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.

7 Responses to “July 18 2011: The Penguin Book of Contemporary Verse edited by Kenneth Allott (Revised Edition, 1962)”
  1. Yes, a fascinating throwback to another era in anthologising! I hadn’t read this volume until I was researching for Identity Parade. I can’t now see a way other than being ‘enthusiastic, partisan and promotional’. Allott gives away the fact that his meagre budget meant that he had to be big on essays, low on poems. You get two page pieces on the poet followed by one or two poems. He chides poets (especially those the younger than him) by saying they should be more X or Y. He is big on faint praise. A few entries are quite breathtaking – he accuses the young Hughes of ‘raping’ his readers. At times, he openly disagrees with a writer’s style, then appends an untypical poem or two which are to his taste and fit his bill. Of course, we’d want to avoid the opposite of hyperbole and blurb, but I’d doubt Allott’s approach would be viable now. Blurb is spin, but so is this sort of ticking off of those not playing to the game of the anthologist. It belongs to a time when far fewer poets made it to the situation of being available in print or read. Allott – a very good young poet who stopped writing in his early 30s – seemed to have grievances about those who did rise from the quandary he found himself in – stuck between the Auden generation and new influences – and with hindsight, I distrust some of his opinions.

  2. To follow up that point – some people have found the brief commentaries I added to Identity Parade rather lacking. They were there not as sage comments for poetry experts but as brief pointers for those who were new to these poets or who were using the book in educational situations. To me, it would be unthinkable now to ask a poet to give permission to their poems being in an anthology and to find that I added a comment akin to ‘ X has been lauded by certain poets and critics and has won important prizes, but I feel they are overrated and they need to return to the directness and formality of their earlier work.’

    • wayneburrows says:

      Absolutely, Allott’s opinions aren’t to be trusted at all (sometimes they’re spot on, sometimes he’s not far from becoming a version of the deranged narrator in Nabakov’s ‘Pale Fire’, which is entertaining if not always enlightening) but it was refreshing to have them in the book: hadn’t picked up the grievance, but I don’t doubt it’s a factor in places (it usually is). It would be nice to see more of that kind of critical engagement in current anthologies (Lucie-Smith used to be quite good at that – I seem to remember the comments introducing the poets in ‘Poetry Since 1945’ were nicely balanced between highlighting points of interest and suggesting certain limitations where appropriate, while hinting at broader critical debates going on around the book) but I do agree it wouldn’t be possible at the moment. A publisher I know received a phone call from one of his poets, who bent his ear for the best part of an hour about a bad review: when he actually read it later, he found it was 90% positive, and perfectly fair, but clearly even fairly mild criticisms have the power to rankle – this doesn’t seem all that unusual now (probably wasn’t then, either). Which is a shame. Another anthology I remember reading early on that got the balance bang on was (I think) English Poetry 1900 – 1975 (from Longman, and maybe edited by George MacBeth but I can’t remember offhand – black cover with a red snowflake on the front). The short intros to each poet were genuinely engaged and enlightening for the beginner I was at the time, but did admit criticism, reservations and limitations while always keeping the fact that each was worth reading in the foreground. Should’ve had that one in the list, actually…

  3. Who knows what Penguin wanted 40 years ago, when Lucie-Smith made his anthology? Did they have marketing in mind – did they brief him on that? The MacBeth book (both of these excellent books were hugely influential on me) was clearly aimed at the educational market and MacBeth’s articles on the poets were pertinent and incisive – but then that book was not generational, more a textbook, with fewer poets. But for the potential educational use of Identity Parade, I would have left it at biog plus poems, and if it were felt that more context was needed, I would have struggled, less through my capabilities of understanding poets’ aesthetics, more through my reluctance to pin those down and turn them into a few snappy paragraphs. And as to my reluctance to go for ‘critical engagement’ in this context – I don’t see how I could have come out of that being anything other than lofty, log-rolling or snooty. Of course, I could have picked up the wider issue of critical debates in my introduction but was cowed into not doing so by the overwhelming wish that readers and critics might engage with the poems and not the rhetoric. My intro was described by one critic as ‘packet soup’ – and I stand by my powdery pea and ham intro which I hope forced at least a few more engaged critics and readers to think about the poems and not an attempt by the editor(s) (see various previous comparable volumes) to badmouth the recent past, talk up the present and make various predictions about where poetry is going!

    • wayneburrows says:

      Yes, I suspect the Longman books were produced for schools, though it was outside that context that I encountered them – in school, Palgrave and the ‘Touchstones’ series were used, (‘Touchstones’ had some strong selections, but I can’t remember who edited them), along with a few other anthologies, mainly (I’d guess) from the mid c.20th (full of C. Day Lewis, John Masefield, ‘Sohrab & Rustum’ by Arnold, etc). In a way the thinking about critical engagement in the Allott post wasn’t so much about the details of what is said in addition to biog notes as the way he clearly includes work at odds with his own tastes and preferences. (In truth, my feeling when O’Brien added critical notes to ‘The Firebox’ selections was that his – usually single poem – selections were being subsumed into the more academic critical interests pursued in ‘The Deregulated Muse’: this poem is here because it raises questions of Englishness or identity, this one for its historical or political content, etc, so that can be problematic too). Without expecting any specifics or details I’d be interested to know how far Identity Parade includes work you weren’t personally convinced by, but felt deserved its place: the bigger question is how far we engage, as editors, with work outside our own preferences, comfort zones and thinking on what poetry is and should be? Given the variety in IP, it seems unlikely that any editor could personally and equally endorse everything, but by including it a form of critical engagement is going on, even where actual comments might remain fairly factual or neutral. Better that approach, I think, than just leaving out the poets and poems we happen not to feel invested in – though (that said) the polemical anthology has its place as well, and I enjoy a good passionate anthologist staking out a position as much as anyone, as long as it’s done with intelligence. I try to do a bit of both with Staple, so I often include poems that aren’t really to my personal taste but seem particularly good of their kind (in order to be sure we do that I try to gather various associates with wildly different tastes around the magazine to help feed in material during the selection process). But that doesn’t mean the end result isn’t my responsibility, given that I have ‘final cut’, or that we *are* neutral, or even trying to be neutral: I hope a position is strongly implied even as it remains open to change when new work comes in.

  4. roddyl says:

    Somewhere among my Identity Parade files, I have a list of poets I would have left out if the choice was purely personal – of course, I’m not going to share it! I did have personal taste plus consensus as my aim. I also have a list of the ten or so poets I value most highly from the generation. I imagine most would have a different list though I worry that some on my most valued list are underread, undersung, and that’s why they would not feature on other lists. The commercial lists still have an unhealthy advantage with their marketing – I don’t regret that power – they should push their writers – I just wish things were less uneven and that the kudos of Picador, Cape and Faber was not so strong, especially in the media and in the meritocracy which turns up in the press, the PBS and the prizes.

    Of course, there’s a part of me that wishes to have been more of a tastemaker, picking maybe 40 poets to represent the generation. I didn’t pick more poets to retain friends or to introduce friends. I just stuck with Legitimate Dangers as my model, 85 poets, various styles. So yes, the book contains poets I’m more or less convinced by, inevitably, but they seemed to me to be the right group at that time.

    • wayneburrows says:

      When I read IP, I figured (this with no thought of the actual selection criteria, which I know you stuck to fairly rigorously) that about a third of the poets I’d have put in myself, a third I’d have replaced with others (though probably dropped some of the criteria to get them in) and a third I’d continue to think deserving but not feel especially moved by either way. But even if I’d chosen the contents myself, I’d estimate that within a year of publication, if not sooner, I’d be coming to similar conclusions about the final selection: it happens all the time with the magazine that poems I included while not being sure about them grow on me, things I’d liked at once reveal their weaknesses on repeat readings, and so on. Poets who seem good but not essential can come good with new work, others might disappoint or not quite deliver on early promise; the wider context and your own personal tastes change… Any anthology is a snapshot of its moment, in relation to an editor, and both those things should keep evolving – the moment that stops and positions become fixed is probably the exact point at which to give up the job.

      I agree there’s a bit of a ‘bullet point’ mentality in the media that prefers to reduce the numbers of names given coverage to a minimum – that probably lies behind the (rather lazy) tendency to simply cherry-pick a few lists in line with the marketing budgets. The kudos of Faber, Cape and Picador is often deserved on its own terms, but the discrepancy in scale of coverage achieved and accolades secured in relation to the quality to be found on other lists is disproportionate and not really justified. This applies to certain individual poets, too, who may be excellent, but certainly aren’t that much better than others who don’t receive anything like the same acclaim: I’d say it borders on the scandalous that (to my knowledge) Mimi Khalvati – to give just one example – has yet to win a major high profile prize on the Eliot or Forward level, given that certain others have won these awards several times over, often with lesser books. This only matters, really, because the winning of these prizes dictates so many other things in terms of profile and wider readership – to be honest, I feel pretty ambivalent about the whole prizes system, and have yet to enter any competition for exactly that reason (unless the Gregory Awards count as a competition, in which case that was probably the last).

      Maybe one year, the shortlists for the major prizes (and not just for poetry -the Eliot, Forward, Turner, Booker, Mercury etc) should all be decided by using a tombola system, in which every published book meeting a minimum standard is given a ticket. I imagine the results might be at least comparable in consistency to the current versions, and might easily turn out to be far more interesting…

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