Surprise, Surprise

The Thunder Mutters: 101 Poems for the Planet, ed. Alice Oswald [Faber, 12.99]
Vanishing Points: New Modernist Poems, eds. Rod Mengham & John Kinsella [Salt, 14.99]

I like surprises, and The Thunder Mutters is nothing but surprising. With its tasteful pastel cover and soft-focus photo of a Richard Long walking piece, I had it down as yet another mainstream thematic anthology. But after a few dips into the book, it has revealed itself as a book of enormous poetic intelligence and depth. Where else would one find Samuel Beckett, Aztec poetry, Shakespeare and Woody Guthrie rubbing shoulders?

Alice Oswald's editorial approach is to make a loose gathering of work, which slowly reveals itself as one dips into or reads through the book. Thankfully, there is little ecological hectoring or polemic, more poetic engagement with the natural world. Reading it through again just now, the book is actually incredibly mainstream - Thomas, Hughes, Heaney, Frost and Clare are all in here - but there's just enough new translations, folk songs, epitaphs and work by obscure authors, to make it all seem fresh and new.

The engagement with the world is often in-depth observation by the poet. The  reader, or at least
this reader, finds himself drawn in to the natural world most of no longer engage with, and slowly, via both secular and religious verse, one finds a kind of litany developing, assisted by long incantory excerpts from Palmer and Whitman. This book is almost liturgical in its clever and subtle assembling of work, its movement from thunder to nest, its ebb and flow, call and refrain. It's an astonishing and genuinely surprising book.


The surprise with the Salt anthology is the way John Kinsella, in his 'Preface', tries to place the work included here within both a lyric and a Modernist [as opposed to Postmodernist] tradition. Whilst there's a lot of very good work included, I can't help but feel the book is a bit of a mix of Salt's greatest hits plus some big names bought in to open it up a bit. I wanted to say it simply isn't representative, but it doesn't claim to be, so that's taken the wind out of my sails. But with only just over thirty poets selected from Australian, Canadian, New Zealand, UK and USA writers, it feels like a bit of a lucky dip.

Lots of work in here any reader of contemporary poetry will have read before, although it's always interesting to see work re-presented alongside work by others. And there's clearly a world of difference between the long-winded ramblings of Barry MacSweeney and the taut sonnets of Tony Lopez, the brief musical stanzas of Drew Milne and the tangles of John Wilkinson's work, Peter Riley's dense archeological prose-poems from 'Excavations' or Marjorie Welish's word-skeins in her 'Textures' poems.

I'm not quite sure if this makes for a coherent anthology. What do the sprawling poems of Ulli Freer have to do with the fairly straightforward narratives of John Tranter? What does John Ashbery's surrealist poems (which he seems to be able to write in his sleep these days) have to do with the chewed-up verbiage of J.H. Prynne? Why sit long prose poems such as Lisa Robertson's wonderful 'Wednesday' between Peter Riley and Stephen Rodefer? Why is the book arranged alphabetically by surname of the authors? Why have the editors included their own work in the book?

In a way the fact I'm asking so many questions means the book is working, though I'm mostly bothered by the notion that all these authors are 'Modernist'. Is this a backing away from the now passé term Postmodernism - a kind of quick repositioning of authors to escape critical backlash, or do Mengham and Kinsella simply see these authors' works as a continuation of some great Modernist tradition? What do the authors make of this? Were they asked if they wanted to be Modernist or not? Do they see themselves working in a lyrical tradition? Are they happy to be dissociated from many authors they've previously been perceived as working alongside?

In their diversity and openness, their ability to offer and juxtapose various and different writing, these anthologies both make for intriguing, and at times perplexing and annoying, reading. This, in a world of lowest-common-denominator bank-account-filling anthologies and the associated hype, is to be welcomed.

      Rupert Loydell 2005