subject-matter over form, the precedence of "witness" over the claims of poetic art. Here, poetry becomes a species of documentary: film without a camera, an ultimate refinement of journalism.

A century's end is an occasion for anthologies, and Forbes is not alone. His publisher has also brought us The Penguin Book of Poetry from Britain and Ireland since 1945, edited by Simon Armitage and Robert Crawford (SARC). Picador offers The Firebox, edited by Sean O'Brien (SOB). Both plough one field with similar tractors. They share over 90 poets. The Penguin is generously designed; the Picador is more sharply focused.

What is poetry? SARC raises its hand: "Poetry is language which delivers its own promise, and which may often trip reader and writer beyond the expected into an otherworld potent with spiritual experience." In this it resembles the blue pills that give old men erections and heart attacks. SARC uses volatile, imprecise critical terms. Vitality, niftiness, attentiveness, spirituality, numinous vibrancy - all in the first lines of introduction.

SARC displaces the word "ludic", to which Andrew Motion and Blake Morrison gave currency in their 1982 Penguin anthology, with "democratic". "Ludic" meant postmodern, playful, inventive; "democratic", applied to Basil Bunting, Robert Graves, Sylvia Plath and others, is meaningless.

SARC drives a reductive skewer through different hunks of meat. It wants "democratic" to mean "accessible" in ways modernism is assumed not to be. Yet Eliot, Pound and Yeats can tell us more, more plainly, about our condition than the poets foregrounded here.

O'Brien's version (SOB) presents the poet as "unacknowledged legislator". What does poetry do now? "It displays a vigour verging on ferocity. It recreates and renews itself, replenishing the fire which by tradition Prometheus stole from the gods - the fire of creation, understanding and language." Prometheus stole fire plain and simple. SOB makes him the first violator of copyright. Dumbing down doesn't bring out the best in O'Brien.

Robert Crawford knows his own literature and, in the Penguin book, insists on a strong Scottish presence: Robert Garioch, Sorley Maclean and Hugh MacDiarmid quite as much as Edwin Morgan or Iain Crichton Smith. The fatuous, tendentious collaborative work of Ian Hamilton Finlay is always good for a laugh. Ireland looms large in both books, and the Welsh are given something like their due.

Yet a map of contemporary poetry can no longer be usefully drawn in terms of "British and Irish". Where are we, reading Hill and Plath, without Tate and Roethke; reading Eavan Boland without Bishop or Rich? How do we read our contemporaries without Les Murray from Australia or Allen Curnow from New Zealand? Some Antipodeans (such as Peter Porter and Fleur Adcock) are allowed.

Seamus Heaney declared in 1982 that he was not an English poet: a political statement. Derek Walcott declared in 1988 that he was an English poet, a contrary statement. Rejecting possessive insularities, Walcott (absent from both books) points a way forward. Herrick and Larkin belong to him, he insists, as much as to any reader or writer of English; and he belongs to us. Poetry does not carry a passport. Landscape and nation, like gender and ethnicity, become language.

What does "postwar" mean in 1999? Something starts, or re-starts, with Keith Douglas, but he fell in the war: so "postwar" excludes him. His absence impoverishes anthologies drawn on other-than-poetic grounds. "Postwar" means less to each succeeding generation; but the work of the modernists, even those who wrote into the postwar period, and against which SARC and SOB both set their polemical caps, remains new-minted - the suggestive root of non-national anthologies for the next millennium.

Michael Schmidt's `Harvill Book of Twentieth-Century Poetry' is published in July