BOOK REVIEW / Swans, geese and ugly ducklings: The Oxford Companion to Twentieth-Century English Poetry, ed Ian Hamilton, pounds 25

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'COMPANION' has rather gone the way of 'bookman' and 'man of letters', suggesting the dear, dead world of J B Priestley, or Wallace Arnold knee-deep in Edwardians at the Garrick. On the other hand, there

are Yeats's 'cold companionable streams', a bracing element for the unweary, and it is on these that Ian Hamilton trains his binoculars, to identify the swans, geese and ducklings of 20th-century English-language poetry.

Editor, poet, reviewer, biographer and veteran of the poetry wars, he is better placed than most to conduct a survey of this kind. In his introduction, he notes that fashions come and go, and that he has tried to resist a merely parochial view of the near past. But he has also 'been wary of the passage-of-time school of literary judgement. It isn't true that 'if it's good, it will survive'.'

The strength of this Companion lies in its comprehensiveness: 1,500 poets from all five continents, the majority British and American (550 each). This easily provides its raison d'etre and makes it an excellent reference tool. There are more whimsical statistics on offer too - 15 suicides, 27 nervous breakdowns, 15 alcoholics (snorts of disbelief all round?), 19 jailbirds, 14 who died in battle, three murdered, one executed. Contrary to legend, most lived to a healthy old age. Women (200) and black writers (100) make up one fifth of the whole. Conspiracy or fact? Discuss.

Some might see it as a weakness that there are no less than 237 contributors (myself among them), and since some critical evaluation was rightly stipulated, in addition to brief biographies and bibliographies, there's a fair amount to squabble about in the way of who says what about whom. Sometimes friends write about friends: Douglas Dunn on Liz Lochhead, for example, whereas Dunn himself gets a going-over from Martin Seymour-Smith (who has surely ventilated enough opinions to last us all a lifetime).

Larkin gets considerably more space than Hughes. There are rather grudging entries on Geoffrey Hill (Mark Wormald) and James Fenton (Alan Brownjohn). Bob Dylan is in but not the Beatles or Leonard Cohen, Henry and Jeremy Reed but not Lou, the Liverpudlian trio but not John Cooper Clarke (who rates a mention, though, under Performance Poetry).

Most of the biggies - Yeats, Eliot, Frost - have been assigned to scholars rather than to poets, who have the merit of thoroughness but tend to be stronger on externals than essentials. Auden takes all-too-fashionable pride of place with nine whole columns (MacNeice gets less than two), Hardy has six, William Carlos Williams scarcely half as much as Wallace Stevens. Maybe this simply reflects

Ian Hamilton's well-known anti- breathology tendency, but it is less than fair, at times, to those who write in the American grain.

Seamus Heaney's warm yet magisterial piece on Lowell sets a standard few can equal, though Christopher Reid is nearly as good on Elizabeth Bishop's 'unflappable diffidence'. Ezra Pound is sympathetically treated by Clive Wilmer, but he leaves Hugh Kenner's seminal The Pound Era out of his bibliography. The entry on Derek Walcott manages to omit The Arkansas Testament, arguably his best book. Spot-checks on neglected figures such as Robert Garioch, Kenneth Koch, James Wright, Norman Cameron and Bernard Spencer indicate that it's not only the fashionable names who have been given a sympathetic hearing.

The keepers of the English language extend all over the globe now, and as far as I can tell this book does reasonable justice to them all. Schools, movements and technicalities (but not competitions, which might have claimed a late-century footnote) are well covered. Peter Dale's interesting piece on rhyme points out that vers libre was only intermittently liberating, though he eccentrically recommends his own rhymes as a recent example rather than those of a Muldoon or a Les Murray. Such wobbles apart, this is a fine and useful compendium.

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