The Three Acts of Criticism

Helen Vendler

  • The Oxford Companion to 20th-Century Poetry in English edited by Ian Hamilton
    Oxford, 602 pp, £25.00, February 1994, ISBN 0 19 866147 9

This handy compilation (to which I myself contributed a couple of notices) covers, according to the jacket copy, ‘some 1500’ poets and ‘charts the shift from “poetry” to “poetries” – from primarily British and American traditions to a rich diversity of younger poetic identities elsewhere’. It may be doubted whether ‘poetry’ is so easily dislodged in favour of ‘poetries’, but no editor is responsible for his jacket copy. Nonetheless, the jacket copy (like the accompanying publicity material) is a test of the current way of marketing poetry; and it is disheartening that after a brief nod to ‘critical assessment’ and ‘biographical and bibliographical information’, the jacket flap launches into its trumpeting conclusion, that ‘20th-century poets have lived far from humdrum lives’:

Twenty-seven here had nervous breakdowns, 19 served time in jail, 14 died in battle, three were murdered, one executed. One played hockey for his country. There were 15 suicides, and one poet who staged his own death only to reappear, still writing poetry, under a new name.

In part this is only good clean fun. But more seriously, it points to the real vacuum in the publishing world of things to say about poetry itself. Inside Ian Hamilton’s volume there are, of course, things said, and they are said by experts – though the expertise is compartmentalised, with women writing about women, Indians about Indians, Irish about Irish, Scots about Scots, language-poet critics about language poets, and so on. This is a first run-through of poetry since 1900, at a moment when the sieve has the largest holes. In 2500 AD, if the world is still here and publishers are still sponsoring surveys, the 1500 poets here included will have shrunk to about fifty, and a good thing too. The small ‘mob of gentlemen who wrote with ease’ has now swollen to a throng of men and women who write with intent, and this reader, at least, shrinks before the sheer weight of publication represented by these 1500 writers of verse.

Hamilton has included short notices of various movements and formal strategies (Lallans, language poetry, Native American poetry, syllabics, concrete poetry) and of some literary magazines. Anyone leafing through the collection will be alerted to scores of poets (African, Australian, Caribbean, Canadian, North American) of whom he may have been unaware; and since these writers have usually been sequestered in geographically ordered anthologies, it is a good idea to have them all brought together in one place. But there is a real conflict in the Companion between poet and poetry, life and art, simply because it is easier, in a short space, to describe someone’s life and publications than it is to say anything revealing about the many poems belonging to that life, collected in those publications.

Here, for instance, is the total comment (following a bit about the life and publications) on one 40-year-old poet’s poems: his

poems draw variously on his Liverpool childhood, particularly his sense of Irishness as caught in the evidence of his name and his family’s accents; on the tense interaction between a life spent reading and the married life he leads beyond books; and, most movingly, on the experience of adopting a child.

Are these poems, the reader wonders, short or long, stanzaic or not, in free verse or metrical verse, Audenesque or Larkinesque or Heaneyesque, tragic or ironic or comic, narrative or meditative, vivacious or mournful, and if original, in what measure and in what way? Granted, this is a short entry; but couldn’t something have been said about aspects other than thematic ones? Those of the Companion’s contributors who are poets do notably better than this, both in choosing illuminating adjectives and in mentioning technical aspects of verse. Here, for instance, are a couple of sentences from George MacBeth on Carl Sandburg:

William Carlos Williams broke the grip of the iambic line with more subtlety, but Sandburg smashed it open with greater naturalness. Poems like ‘Skyscraper’ and ‘Cool Tombs’ offer the paragraph as a verse unit in a way that no one had quite done before, not even Whitman ... What Sandburg often catches is the tacky bravura and breezy sentimentality of his Midwest subjects, a sense of pulsating energy still unsure of itself and sometimes lapsing into the maudlin, the vicious or the grotesque.

Sandburg of course has had a longer time to be assimilated, critically and thematically, than the young poet of my first example; but there is always something to be said about how a poet either follows a formal or technical trend or begins one. And such remarks cannot simply be general ones. Precise and specific remarks about a poet’s procedures are always to be preferred to the sort of all-purpose sentences too common in this collection:

A practitioner of the meditation-in-verse and the self-presentational lyric, X attempts to infuse the commonplace with mystery and drama through conversational free verse and, on occasion, traditional forms.

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