Kevin Saving

Two King Makers

Against Oblivion - Ian Hamilton, Viking, 2002
The Great Modern Poets - Michael Schmidt, 2006

The twentieth century was when our poets came down, somewhat grudgingly, from their plinths on Mount Parnassus. Up till that time it was still possible for a literary giant like Alfred, Lord Tennyson, to become vexed by the curious on-lookers who occasionally peered over the wall surrounding his residence in the Isle of Wight. After 1900, well, what was there to see anymore?

Of "The great modern poets" (those who've deceased), it is possible to think of perhaps two who lived moderately interesting lives: W.B.Yeats, a senator in the newly-founded Irish Free State and Wilfred Owen, who was by all accounts a valiant - if troubled - soldier in the First World War. Of their compeers -those of whom had any meaningful existence outside "Literature" - Hardy was an architect; T.S.Eliot, a bank clerk and Wallace Stevens, an insurance executive. Still others, particularly the Americans, sought refuge in, and were embraced by, academia. And it shows.

These two contrasting books (superficially so similar) both furnish biographical vignettes -coupled with brief selections from the work- of fifty modern poets whom the authors judge to be of lasting importance. Of the two, Ian Hamilton's editorial thesis is the more provocative. Historically, he suggests, few will survive oblivion - and seldom those their contemporaries feel to be the most meritorious. From our own times only four (Eliot, Hardy, Auden and Yeats) will, with any certainty, be read by English-speaking people in generations to come. Most of the rest, he implies, will fall by the wayside: some to be periodically revived, others to be consigned to permanent, dusty anonimity.

Hamilton's volume is by far the slighter of the two and yet one feels that his judgement is the more considered, his opinion the weightier -even when one is in disagreement with him. Both Michael Schmidt and Hamilton (the latter died in 2001) have written extensively on the history of literature and both have published collections of their own poetry. Interestingly, there is a large concordance between the two (though Hamilton excludes living authors) as to who's to be allowed into the pantheon. Schmidt - with no acknowledgement - includes all of Hamilton's big four and acquiesces in the admittance of Kipling, Mew, Frost, Jeffers, Millay, two of the three Thomas's (Edward and Dylan), Stevens, (W.C.) Williams, Lawrence, Pound, MacDiarmid, Moore, Owen, Cummings, Graves, Tate, Betjeman, Bishop, (Robert) Lowell, (Keith) Douglas, Larkin, Ginsberg, Plath and (Ted) Hughes.

Any such anthology must, of necessity, be a very subjective undertaking. Sports fans notoriously enjoy creating their own fantasy "All-time Best Elevens" - and this in a sphere of endeavour where statistical comparison can provide some guidance. Not so poetry, in which it is impossible to state whether "Sassoon scored more goals than Stevens" or accurately reflect "how much more weight Hardy carries above Heaney". Nevertheless both authors feel confident enough to ignore such luminaries as John Masefield, W.H.Davies and Vachel Lindsay, to quote just three with work of stature to their names. For me, Pound, Tate, MacDiarmid and Ginsberg are (already) so much dead wood. Beauty resides in the interpretive, individually colourative valuation of its appraiser, as Schmidt might put -and as Shakespeare (nearly) said.

The biographical sketches in Against Oblivion, though briefer, tend to carry more thrust, whereas there are a number of factual errors in Schmidt's text (Betjeman's family, for example, were of Dutch - not German - extraction). Hamilton's pen-pictures are altogether pithier - as when he maintains that Stevie Smith (who found late fame in the psychodelic sixties) "was always further out than we thought - and not drowning, but waving". Schmidt, by contrast, has a habit of saying none too much - but at greater length. Furthermore, he appears to be unable to defend some highly excentric selections (James K.Baxter, C.H.Sisson, Laura Riding, among others), either through penetrating analysis or by the presentation of exceptional work. Indeed, his choice of poems -even from major writers- seems often to be haphazard and without any guiding notion of what makes them either "characteristic" or "special".

In only one way does "The Great modern poets" supercede the earlier volume. The selection of photographs is of better quality and (at times) more revealing. For some reason a sizeable number of poets appear to wish to be represented sitting smugly in front of well-stacked book-shelves. Exceptions to this rule include T.S. Eliot (trying - vainly, one feels - to make sense of some algebraic formulation which he has just scribbled on a blackboard), Thom Gunn (posing archly and backgrounded by a highrise, San Franciscan skyline) and Seamus Heaney (doing something crouched and furtive-looking against a tree). Of the two books, read the Hamilton - take a glance at the Schmidt.

Kevin Saving © 2008