The Dispossessed of Breath

A Century of Poetry Review
, edited by Fiona Sampson
(373pp, 14.95, Carcanet)

This anthology presents  a decade-by-decade selection of work from the earliest days of Poetry Review, founded as The Poetical Gazette in 1909 and once dubbed the 'magazine of record' by Michael Schmidt, through to the 2000s. One of the pluses of such an anthology, as current Poetry Review editor Fiona Sampson writes in her Introduction, is that it brings the work of important poets and critics 'to an audience which doesn't have access to them in their original setting.' But other factors are at work here too, as Sampson admits: 'this anthology represents not necessarily the most important British poetry of the last hundred years, but rather what has been seen as most important.' Caveat lector, in other words. That the volume features most of the big guns of twentieth century poetry in English - Hardy, Kipling, de la Mare, Eliot, Pound, Frost, Larkin, Hughes, Heaney, Murray et al -  comes as no surprise, but that it presents so little work by lesser-known or non-mainstream poets is to be regretted, even given the issue of available space. I will expand on that later, but since the Introduction has already warned me that this selection will be 'what has been seen as most important', the real question ought to be, by whom and with what agenda?

The British poetry scene is divided into those who consider Poetry Review
important, and those who don't, often quite vehemently, so my own enthusiasm for what Sampson calls the 'fascinating, infuriating institution' that is PR needs to be stated upfront. Personally, I found this anthology a thoughtfully-arranged testimony to poetry's shifts and continuities over the past century, and if the choices are a trifle conservative at times, they are at least in keeping with the nature of PR itself. Indeed, if we relax our expectation that one anthology can hit all sweet spots at once, the selection becomes enjoyable in the extreme.

Rupert Brooke sets a sentimental, still Georgian tone in 1912 with 'The Old Vicarage, Grantchester': 'Unkempt about those hedges blows/An English unofficial rose'. The same year,  however, Pound's vigorous 'Credo' from Prolegomena
seems almost to comment on Brooke's nostalgic pastoral: 'No good poetry is ever written in a manner twenty years old.' Pound may want twentieth century poetry to break away from the Georgians and become 'austere, direct, free from emotional slither', but his reactionary stance is later sidestepped by T.S. Eliot who, being interviewed as an elder statesman in the 1960s, claims: 'I don't think good poetry can be produced in a kind of political attempt to overthrow some existing form. I think it just supercedes.' Nonethless, that desire for manifesto and factionalism remains strong in poetry, as evidenced by James Fenton's ironic 'Manifesto Against Manifestoes' in the 1980s: 'We feed on our differences. We imagine battle-lines drawn and strategies adopted.' That all this is as true a reflection of the British poetry scene today as it has been for the past century ought to be a sobering thought, except that poets are human beings, and human beings are, by nature, aggressive and territorial. Some poetry tribes do manage to integrate with each other, but they do so slowly and almost imperceptibly, with the creaking shifts of glaciers. As Craig Raine, heavily referenced in the Fenton piece, puts it in his excellent 'Babylonish Dialects' (1984), 'Nothing is more difficult than being open-minded. The mind is a vast country whose borders are closed.'

The many delicious extracts from essays and reviews are rewarding enough, but the poetry itself speaks tellingly among such critical gems. Highlights include Muldoon's 'Why Brownlee Left', extracts from Geoffrey Hill's 'Speech! Speech!', Mimi Khalvati's 'Ghazal' and two Forward Prize winning poems, Sean O'Brien's 'Fantasia on a Theme of James Wright' and Don Paterson's 'Song for Natalie 'Tusja' Beridze'. From 1989, Eavan Boland's 'What We Lost' is a vivid poem, richly sensory and oblique in meaning, describing in a leisurely and somewhat oppressive  fashion the poet's mother as a child, being told a story by her
mother - a story we do not hear, yet still experience through its aftermath in the poem:

     The dumb-show of legend has become language,
     is becoming silence ...

Its soft lyrical assumptions rub up oddly against Jo Shapcott's well-known 'Phrase Book' three years later, an abrupt poem that ends in a series of short disconnected phrases:

     What's the matter? You are right. You are wrong.
     Things are going well (badly). Am I disturbing you?

In light of the second, the first poem suddenly feels dated, a voice from another age. Which indeed it represents. Many of these poems play against each other in the same way, finding connections and common ground, or fighting in some illuminating manner. So Kathleen Raine aptly precedes Walter de la Mare, Ashbery follows Heaney - their voices more sympathetic than one might expect - while Amy Clampitt presses her terse, eliptical birdsong in 'Syrinx' -

               those vestiges, last hoverings
     above the threshold of
     the dispossessed of breath

-  against the 'sweet pointlessness' of Billy Collins' 'Silhouette'.

One particularly interesting shift to be noted is how fashions of thinking have changed, especially when a political element is involved. One of these shifts is located in the advent of feminism and its reception among male critics. Larkin on Plath (1982) is a case in point. His piece, entitled 'Horror Poet' and described by Sampson in her Introduction as 'notorious', was a response to the publication of Plath's Collected Poems in 1981. Larkin's sour disapproval and distaste for Plath's oeuvre seems based as much on his perception of her personality as her work, rather spitefully describing Sylvia Plath as 'ambitious, competitive, compulsive, the girl (sic) who must succeed, ready to exploit her own traumas if they would make poems.' (This last begs the question, is writing about one's own experience exploitation
, or standard artistic practice?) On her last poems, those for which Plath is justly most famous, the dessicated stick that was Larkin at his most fastidious has this to say: 'How valuable they are depends on how highly we rank the expression of experience with which we can in no sense identify, and from which we can only turn with shock and sorrow.' The royal plural, no doubt, since I cannot possibly identify with that position. Hughes' over-cautious censorship of the Ariel poems was problematic enough, but how glad I am that Larkin was never Plath's editor, or who knows what bowdlerized versions of her work might have come down to us.
Donald Davie, however, may well have applauded Larkin's negative slant; in an openly anti-feminist review of Helen Vendler's critical essays, Davie writes frostily: 'the critical function is only half performed when the critic refuses to consider poets to whom he (sic) has given a thumbs-down ... A critic is meant to be that - critical.' Warming to his subject, he goes on to discuss the rise of feminism with the same bewildered pique that my father used to display when denigrating women in trousers, describing how the 'earthquake' of feminism had changed the landscape he grew up in and commenting peevishly, 'I don't like that, I resent it quite bitterly.' Davie accepts that Eavan Boland, also under review here, is writing in a land (i.e. Ireland) where women 'are not expected to compose the poems or orations', yet although he finds her Object Lessons
'attractive', he is 'not sure ... what to do with her confidences' nor with the feminist concepts in her book, which he understands 'only cloudily and uncertainly.' This is the same man, lest we forget, who bundled all the ladies under one heading  - 'Elaine Feinstein and Women's Poetry' - in his critical work, Under Briggflatts, and then only really discussed Elaine Feinstein's translations from the Russian, somewhat negating his above definition of the critic. It is difficult to imagine his comments being made in Poetry Review today - yet Davie's review only appeared in 1995, demonstrating how swiftly political correctness and a culture of polite, inclusive reviewing has taken hold of poetry.

The rise of feminism also has an impact on the representation of work by women in this anthology. Before the 1970s, despite Muriel Spark's contentious and short-lived editorship in the late forties, men greatly outnumber women, although the usual suspects are in evidence from early on, i.e. Harriet Monroe, Stevie Smith, Kathleen Raine and Sylvia Townsend Warner. It's only once we reach the 1990s and 2000s that a clutch of established female voices break through - Pauline Stainer, Moniza Alvi, Mimi Khalvati, Jackie Kay, Elaine Feinstein, Alice Oswald et al - though newer or lesser-known female talent doesn't get much of a look-in.

The same could be said of the avant-garde, whose representation here is not as straightforward as you might suppose. Poetry Review
, as I have already established, is a basically conservative, mainstream magazine. Yet that has not always been the case. During the first few decades of the twentieth century, indeed, the divisions between mainstream and avant-garde in PR were not as clear-cut as they are today, allowing Sampson to present us with Hardy, Pound, Marinetti on Futurism, and Kipling in an eclectic and astonishing mix. But twice, at least, during its century-long existence, the editorship has been fiercely pro-avant, first under Eric Mottram in the 1970s and then with the dual editorship of Herd and Potts in the early-mid 2000s. In this anthology, however, the non-mainstream selections from the earlier part of the century are overpowered by later selections, longer and more conservative in tone, and the pro-avant-garde eras are only very lightly represented. Indeed, during the Herd/Potts regime (2002-2005), the selection jumps inexplicably from 2001 to 2004, apparently including only three items from their time at the helm - poems by Alan Jenkins, Elaine Feinstein and Mimi Khalvati. Although I fall out of bed on the mainstream side most mornings, I would have been happy to see more from the avant-garde here, not least because I was one of those who indignantly cancelled their subscription between the Forbes and Sampson editorships, and so my knowledge of Poetry Review's development at that time is scanty. Mottram's editorship (1971-7) comes out rather better with his selection, boasting Ian Hamilton Finlay, Lawrence Ferlinghetti and Allen Ginsberg's 'Bayonne Entering NYC': 'blue city-glare horizoning/Megalopolis' burning factories'. Here we also find the magnificent 'At Briggflatts Meetinghouse: Tercentenary' from Bunting:

                  ... Look how clouds dance
         under the wind's wing, and leaves
         delight in transience.

Given the culture of the now, it's only to be expected, perhaps, that the final two decades outweigh all the others, accounting for 160 pages out of nearly 373. The anthology finale presents our nearest literary heavyweights, including Sean O'Brien, Robin Robertson, John Burnside, David Harsent, Sharon Olds, and featuring - with absolute necessity - Part 2: 'The Sound of Sense' of Don Paterson's controversial essay, 'The Lyric Principle':

     One of those hellish things you learn after ten years in editing -
     I hardly dare confess this - is that you can hold a poem a yard away,
     and without having read a word, know there's a 99% chance that
     you won't like it.

That hilarious passage - and the fact that the piece fairly bristled with deliberately obscure footnotes following reader complaints about Part 1's footnotes - probably generated more outraged letters to PR
than anything since Larkin on Plath. I'm guessing, of course. But  Paterson's substantial essay seems like a good note to close on. Respect or despise it, Poetry Review is still very much the 'magazine of record', and although its fortunes seem somewhat uncomfortably linked to those of its editors, in its stout leading position as flagship magazine of the Poetry Society, Poetry Review is unlikely to be sinking any time soon. This anthology rewrites the magazine's history to a certain extent, blurring lines which ought to remain distinct, but it does present work seen as important from a largely mainstream perspective, which has probably been the dominant ideology of the Review over the past century, reflecting popular opinions on poetry across the Society's membership. Nevertheless, contributors from the last few decades who did not make the anthology this time should not despair. There's always 2109, though we'll all be beyond caring by then.

           Jane Holland 2009