a light dusting
by Anthony Thwaite / The Dark Horse issue 33
reviewing ian hamilton’s Oxford Companion to Twentieth Century Poetry (1994), Helen Vendler (unaccountably one of the chief arbiters of poetry in the United States) made merry with some of the thumbnail descriptions of poets and their works; and admittedly some of these were a bit empty:
[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.
In the new Companion this entry no longer appears, but Michael O’Neill, the poet thus described, didn’t deserve to be omitted simply because the entry was inadequate.
Jeremy Noel-Tod, the editor of the new book, is polite about Ian Hamilton, but it is soon apparent that Noel-Tod is hospitable to almost anything one might call ‘alternative’: what he calls in his introduction ‘avant-garde poetics’. New entries sometimes read as if some gleeful parodist had got to work on Noel-Tod’s proofs, inventing unlikely poets and their works:
Corless-Smith, Martin (1965— )Born in Worcestershire, England, Corless-Smith studied painting before moving to the States where he attended the University of Iowa Writer’s Workshop and gained a PhD at the University of Utah. He teaches on the programme at Boise State University and edits the ‘Free Poetry’ imprint.
Sometimes described as a neo-Romantic, Corless-Smith brings postmodernist instability to bear on an antiquarian English imagination. Like Susan Howe, he presents precisely fragmented, palimpsestic texts, in which literary tradition and historical record are quoted, broken, and overlaid with unruly, anonymous voices...
This is one of the many entries written by Noel-Tod himself. Indeed, he says in his Introduction: ‘Unlike the first editor, who played a solely commissioning role, I have also written the majority of new entries in this edition.’ This must have saved OUP a fair amount of money, unless they have paid Noel-Tod a much more generous fee than I suspect.
Yet overall the job seems to me to have been more a light dusting than a radical re-think. What seems a pity, and oddly arbitrary, is the falling of the axe here and there. Some of the missing are missing presumably because they survived too long (Wilfred Blunt), others because they were perhaps judged by Noel-Tod to have left little trace (Paul Dehn, G.S. Fraser, Ian Fletcher, Bernard Gutteridge, Julian Symons, Terence Tiller, Ruthven Todd.) I find it difficult to understand why he has ‘left in the twentieth century’ (i.e., omitted) ‘a number of poets whose claim to inclusion seemed predominantly historical (e.g. Second World War combatants)’. At least two Second World War poets deserved to remain: Hamish Henderson, whose Elegies for the Dead in Cyrenaica is one of the finest works from that war, and John Pudney, two of whose short lyrics are redolent of the war in the air.
Although the late Martin Seymour-Smith (he died in 1998) is still found as a frequent contributor, with over ninety entries in Hamilton’s edition and almost as many in Noel-Tod’s, some of his worst opinionated excesses have been omitted; and he himself no longer appears as a poet in his own right. This is a pity, because he had distinct gifts as a poet, for all his deficiencies as critic and biographer. But the axe seems to have fallen rather indiscriminately on Seymour-Smith’s entries. Where is Adrian Henri (his companions from Liverpool, Roger McGough and Brian Patten, survive)? Seymour-Smith’s entry on Henri in the previous Companion was absurdly offensive, but someone else could have written a briefer piece. A. A. Milne is a sad absentee. Laurence Lerner and James Michie, at their best very fine poets, are now omitted. One could go on...
Noel-Tod has usefully decided to credit books with their publishers rather than their place of origin—e.g. Faber instead of London. He has segregated ‘Groups and Movements’ to a section in the back of the book rather than running them alphabetically. But the edition is not as bibliographically sound as it should be. I give just one irritating example: the entry on Larkin (otherwise an exemplary piece by Blake Morrison, carried over from Hamilton) states that my 1988 edition of Larkin’s Collected Poems ‘was the first attempt to bring together his published and unpublished poetry, and remains the most attractive and accessible edition in print’. Unfortunately, this edition has been out of print for many years. The 2003 edition with the same title, still in print, is not the same thing at all, but it is unmentioned in this Companion.
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