I approached this collection as a reader who rarely looks at poetry, though I did recently enjoy an anthology of Roger McGough’s excellent verse and I’ve always had a deep admiration for Dylan Thomas’ Under Milk Wood. However, as a writer of prose fiction, I’m aware that poetry has a good deal to offer the author. In order to work, it has to condense ideas into few precise words, it employs metaphor and simile to great effect and it frequently ignores the usual rules of narrative prose.
This particular anthology, published in 1953 and reprinted in 1978 with significant amendments, purports to embody the poetry of a century to that point. I found it irritating that many poets were represented by excerpts from longer works, these tasters giving an idea of style without any indication of the full import of the work. There was, for me, much that was impenetrable: so many of the poems referenced previous works with which I’m unfamiliar. Because of this, I was unable to enjoy large sections of the offering.
It was interesting to be re-acquainted with one or two poets I’d studied for my school exams: John Betjeman’s Upper Lambourne coming alive again so many years after I dissected it in class for ‘O’ level GCE under the inspiring guidance of a gifted English teacher. And the mawkish sentimentality of Thomas Hardy’s poetry re-appearing from my days of ‘A’ level studies undertaken at night class during a year’s discovery of some otherwise excellent works.
I enjoyed some of the verse from the First World War poets and a few of the other offerings. And I was introduced to such luminaries as Ezra Pound, A.E. Houseman and T.S. Eliot, for which I’m grateful. But I discovered that my poor opinion of James Joyce remained unaltered. And D.H. Lawrence was a better novelist than he was a poet.
All in all, an unsatisfactory collection for me. But I’ll attempt more in the future. I have a couple more anthologies on the shelf and I’m determined to give this form a real chance to impress me. Unfortunately, this particular collection failed to do that job.