July 18 2011: The Penguin Book of Contemporary Verse edited by Kenneth Allott (Revised Edition, 1962)
First published in 1950, with this ‘revised and expanded’ edition appearing in 1962, The Penguin Book of Contemporary Verse 1918 – 1960, edited by Kenneth Allott, is a fascinating document. Including many of the names you’d expect – from WB Yeats, DH Lawrence and TS Eliot to Louis MacNeice, WH Auden and Philip Larkin – it concludes with early work by Thom Gunn, Sylvia Plath, Ted Hughes and Geoffrey Hill. More intriguing, though, are the host of names long since ‘disappeared’ from the official histories of British poetry during the time-span covered: Henry Treece, Herbert Read, Hilary Corke, Thomas Blackburn, EJ Scovell, Lawrence Durrell and many others, now largely forgotten or consigned to the ‘minor’ category.
More than this, a different time is reflected in the introductory comments by the editor, who often takes issue of various kinds with the poets and poems he includes, acknowledging their flaws, noting that David Gascoyne’s later volumes A Vagrant and Night Thoughts are ‘rather disappointing’, or that James Kirkup’s ‘Tea in a Space Ship’ misfires with a Rupert Brooke reference, but remains ‘enjoyable’. He outlines a ‘naked collision of taste’ in his disagreements with Geoffrey Hill over his eventual selection from that poet’s early work and notes of Sylvia Plath that the influence of John Crowe Ransom ‘is perhaps a shade too intrusive’ in places. Such critical engagement and disagreement with the poems and poets he includes here are to be found throughout.
Reading Allott’s anthology in 2011, when the primary editorial tone is expected to be enthusiastic, partisan and promotional, is refreshing. It made me wonder if books like Identity Parade (an ambitious anthology of recent poetry, whose editor, Roddy Lumsden, is doubtless capable of holding critical opinions every bit as strong as Allott’s), the various Bloodaxe and Carcanet ‘new poets’ selections, even the annual Forward Anthologies, might all be improved by this kind of editorial engagement with the texts included? After all, the upshot of Allott’s approach is not to denigrate his contents but to present them in a wider context, in relation to work being made elsewhere, in other places and times: he attends to the poems with something more than an idea that selection itself is a stamp of unqualified approval, and little of 2011’s dependence on external recognition (reflected all too often in lengthy lists of prizes won) for a sense of the value of particular poets’ work.
By freeing himself to include work even he knows is flawed, but still considers to be of interest and value, Allott’s approach seems one well worth learning from again. Perhaps it’s no longer possible to engage with the work presented in introductory anthologies in this way, given that hyperbolic marketing-speak has become the lingua franca of our age and anything less smacks of implied rejection. Each new book, film or recording has to have its originality and achievement vastly exaggerated simply to struggle within range of a cultural radar, where the window of potential attention is so vanishingly small that any pause for thought or expression of reservation will ensure it’s closed. Anything less than a string of high profile shortlistings for major prizes and broadsheet reviews seems to be mostly, if not always entirely, ignored.
Reading Allott’s selection – itself flawed, sometimes infuriating and certainly partial – is nonetheless the most engaged I’ve felt with an anthology for a long while: and it’s worth noting that it wasn’t the promotional, accessible or heavily marketed approach that sparked my own interest in poetry from some very unlikely circumstances. As a teenager in South East Derbyshire, it was finding engaged, non-specialist and often critical books in the mass market – books like Edward Lucie Smith’s Poetry Since 1945 (Penguin, 1970), Edward B. Germain’s Surrealist Poetry in English (1978), Alan Bold’s Penguin Book of Socialist Verse (1970), Wole Soyinka’s Poems of Black Africa (Heinemann, 1975) and Willis Barnstone’s Modern European Poetry (Bantam, 1966).
These lit the fuse a long time ago and remain some of the most exciting anthologies of poetry yet produced. All have their flaws, but I wonder if that isn’t precisely what gives them their sense of urgency and continuing interest? After all, they might be dated in many ways, and may well have placed whole lines of their historical bets at a sharp angle of digression from the canons of 2011. But perhaps it’s precisely that reflection of the provisional nature of literary judgement that casts the most useful light on the same process, as it’s carried out in our own time: I sometimes wonder if it’s only long after anthologies have passed ‘out of date’ and fallen into commercial obsolescence that their real value starts to become apparent.