Tuesday Book: Is this the future of poetry?

Click to follow
The Independent Culture
THE HARVILL BOOK OF TWENTIETH CENTURY POETRY IN ENGLISH

EDITED BY MICHAEL SCHMIDT, HARVILL, pounds 20

ANTHOLOGIES ARE introductions. A good one should lead us to want more of the same from each of the authors it represents. I cannot imagine a young reader who would not find many desirable doors to open in Michael Schmidt's compilation. Equally, readers who already know the poets will find themselves provoked to disagreement with Schmidt's choices.

Again and again I wondered: why this rather than that? But the reflection that followed taught me something about each of the poets in question - even when what was left out was Henry Reed's "Naming of Parts". Two glaring misprints in a poem by Randall Jarrell and the omission of a crucial word from John Berryman's heartbreaking "He Resigns" left me a little uneasy, however.

Of course, much of the material, particularly from the first half of the century, is already familiar. If this has been a fertile period for poetry, it has also been remarkable for literary criticism. Academic professionalisation and the use of relatively modern texts for examinations mean that the canon, at least up to the Fifties, is now fairly well established, with Hardy, Yeats, Eliot, Pound and Auden as central figures. This may change, of course; both Wallace Stevens and Robert Frost are now important to younger poets in ways that might have seemed unlikely during their lifetimes.

This cannot be the anthology that it would have been in 50 years' time, so it has no more claim to be definitive than any of its rivals. It is perhaps characteristic of our age, dazzled as we are by instant reportage, to have set about summarising the 20th century's achievement before the century has ended. Nonetheless, Michael Schmidt's perspective is valuably unfashionable and unschematic.

He declares in his introduction that he takes his "editorial bearings from Modernism". He argues that there are continuities between traditional and radically experimental kinds of writing, and intends this anthology to display them. He has chosen poems that "engage a reader solely because of what they do with language, regardless of subject matter or the orientation of the poet".

However, this is not the anthology it might have been 10 years ago. Charlotte Mew, Mina Loy and Edna St Vincent Millay are among the names revived by feminist criticism. Each finds her due place here. Overall, of the 105 poets Schmidt has chosen, 27 are women and 38 are American. The presence of six Australasian poets shows another recent revaluation.

It is sad, though, that the second half of the anthology shows a falling- off. This is not Schmidt's fault. He tells us that "one or two poets are absent by their own choice", but he should have given us their names. That Craig Raine and JH Prynne are both missing seems surprising, and I should like to know why. John Ashbery, Derek Walcott and Les Murray shine out among the living; otherwise, there is a feeling of lowered ambitions and artistic uncertainty that is entirely unlike the confidence and daring of even so traditional a writer as Edward Thomas, writing earlier in the period.

Is there, perhaps, a feeling that everything has already been done? Is the inheritance of poets now so overwhelming that they are crushed by it? Or is it that the social marginalisation of poetry saps it at the root? Have poets come secretly to agree with their society that they don't matter?

One answer may be found in comments recently made by Andrew Motion. He applauded the fact that poetry is now open to a range of voices and experiences, ethnicities and sexualities, that were formerly excluded, and said this was desirable because poetry must be adequate to the world in which it is made. So doing, he clearly saw poets as engaged in a common endeavour that is beyond any of them individually.

But this healthily democratic view is, alas, inimical to art. There is no such thing as "poetry" in the abstract, only the individual poems that make it up. Some poems are good; some are not. Michael Schmidt's anthology is most valuable in reminding us of these truths - apart, that is, from putting so many good poems in front of us.

Comments