Books: A century later, and it's time to make it new again

The Harvill Book of Twentieth Century Poetry in English ed Michael Schmidt Harvill pounds 20
Click to follow
The Independent Culture
Michael Schmidt is eminently well-suited to take the measure of the changes and vicissitudes that brought poetry to its current modern character. As editor of PN Review, one of the best UK poetry magazines, he is well aware that poetry has become a marginal art with a small and specialised audience. But of even greater importance than a sober attitude to the subject is the way he forgoes the cult of the poet, or clique of poets, and concentrates on the poetry itself.

This anthology of nearly 800 poems takes the whole of the English-speaking world into account. As Schmidt writes in the introduction, the aim has been "to select poems which engage a reader solely because of what they do with language, regardless of subject matter or the orientation of the poet. It is a book of poems, not of poets."

The contention behind this book - that "there is a continuity between the radical experimental poets and those who are usually presented as mainstream" - is more than eloquently proven in these 700 pages. The majority of the 118 voices represented here will be familiar even to those who read little or no poetry. The selection ranges from individual long poems such as Allen Ginsberg's "Howl", as mesmerising in its breathlessness as when it first came out in 1955-56, to shorter poems from such established names as Robert Graves, W H Auden and Ted Hughes, as well as more obscure figures like the Pulitzer Prize-winner Louise Gluck, whose poems weave the trivialities of domestic life with the drama and epiphanies of human existence.

The material is presented in chronological order by birthdate of the poet, beginning with Thomas Hardy (born 1840) and ending with Sophie Hannah (born 1971). Although this was probably the simplest arrangement, given that the activity of some poets spanned many decades or started late in life, it does not mean that the individual poems are in sequence. The date of first publication would have helped place the poems within their historical context, as well as within the general development of poetry itself.

Of the several trends that have characterised the poetry of the 20th century, Modernism is the label that has stuck the most persistently. The turn of the century brought with it a call for radical transformation.

The revolutionary ferment that took place in poetry, as in the other arts, notably in music and painting, began with a rejection of all that was felt to be antiquated. Ossified rules and set patterns of metre and rhyme were only the superficial aspects to be cast away; deeper and more fundamental revisions were called for in the language as well as the subject matter of poetry. Above all, Modernism turned away from the external towards an inner landscape, one where the sense of crisis and turmoil of the century could be expressed in the most direct terms. Robert Graves's poem "In Broken Images" gives a sharp summation of the changes that have taken place in poetry, closing with:

He in a new confusion of his

understanding;

I in a new understanding of

my confusion.

Many of the more radical and experimental voices were concerned with the ideological or philosophical basis for the changes which they sought to bring about. The results read more often like pure experiments in form, or manifestos, and here we can be thankful for Michael Schmidt's influence. For it is only by a careful and ruthless selection process that a coherent picture emerges.

The result is, as the introduction claims, a book of exceptions. A book where the older voices (such as Hardy, Kipling and Yeats) who maintained a link with the previous century while seeking new approaches, form a continuum with the early imagist poetry of Ezra Pound and Hilda Doolittle (H D), who were at the front line of the new. And that continuum is discernible through to the poets of today: not only in the work of venerable figures like Seamus Heaney or Derek Walcott - represented here by his long poem "The Schooner Flight" - but also by Paul Muldoon and Carol Ann Duffy, voices filled with fin-de-siecle irony.

The striking impression, when reading this book of poems as a unit rather than as an anthology for dipping into, is that Make it new!, the poets' slogan at the beginning of this century, is still valid today. But rather than a call to arms, it has become a cry from the heart of a generation impatient for the new millennium to begin. And the new in terms of poetry is surprisingly prosaic and subtle; the rigid rules of metre and rhyme have been disregarded to be replaced by more natural rhythms that rely on the heartbeat of the English languages in all their variety and vigour. Here, along with the West Indian voices of Walcott and E K Brathwaite, you will find the Scots Gaelic of Iain Crichton Smith and Sorley Maclean, Les Murray's distinctively Australian cadences, and the India of Sujata Bhatt.

The idea of producing a book of "Poetry in English" (rather than the more staid "English Poetry") reflects the changes that have taken place during the 20th century, both in terms of the global village with its web of influences and counter-influences, and the gradual fading away of strict national boundaries in favour of shared cultural traits. Yet if one poem can be chosen to represent the others in the anthology, or, indeed, to chart the course that poetry has taken in the 20th century, it is Marianne Moore's brief "Poetry":

I, too, dislike it.

Reading it, however, with a

perfect contempt for it,

one discovers in

it after all, a place for the

genuine.

Comments