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Twentieth Century Verse
on 23 December 2001
Readers of Larkin's excellent letters will have come across frequent complaints about his 'Oxford Book of Two Cent Verse' as he dismissivly calls it. Although he found the task of producing it onerous, it's very good -- if one accepts it for what it is.
Anthologies, having limited space, make a choice between representing the best writers at length, or representing a larger number of writers more briefly. Larkin chooses the latter: the book includes 584 poems by about 200 poets, which this means that many poets (outside the "greats" -- Hardy, Yeats and Eliot -- who are all fully represented) are represented by as little as two poems.
But this approach has virtues. Larkin includes poems by many poets who aren't considered "major writers"; and who, while often well-known in their lives, are not likely to be known to readers now. This is interesting, of course, as it reminds a reader that poets are not only influenced by the best writers, but also by the second best. There is also, perhaps, an attempt here to sketch a certain tradition of English twentieth century writing: one that, although it includes Eliot and Basil Bunting, is in the main, colloquial, unheroic and keen to document domestic events and emotions in poetry that is, if not strictly formal, at least nodding at formal arrangement.
Lovers of Larkin, or of the sort of poetry outlined above, may well find themselves overjoyed by this anthology. Readers whose tastes are for the outlandish, excessive and outragous may be impatient. Personally I think that poetry is at its healthiest when these two groups are not entirely separated: when they both can agree on certain writers to admire; and when both of them at least are aware of and respectful of the other's tastes.
Perhaps people who find themselves entirely in accord with this anthology should also look at Rosenthal's 'Poetry in English' -- a dull name but a fantastic anthology -- for an alternative view of Twentieth Century poetry. (And perhaps, for fuller coverage of the post-1960s poets, Lucie-Smith's 'British Poetry Since 1945'; and for a look at where this alternative English tradition can lead to, Crozier and Longville's 'A Various Art' or Sinclair's 'Conductors of Chaos'.) And for the opposite group: this anthology, with the reminder that Pound, the key figure in the Modernist movement, thought very highly of the key poetic figure in Larkin's English tradition, Thomas Hardy.