‘New’ poetry can mean two things. When Ezra Pound said ‘make it new’ he was willing the advent of Modernism, the birth of a consciousness transformed by the disintegrations and realities of the 20th century. But ‘new’ or ‘contemporary’ poetry refers more simply to changes in fashion, the growing up of new groups of designers and a new generation of consumers. Like film images or pop songs, the new in this sense is recognisably different from the poetry scene a generation ago, but how much has happened except that times have changed and required something else to be characteristic of them?
Fashion is never ugly, as the couturier said; and the idea of a new look in the traditional way the words make their shape and impact on the page gives a lift to the poetry reader in the same way that ‘New Improved Formula’, printed on the wrapping, has its conditioned effect on the consumer. Sensible and low-keyed, the introduction to the Penguin Book of Contemporary British Poetry recognises these simple facts but is in duty bound to put them in the proper idiom. ‘There are points in literary history when decisive shifts in sensibility occur ... This is an anthology of what, over the last years, a number of close observers have come to think of as the new British poetry.’ Was there such a thing as the old British poetry, and were there any close observers around to categorise it? Poetry used to be English, after its language, though to avoid ambiguity the observers had their categories of Scottish poetry, or American. Ambiguities are not so easily avoided, however, and in this area the attempt to do so lands you in further trouble. A poet can be at once Spanish and Colombian, say: but a poet from Northern Ireland might either be proud to be British or else resent the label, though in neither case would he mind being, as Keats hoped to be, ‘among the English poets’.
So if poetry from now on has to be British, which way is it going? ‘A body of work has been created which demands, for its appreciation, a reformation of poetic taste.’ There is a certain truth in this if it is assumed that the ‘poetic taste’ of the reader was formed only by the previous Penguin of 1962, The New Poetry, selected and introduced by A. Alvarez. Blake Morrison and Andrew Motion are well aware that there is something comically factitious about the stance that has to be adopted by each new spokesman on the poetry scene – ‘we are not,’ they say, ‘the first anthologists this century to have made such a claim.’ Indeed they are not. The claim to newness is also the claim to rebirth and rejuvenation, and there is a close similarity between Wordsworth’s manifesto in the Preface to Lyrical Ballads, and Edward Marsh introducing the first Georgian anthology in 1912 with the statement that ‘English poetry is once again putting on a new strength and beauty.’ The difference is that Wordsworth really was heralding a new era of sensibility, as Ezra Pound was to do in his Imagist anthology of 1915, whereas Marsh was, as it turned out, only staking the claim of a domestic mode, a fashion that was to carry comfortably on for a while in the shadow of true modernity.
However close our observation, it is extremely difficult, at the time, to tell the one from the other, the change in fashion from the much more complex shift in sensibility. The poetry that will grow and last as itself is not easily distinguished, at the moment when it is first written and read, from the poetry that has jumped on the bandwagon of fashion and will be left behind, existing only as representing it. Both kinds flourish in the same hedgerow, the same contemporary collection. Anthologies of ‘modern poetry’ in the Thirties had Yeats and Auden as peers of both Modernists and Georgians; and no reader could then have been blamed for thinking Day-Lewis, say, as important as Auden and the same kind of poet. If in 1820 there had been an anthology of the Cockney school, the poetic romances of Keats in it would not have seemed so different from those of Leigh Hunt.
Already the pages of Alvarez’s The New Poetry have a dated look, arising not so much from the poems themselves as from their juxtaposition, marshalled, loaded and pointed the same way by their frenetic commander. As anthologist he imposed his will more effectively than as critic, seeing movements arising one after the other, ‘the log-rolling Thirties followed by the drum-rolling Forties’. The progress of movements is hampered by ‘negative feedback’: Auden brings back forms and metres ‘in chic contemporary guise’; Dylan Thomas causes ‘a blockage against intelligence’; even ‘the Movement’ itself – the incisively intelligent ‘academic-administrative’ verses of Larkin, Wain and Enright – could not help endorsing the most negative feedback of all – English gentility, the ‘decency and other social totems’ that ‘muddle through’. New poetry had to have ‘a new seriousness; the new poet must face the full range of his experience’, and demonstrate its ‘violent, impending presence’. His poetry must come to terms with ‘Dachau and Buchenwald’ by showing that such places were inside him all the time. As a result of these urgent stresses and facings, the properly climactic poetic act was suicide. As a takeaway sample of what he had in mind Alvarez contrasted the horses of Larkin’s poem ‘At Grass’ (‘social creatures of fashionable race meetings [who] ... belong to the world of the RSPCA’) with the ‘urgent’ horses of Ted Hughes’s ‘A Dream of Horses’, a poem ‘unquestionably about something’. Linked in this way, the poems make each other look slightly ridiculous – their titles alone adequately inform us what they are ‘about’ – though each on its own is a masterpiece.
Anthologists date even quicker than their collections, but the example shows how deplorable an effect they can have on the appearance of their poem-victims, until the latter can escape out of the anthology and back into their proper selves. Poems are not gregarious; the school uniform of an anthology denatures them. Still more so does the enthusiasm of the headmaster. But there is every difference here between the author of The Savage God and the author of the recent sober and scholarly study of the Movement poets. Blake Morrison, and his co-editor Andrew Motion, are well aware that ‘in the face of manifesto-making a degree of scepticism is only proper’; and they are careful neither to regiment their flock nor to make too many ‘new’ claims on their behalf.
The result is an assemblage of verse which is not only low-key in itself but has the odd effect of seeming to calm down its predecessor. The urgent poetry seems less urgent, more of a piece with the intent craftsmanship of our present contemporaries, who no longer have the duty of miming violence or of putting themselves in the centre of an irresolvable drama. Anne Sexton, one of Alvarez’s prize suicide exhibits, seems in 20 years to have drained away out of the eye of poetry. But it is instructive to compare Sylvia Plath’s ‘Bee’ poems in the earlier anthology, or her famous ‘Blackberrying’, with the poems in the present collection by Penelope Shuttle or Medbh McGuckian. All three poets seem to be doing much the same thing and doing it well. Their interest in and skill with words in relation to objects in their daily living are like the meticulous recipes in Colour Supplements and the perfect photographs of food. McGuckian’s poems are full of body language, the poreholes in strawberries, cottonseed and cheesecloth. This poetry neither is self-consciously caressive of country matters nor uses its images to point to emotion or despair. It seems satisfied and sensible, with no origins in either personal or collective crisis – such things have been taken in its stride. Plath is of course a very much more considerable poet, who is making poetry in order to make her life and invent herself. And yet the point about ‘Blackberrying’ remains the blackberries – ‘They accommodate themselves to my milkbottle, flattening their sides’ – the high green meadows and the blue-green bellies of the flies. Plath’s poem, like a superior terror movie, pointed all its verbal skills towards panic and emptiness, but what endures today is the art-work, the blackberries themselves – not her ‘blood sisterhood’ with them. If words are coaxed out of limbo with sufficient skill they will set up their own intensely real perimeter of meaning, disregarding the emotional pleas and purposes the poet wants to exhibit. The same thing happens even in ‘Lady Lazarus’ and ‘Daddy’, where the skill of the art-work has become more durable than what it was supposed to be saying.
Natural in a sense, therefore, that the new generation should detect what survives and identify with it. Sylvia Plath’s suicide and all the ballyhoo that has been made of it was irrelevant to the really remarkable things she had done in her poetry: it is her craftsmanship that is paid the sincerest compliment in the words of the young poet today. The drama she made of herself goes into the museum of legend, the vivid fictions live on. Alvarez himself rightly forecast the ‘new areas of experience’ which would result from poetry exploring its own sorts of fiction in its own ways. But good fiction, like good poetry, can either be impersonal (The Waste Land) or intensely personal (The Dream Songs, Life Studies). The real sense behind Alvarez’s call for ‘urgency’ was that a good poet must somehow be himself, or make himself. When he called for poetry that was really about something, he was in fact thinking of a poetry – Lowell’s, Berryman’s and Plath’s – obsessed with its own ego. In their case, a regal obsession.
In Contemporary British Poetry the materials of fiction are put to quite a different use: the tyranny of the self has been replaced by a meditative sense of the texture of the community, of its ordinary lives. The word ‘community’ is frequently used by spokesmen from the North of Ireland, and many of the poets in this anthology come from Ulster, from both its communities. The troubles of that country might well give a particular edge to a poet’s sense of the word, not in its insipid civil meaning, but as a literal of how people are passing the time in places, in each other’s presence. That is the impression one gets from such excellent poems as Michael Longley’s ‘The Linen Workers’ and Derek Mahon’s ‘A Refusal to Mourn’. In 1962, in The New Poetry, there were poems of similar kind and distinction, such as ‘A Peasant’, by R.S. Thomas, and Iain Crichton-Smith’s ‘Old Woman’. All four poems show that Hardy is still a dominant influence in contemporary British poetry, not technically but in terms of scope and outlook. In America poetry still clings to the image of poète maudit who destroys himself in return for greatness, the acceptance of destruction somehow confirming the stature of the poetry. True of Lowell and Berryman, it is also true of an otherwise quiet poet like Ashbery. Alvarez’s New Poetry had reproduced on its cover a particularly frenetic Jackson Pollock abstract, and although most of the contributors were in fact English, an American style or ethos was assumed both by the cover and by the compiler. Contemporary British Poetry has shed that image entirely, having on its front a mildly beautiful semi-abstract by Michael Andrews, the shadow of a balloon drifting over pale sand and pastel sea.
Hardy ‘never expected much’, and his poetry does not expect much either, nor make claims and demands on itself and the reader. Things for him were bad enough without making a great drama out of them; no more than the ordinary citizen could the poet escape from the weight of contingency imposed by his provenance and upbringing, by social arrangements generally. From these things, indeed, he must make his poetry. It is instructive to compare Larkin’s ‘Poetry of Departures’, in The New Poetry, with Derek Mahon’s ‘The Last of the Fire Kings’, both of which recognise in their different ways the impossibility of escaping into the free poetic life, where the poetry of the self, fed by self-destruction, is all. For Larkin such a poet’s life is not ‘audacious, purifying, elemental’, but invokes a kind of artifice that is ‘reprehensibly perfect’. Mahon, too, has his ‘cold dream’ of being ‘through with history’ and escaping from the sludge of Irish communal existence, but his knowledge of what he is ‘will not countenance this’,
Demanding that I inhabit,
like them, a world of
And bricked-up windows –
Not to release them
From the ancient curse
But to die their creature and be thankful.
This is a very different picture from Yeats talking to the terrorists in ‘The Road at my Door’, and turning regretfully
towards my chamber, caught
In the cold snows of a dream.
Mahon has no Yeatsian envy for the world of action and violence. The portentous choice has become nothing more than the realisation that one has to live and write out of what one is and what one has been made. The poet no longer tries to make himself out of what he writes.
What does stand out as a difference, then, between ‘the new poetry’ and our contemporary product, is the way in which the poets of today have ceased to work up any legend about themselves, as persons in poetry. They forgo not only the will to charisma but to any sort of persona or mask. Auden’s unique world, with its play-acting, its enchanting threats and intellectual gestures, seems far away, but almost as distant is the world of Philip Larkin, with all its equally carefully set-up shabbinesses, contrivances and confidences which only ten years ago seemed an exact and honest image of the way people actually lived. To the poetry of every age its dream and image of itself, but there seems no special one today just as there is no memorable rhetoric. Larkin’s magnificent lines about the hospital, sonorous with transmuted dread and a stately pity for those who attend it ‘with wasteful weak propitiatory flowers’, seem as old-fashioned as Yeats’s eloquence about country houses by comparison with Fleur Adcock’s ‘The Soho Hospital for Women’:
Doris hardly smokes in the ward –
And hardly eats more than a dreamy spoonful –
but the corridors and bathrooms
reek of her Players Number 10,
and the drugtrolley pauses
for long minutes by her bed.
The flat poem does the difficult thing of seeming to be preoccupied not with itself but with what it sees and speaks of. Like some of Wordsworth’s early poems, such as ‘Old Man Travelling’, the poem concentrates attention on the simple experience for which it seems merely a vehicle, and this calls for a high degree of art if it is to come off. Fleur Adcock manages it with an unassuming subtlety of timing and rhyme-scheme. She is one of the best poets in the book and in her unexcited way one of the wittiest, as in the poem ‘Against Coupling’:
There is much to be said for abandoning
this no longer novel exercise –
for not ‘participating in
a total experience’ – when
one feels like the lady in Leeds who
had seen The Sound of Music eighty-six times;
or more, perhaps, like the school drama mistress
producing A Midsummer Night’s Dream
for the seventh year running, with
yet another cast from 5B.
In one sense the great discovery of the Romantic poets continues to be made. What Coleridge put in a notebook – the white dung of a hawk falling from the sky, the shadows cast on urine by candlelight – could and can go into poetry, along with the wasp trying to get out of the window, a menstrual problem, buying veal, what a husband thought the wife said, what she felt he didn’t feel. In many poems such things seem to be taken as enough and that’s a difficulty. An Irish background does not seem a quite adequate raison d’être for a poem like Tom Paulin’s that begins,
Ingela is thin and she never smiles,
The man is tall and wears the same subdued colours,
and continues in the same vein for 30 lines. Only a little may divide a poem of this type from Fleur Adcock’s ‘The Soho Hospital for Women’, or ‘Old Man Travelling’, but ‘the little more and how much it is.’ The great danger to poetry today is that these sort of flat sensitive apprehensions may come to seem sufficient in themselves, which they hardly ever are. Most poems in this collection are genteel in the best sense: they are patient and verbally manipulative; they understand that the meticulous examination of words and impressions is the hallmark of civilised consciousness. But this kind of gentility can become an exercise in itself and a form of complacency. To that extent Alvarez’s dislike of it seems justified, and one imagines he would not at all care for most of the poets in this collection. A tacit but more effective comment on it is Larkin’s choice of poems in his Oxford Book of 20th-Century Verse, where each poem surprises by what it says.
It was probably in reaction to the taut style of ‘Movement’ verse, its inherently dramatic mode of saying something, usually with brevity, that the flatter style of modern verse emerged. It may owe something also to the rational, non-frenetic American school of poets like A.R. Ammons. It has highly respectable, indeed Coleridgean, antecedents – and Coleridge himself admired and copied Cowper’s ‘divine chit-chat’ – but modern fashion is closer to the mild rambling poems of the Georgian anthology: poets wearing their social conscience on their sleeves, versifying Coronation Street virtues and warmths, celebrating pop-life in Liverpool and the North-East, much as the Georgians celebrated life in rural Sussex and the Home Counties. The editors of Contemporary British Poetry have not included a single feeble poem of this sort, and that is in itself quite an achievement. Instead, we have the admirable poems of Michael Longley, Tony Harrison, and particularly Douglas Dunn, whose Terry Street poems are models of their kind. Equally successful – permanent anthology figures – are Tony Harrison’s Uncle Joe, the stammering printer in ‘Self-Justification’, who supplied the poet with scribble-pads ‘b-buckshee from the works’, and at his art flicked the ‘cruel consonants’ into order ‘with sadistic ease’. This subtle poem implies with kindness and craft what so many writers from working-class backgrounds labour on about: the continuing need for a communal background from which the writer has been isolated by individual intelligence, the need for
blank printer’s ems
by which all eloquence gets justified.
The stammer and all it suggests has got into the spacing, a wit self-justified here, though sometimes Harrison’s printer-gimmicks, as in ‘The Ballad of Babelabour’, can be a little tiresome. At his best he is a marvellous poet, and ‘Marked with D’, a requiem for a tongue-tied cremated baker –
I thought how his cold tongue burst into flame
but only literally, which makes me sorry,
sorry for his sake there’s no heaven to reach
– will be in anthologies as long as Dylan Thomas’s requiem in ‘After the Funeral’ for ‘dead humped Anne’. In both cases the wonder of original eloquence displaces all notion of sentimentality.
The platitude about betraying one’s background is explored, and deplatitudinised, with an equal subtlety and originality, in two longish poems by Douglas Dunn, ‘The Come-On’ and ‘Remembering Lunch’. ‘The Come-On’ takes its epigraph from Camus: ‘The king’s son who kept watch over the gates of the garden in which I wanted to live’. It does not take the class war quite seriously, and that makes it the more effectively disconcerting. Can I become the king’s son? But look what a shit he is. We’ll open the gate wide, wide, and all become kings’ sons, and then ‘Our grudges will look quaint and terrible.’ Behind the vehemently artful attitudinising, of the sort Larkin sometimes uses, there is a sourer and more pervasive dislike of ‘a culture of connivance’, an inability to create a self pleasing to its owner, who remains ‘an embarrassment to myself’. Poetry and culture are
Enchanting, beloved texts
Searched in for a generous mandate for
Believing who I am.
All these poets, who consciously use their background as poetic theme, also swarm with loving learned references to Seferis or Smetana or Jacottet. They are far better educated than the Georgians, as well as being far more accomplished handlers of words, but the culture museum which should supply an identity, as it did in its own way for Hardy or Keats (who ‘romped through Spenser like a young horse through a meadow’), remains outside. Is it now too accessible to the clever student to become a natural part of him and his gift?
These matters are cliché, but Dunn gives them a sharpness and depth as well as humour. ‘Remembering Lunch’ is an excellent satire on those horrible literary lunches in London restaurants, an ever more repellent and less convincing continuation of the J.C. Squire literary atmosphere, which Dunn summons up by a pretence of
being a John Buchan of the underdog
With my waistcoated breast puffed against the wind.
And yet however well organised it is, much of the overt ‘feeling’ in these poems, as in many of those in the anthology, remains second-hand, not truly sui generis; and the reason is precisely in the cliché: that the poet, climbing into success and eloquence, cannot be ‘just himself’. The words are individual, and usually very effectively so, but not the poetry or the poet. However original, these poems are not personal. The poet as loner, as solitary portent whose solitude speaks for us and to us, is one Romantic legacy that does not survive here.
Nothing new again: the neo-Georgian or neo-Elizabethan is always with us, alongside the solitary star. But there is a difference. Good poets in the Alvarez anthology, like David Holbrook or Norman MacCaig, have their counterparts in the present collection, but while not being egotistically impetuous and obsessed in the way Alvarez desiderated, they were also not haunted, as their successors appear to be, by wistful feelings about ‘the community’, and anxiety lest they should not belong to it. It seems likely that the vogue of Ulster poets, good poets as they individually are, owes something to the fact that they at least are wholly a part of a community, whose troubles are a horrid exaggeration of those felt to be present in our own. This nostalgia for communal authenticity is a very marked feature of contemporary British poetry, so much so indeed that it seems more than a fashion: it can seem like a growing shift in sensibility away from the ego and its singular peception of things to a communal play with codes and words.
It is possible now to have a certain nostalgia oneself both for those fiercely competitive and individual poets, the urgent egocentrics of Alvarez’s collection – Lowell, Berryman, Plath, Ted Hughes – and even for the reasons for which Alvarez championed them. At least they were their own men and women, making poetry out of their own thing. True, trouble and strife and suicide became to some extent a common genre, but it was one in which each separate poet could stretch his own ego. Dunn is said by the editors to be much influenced by Larkin, but though he admires him and lives in Hull and is also a librarian, he is a fundamentally different sort of poet. Larkin is like Yeats’s ‘Great Comedian’: his poems are idiosyncratic, as full of sex and symbols as they are marvellously strange, suggesting silences suddenly and pithily broken by something which can be kept in no longer, and which it seems could only be felt and expressed by him. Everything in his poetry eerily proclaims that ‘Self’s the Man’ (one of his titles) and all the more effectively so because he does not breast-beat his selfhood like Lowell or Berryman. It seeps out deceptively, so that bien pensants used to think him one of them: in fact, Larkin could only be a pain to the communal spirit of contemporary British art.
English poetry is and has been highly individual, but for the first time the poet’s class, or rather his membership of the community, seems more alive in what he writes than he himself is. This goes with two modern paradoxes: that social mobility is not what it was, and that culture of all kinds has itself become the great depersonalising factor. Poets from Keats and Hardy to Dylan Thomas and Roy Fuller have become themselves by grabbing culture and with it a position outside the bonds of class – becoming, in fact, self-made men. That seems no longer to be the case, at least if the bothered deprecation of contemporary poets is anything to go by. I will not make myself, I want the community to make and have made me. It is, of course, an unreal attitude that refuses to face the facts; and matters of class are still an area of striking hypocrisies, where spokesmen for culture (and that today includes poets) perpetually deceive themselves in their anxiety to show where they stand. Forswearing all ‘gentility’, Alvarez in his introduction oddly referred to Betjeman as representing, ‘in its pure crystalline form’, the ‘upper-middle-class ideal’. Self-befuddlement in a poetry spokesman could hardly go further than that. A Betjeman as much as a Larkin is his own self-made man, and both in their own way revel in the rich kinds of freedom it gives them and their poetry. But now that it is socially and educationally easier to make yourself than in any previous era the process has apparently lost its charm, at least for the poet – perhaps because it has become too easy? There is as much or more class as ever in the poems of this anthology but, like sex, it has ceased to be the ever-interesting subject. Even Dunn and Harrison, for all their skills, cannot make it so, and no doubt they would not want to try.
The Irish poets, even the potent figure of Seamus Heaney, are not outside these general tendencies, though no doubt some of the charisma of Ulster poets comes from the fact that distinction there is grimly real and community not a figure of speech. Such straightforwardness affords relief to a mainland poet’s social hang-ups and nostalgias. What is striking about the Irish is their complete consensus. Pride in, and loving re-creation of, ancestry and community goes with a proper deprecation of the futile violence today. This is just as it should be, but doesn’t necessarily do the poetry any good. Seamus Heaney stands out, not only because of his matchless verbal skills but because he is the one who adapts and carries forward the Yeatsian ideal of self-created legend. He does not make or remake himself, like Yeats and the great American egotists, but he finds new ways to conjure ‘the fury and the mire of human veins’ into the legendary stillness of art. In ‘Casualty’ he makes a myth out of a countryman he had known, killed in a pub bombing, and, using the same metre as Yeats’s poem ‘The Fisherman’, turns him by cunning concentration into a Yeatsian figure:
A man who does not exist,
A man who is but a dream.
He makes a similar use of the Danish bogman and bogwoman, ritually executed and preserved deep in the dark peat, transformed by the very meticulousness of preservation into something entirely not ourselves. Like Tutankhamen and his treasures, these poems are at once totally domestic and totally withdrawn; their link with our own atrocities is formally implied, and then severed by the concentration and beauty of art. This indeed is what good art, the skald’s cunning which Heaney so pre-eminently possesses, always has done and should do. He is an artificer of the most conservative kind. Nothing contemporary there.
Except perhaps the tone, which is mild and deprecating, most un-Yeatsian. Where it was natural for Yeats to play the grandee, the times have made it as natural for Heaney to play the man in the corner, the evasive wood-kern who can cast ‘the stones of silence’ into the gabble of accusation and hysteria. That is in itself now a social task, a social blessing. At the same time, while denying fanaticism, it also disclaims art’s traditional potency. In the cunning of words begin responsibilities, but the afterword that lingers in the taste of Heaney’s poems is ‘Mind you, I’ve said nothing.’
In a sense, that links him to today’s ‘Martian’ poetry, which consciously adopts the game and the riddle, the pretence and ‘fine feigning’ of art. Again it depends who is doing it, and how good they are. Craig Raine and Christopher Reid are very good indeed, word processors as sensitive as Heaney. Far from being gimmicky, as its detractors imply, this poetry is always extremely clear and direct, and capable at its best of a wide variety of effect. One of the most impressive poems in the book is Craig Raine’s ‘Flying to Belfast, 1977’. By apprehending everything in a ‘Martian’ way – jet engines, clouds, the town below (‘a radio/with its back ripped off’), the sea (‘the ships were faults/in a dark expanse of linen’) – the poem contrives a whole microcosm of tension in normality, the intricate quiet that stops and begins again after the moment of metaphor, or the moment of happening. His poetry has a marvellous knack of making strange a simple phrase like ‘tea things’, though it does not always achieve the apparently casual compression of meaning and feeling of ‘Flying to Belfast’. The Martian code, however much it may seem naturally related to structuralist concepts of reading and writing, is just as capable of intensity and emotion as the direct and dramatic style preferred by Alvarez. But it always keeps its cool, and it is never devoted to constructing a personality for the poet.
Its scale is small, but that is the case with almost all the contributors with good poems included here – Hugo Williams, Anne Stevenson, Carol Rumens, Andrew Motion. The exceptions, who compose naturally in a more spacious sequence, are James Fenton and of course Seamus Heaney himself. Heaney, in collaboration with Ted Hughes, has produced a most agreeable anthology, along the same lines as Walter de la Mare’s Behold this dreamer, or Wavell’s Other Men’s Flowers, a poet’s collection, full of odd and occasional pieces that have caught the craftman’s eye, as well as some better-known things. This sort of anthology is just the right place to happen on Hardy’s ‘The Garden Seat’, Robert Frost’s marvellous little short tale in verse about the buzz saw, a sonnet of Dante admirably translated by Kenneth Koch, Adrian Mitchell’s ‘Giving Potatoes’, Theodore Roethke’s ‘The Meadow Mouse’ or a 12-line poem by James Stephens (author of The Crock of Gold) entitled ‘A Glass of Beer’, whose concluding curse on a disobliging barmaid purports to show that an Irish beggar has as fine a sense of words as an Irish poet:
If I asked her master he’d give me a cask a day;
But she with the bar at her back not a gill would arrange.
May she marry a ghost and bear him a kitten and may
The High King of Glory permit it to get the mange.
The fact that I have ventured slightly to alter that ending says a lot about the nature of the anthology itself: nothing in it is ‘perfect’, Golden Treasury-style.
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