on 16 December 1999
SCANNING THE CENTURY
The Penguin Book of the Twentieth Century in Poetry
Edited by Peter Forbes
The twentieth century has been one of great turbulence, profound shifts in sensibility and enormous changes in lifestyle. In the words of Primo Levi- a writer, scientist and survivor of Auschwitz - it has been "an epoch rife with problems and perils, but it is not boring". It began with two earth - shattering developments in physics, (Max Planck's formulation of quantum theory and Einstein's special theory of relativity) and soon saw the carnage of the First World War - after which the century has scarcely looked back during it's roller-coaster ride of war and peace, technical progress and social upheaval.
It was strange (a coincidence some might say) that the night I was writing this review there was a film on Channel 4 called The Truce Based on the survival of Primo Levi from Auschwitz and his return home to Italy through the flash-backs of the concentration camp, Russia, Chekoslovakia, Austria and even a stop off in Munich (Germany) where his nightmare began. He stepped from the train and watched the German soldiers groveling in defeat under the oppression of the allied forces and it regurgitated a line from a Greek character in the film that said to him "War Always", when he reached home reunited with his family food in his belly and home in his heart the last scene of the movie is him behind the desk touching the petals of a single rose in a vase, taking from the sack that hung around him throughout the journey the stripped uniform he wore as an inmate gently he brushed with his clean hands his number 174517 and the camera finds it embedded beneath his skin as he scribbles the last words of the movie:
You who live secure in your warm houses Who return at evening to find hot food and friendly faces? Consider if this is a man who labors in the mud Who knows no peace? Who fights for a crust of bread? Who dies at a yes! Or a no! Meditate that this took place.
This weird, coincidence is what the twentieth century is all about, the wild and varied traits of each and everyone of us human beings stamping our own individual on what we say and do and yet the beauty lies in the irony that we are all the same. It doesn't matter wether you're a Taig, Prod, Chink, Paki, Knacker, Brit, Yank, Ruskie, Croat or Serb we all feel the same oppression and it's locked inside everyone of us. As we near the end of yet another century we are privileged that we have the freedom of expression our forefathers never had and with hindsight we can break down the barriers within our minds not to become labeled with one of the above not to be an Anglo island with borders or a European union, but to be a human being without fear of oppression. As Albert Camus stated:
We are all in this bloody century together And that alone should be argument enough To stop the killing.
Peter Forbes sets out and captures that sense of ironic praise in this book; within it's six hundred pages He captures the flavour of the twentieth century "with something like the tang of newsreel and the zest of popular song". Through the thirty nine sections of the book all moods and emotions flow from the deadly serious chapters on World War 1, The Holocaust, World War 2, Communism, The Cold War, and Ireland, A Stumbling Block, with such poets as Louis Mc Neice, Joseph Brodsky, Seamus Heaney, Anna Akmathova, Paul Durcan, Hardy, Kipling, Eliot Auden and Yeats etc. Through to playful sections, Trains Boats and Planes, Love and Sex, The sixties, The dream of wearing shorts forever and The Eighties and Nineties with poems by Carol Ann Duffy, Sean O' Brien, John Updike, Fleur Adcock, Les Murray, Ciaran Carson and even Bob Dylan and Lennon and Mc Cartney are included among the many hundreds of other great poet I haven't got room to mention. If there's only one book of poems you need this is it. This book cuts through the bullshit and hails the poetry with a positive charge, and as the reader of such a book we are charged with the technology of the twentieth century itself buzzing through the thirty-nine sections of the book. Words of relief from world-renowned poets not passing you by but engaging you in the meditation that this is taking place. So lets celebrate and scan the bar code of poetry into the trolley of your mind to flow through the automatic doors of this centuries achievements not defeats.