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Jacket 15 — December 2001   |   # 15  Contents   |   Homepage   |   Catalog   |

Richard Caddel reviews

Anthology of Twentieth-Century British & Irish Poetry by Keith Tuma (ed.)

New York: Oxford University Press, 2001. ISBN 019512894X. xxxiii, 941pp. No price given.

This piece is 2 300 words or about six printed pages long.

Cover, detailWE ANTHOLOGY EDITORS should stick together. Keith Tuma opens his preface by recalling a former anthologist, Edward Lucie-Smith’s comment that “to publish an anthology is to turn oneself into a pheasant on the first day of August” — a remark which Tuma’s annotations assistant Nate Dorward should surely have glossed for some readers, but which basically means, as I’ve found, that you become a target for critics. Tuma then continues with this analogy to suggest that “some pheasants are fatter targets than others”, and that few anthologists seek to encompass such a large period as a whole century, or, he might have added, such a diverse and prolific one, over such a large, diverse and changing geographical area.
    So, it’s a tough job, and although with 941 pages of text this is by no means the fattest target on the fellside, parts of the rest of his introduction are understandably spent donning the protective clothing required in such a situation — awareness that critics will point out perceived regrettable inclusions and exclusions, stress laid on limitations of pages and budgets, nods to some specific regrettable exclusions (Prynne, again) and others in general, and caution against over-statement of his selection values, which are nearly always carefully qualified.
    And as one still recuperating from a bout of anthologising (and its after-effects) myself, I can appreciate such caution. After years of collecting, enjoying and editing anthologies I can give it as my considered opinion that everyone should make their own, and preferably revise it at regular intervals. The notion that one editor can produce, for everyone, a volume which carries any lasting authority is, surely, a thing of the past. And of course, the pheasant-shooters should at least have some concept of the difficulties facing their prey.
    Tuma is, of course, a US American critic and teacher, and not a British or Irish poet. I point this out not in any catty or derogatory sense, and certainly not out of any spirit of Union Demarcation (I doubt if any poet would have undertaken the task), but as a statement of a fact which informs and influences his attitude to the anthology. When he writes the engagingly simple phrase “in reading through the century’s poetry...” our hearts go out to him as the image hovers in our minds of him labouring selflessly over piles of slim volumes, burning gallons of the proverbial midnight oil at this vast task. I mean, did he really read it all?

    But I suspect that for many British or Irish poets, the overriding impression which the last century has left is not of a neat, organised pheasant shoot, but of a protracted civil war, or at least a series of shifting partisan or guerrilla engagements which have left few participants unscarred. So that many of the surviving British or Irish poets could perhaps be forgiven for feeling, is this it? as they scan Tuma’s “map” (his word) and recognise little in the way of detail in the actual terrain as they knew it.
    But that’s not the point: this is not a volume of veteran’s memoirs (thankfully) but A Book To Tell The Young People — “This anthology will have achieved its loftiest goal if it makes newer, younger readers want to search out poetry as it lives beyond this book, in individual volumes by the authors included here and many others beside them,” says Tuma. Phew. In short, it’s a teaching anthology, a college textbook, with all the hallmarks thereof: numbered lines for class teaching and discussion of poems, critical and biographical introductions to each poet, some bibliographic information (but sadly, given the goal stated above, no publisher information), copious annotations of, for instance, local language and external sources (by the inexhaustible Nate Dorward, who should, in my opinion, have at least a title page credit for his contribution) and that comfortable D-shaped rounded spine when, as mine has, it’s been lying open most of the time for a week or so.

Tuma anthology cover

And as such, this is indeed a quietly revolutionary anthology, in that it presents (as the back cover blurb says) “ample selections from canonical poets” (we’ll suppress questions about whose canon for the present) alongside “many poets... who have never before been represented in this type of collection”, and even “paying special attention to neglected modernist traditions”. Accordingly, it’s broader in its coverage than others in the genre, and this is most welcome — to me, at least. The possibility — and desirability — of such a broad-based anthology has been raised before in a variety of discussions (such as the british-poets listserv) and other contexts (though it is seldom, in my experience, urged by adherents of the “canonical poets” approach): in his useful anthology “ A State of Independence” (Stride 1998) editor Tony Frazer concludes: “Anthologies in recent years have tended to be “official” or of the corrective “antidote” variety, such as this in part seeks to be: there is room for someone to draw the strands together.” Most poets, however wide their reading habits, are deeply committed to their own practices and by definition to some extent partisan, and would thus shrink from such a task, however enthusiastic they may be about the final product.
    Tuma himself is cautious: “This book’s emphasis, to the extent that an emphasis on modernism emerges within its pluralist contours...” — but in thus nailing his colours to the mast — claiming to his purpose the “m” word and the “p” word in the same sentence — he sets his anthology apart from anything published to date in the UK. I doubt, for instance, if Oxford University Press’s Oxford offices would commission a work along such lines.
    And indeed, since the anthology is arranged by date of birth of poet, it’s a bit odd at first glance, to see, for instance Philip Larkin — a fairly consistent resister of modernism and its works — next to Bob Cobbing, and Elizabeth Jennings — who famously urged that one modernist poet she reviewed should be put down, as in done away with — sandwiched between Asa Benveniste and Christopher Middleton. It’s as if someone had taken the invitation cards for a number of different parties and shuffled them into one potentially inflammable event. Well, so be it — this is pluralist gumbo in a rich and heady mix, and I hope those new, young readers are guided well by their teachers so that they may savour and appreciate its range and yes, plurality of flavours.
    One particularly interesting collocation is that of Tony Harrison’s “ v” and John Riley’s “ Czargrad” — two longish poems “about” cities, and both associated with Leeds — but there one runs out of obvious similarities. I suspect there’s scope for many constructive seminars in such associations. Nor are these apparent clashes confined to the latter part of the century: Wilfred Owen sits next to the much-neglected John Rodker for instance, and Mina Loy is separated from Edward Thomas only by the amiable Harold Monro, of whom Tuma writes, as he might well of himself, that he was a “tireless advocate of modern poetry in most of its forms [...] eclectic in his tastes, leaning in the direction of the modernists”.

Although Tuma recognises, and is clearly part of the movement seeking to rectify, the long history of neglect of the “modernist / experimental tradition” — however one describes it — in Britain and Ireland, he does little to explain how this circumstance comes about. The often-stated and preposterous critical idea that modernism is essentially an American phenomenon, and therefore was inappropriate “here” is, of course, summarily dealt with, both in the preface and in the selection, where time after time long-overlooked exponents of that tradition are “rediscovered”. I suppose in order to tackle the causes of this thorny issue of neglect he’d have had to get nasty, to engage in the cultural and economic realities of poetic life as it’s been lived daily in Britain and Ireland for years, which, apart from lying beyond the scope of his mainly literary critical preface, would have jeopardised the appearance of broad-church consensus which the anthology is at present able, at first sight, to wear. In truth, the background to this neglect has been described on many occasions, not always in the most balanced, temperate or non-partisan terms — perhaps this is another reason why Tuma felt he should steer clear of it.
    Nevertheless, should the attempt at cross-section “plurality” offered here become — as one hopes it might — the critical “norm” for anthologists, the question will surface again and again: how have cultural arbiters in both Britain and Ireland been able to sustain their neglect of these writers so consistently, and for so long? An argued and dispassionate approach to this issue is needed.
    Such an approach should surely take account of the snopaking out or erasing of the post-war generation of poets from the broadly modernist background which occurs in well-publicised anthologies such as “ The Penguin Book of Poetry from Britain and Ireland since 1945” (Armitage and Crawford, eds., 1998) — not because it’s unique, but because it’s one of many to do so, and represents, for many general readers and teachers, the perceived and taught “map” of British and Irish poetry in its period.
    Tuma, calling his own anthology “revisionist”, rightly restores poets such as Harwood, Raworth, Cobbing, Fisher A., Turnbull and others to his account of the period. Armitage and Crawford comment briefly on MacDiarmid, Jones and Bunting (broadly, the only modernists they acknowledge) each as an “isolated, if exciting, outcrop in the post-war geography” — a statement supportable only by the extensive erasure referred to above. Tuma shows by his selection how ludicrous such a statement is, and how misleading it is when such prejudices are allowed to go unchallenged.
    I mentioned the welcome appearance of John Rodker: there are many others here too who have escaped the attention they deserved hitherto, but are now beginning to receive long-overdue notice: Brian Coffey and Thomas MacGreevy (for instance) from Ireland; overlooked English women modernists such as Mary Butts (does the assiduous source-spotter Dorward make a slight oversight here? He fails to note the specific, and to me important, English folk-song echoes in “Never trust a hemlock / An inch above your mouth”, a crux-point of Butts’ “ Corfe”); or the wonderful Lynette Roberts, described by one critic as “the one and only Latino-Welsh modernist”.
    Here, above all, we come to one of the most obvious causes of neglect for such poets: the lack — for a variety of reasons — of accessible texts. There just isn’t, at this point, a realistic chance that even committed readers could get to read Roberts’ exciting, elliptical and important work, and the new, young readers who Tuma wishes to inspire to further reading will, as things stand, be frustrated. This was true for a long time of poets such as Charles Madge too, but that particular publishing gap has now been filled. A further lofty ambition for this anthology might be, therefore, that it could stimulate the interest required for a publisher — with the support of poets’ estates where needed — to bring a writer like Roberts back into print.
    I don’t intend to indulge much in the usual critical practice — which Tuma acknowledges as inevitable — of singling out inclusions or exclusions which I consider questionable. I found this the least satisfactory aspect of the feedback to our openly “antidote” anthology “ Other: British and Irish Poetry since 1970” (Caddel and Quartermain eds, Wesleyan University Press 1999) when it was often used as an occasion for settling old scores (see my earlier guerrilla warfare analogy). However, I will allow myself one — I hope self-justified — comment in each category:
    — Some poets who straddle the century are, understandable, represented by work from both. But without disparaging his work, or its importance in the Twentieth Century, I can’t see how Gerard Manley Hopkins (1844 — 1889) can be said to have written any Twentieth Century poetry at all, and Tuma might at least have given special justification for his inclusion. True, his work only found an audience in the c.20th, but that, surely, can be said of others, and from much earlier than the c.19th too. The ghosts of poets who’ve died unpublished in the c.20th may perhaps draw some dubious posthumous comfort from the possibility that a future Tuma may include their work in a comparable anthology covering a century different to their own, but that hardly offers a justification.
    — Since the coverage of the long-neglected Irish modernist tradition is generally so good, and forms one of the exciting threads running through Tuma’s anthology, I find the omission of any James Joyce hard to account for. True, his poetic output was small compared to his main work (the same may be said of Beckett), but it was by no means negligible or without quality. Indeed, might not some of his prose have been included in a century where — largely as a result of the efforts of writers such as Joyce — the boundary between the two has become increasingly permeable? Without his presence (perhaps for permissions reasons?) we lack, to my mind, a founding father, who helped significantly to shape both British and Irish writing in the c.20th.

However, I don’t want such comments to detract from my welcoming of this anthology, which I’ve called “quietly revolutionary” within its genre, and which is certainly an enjoyable and interesting read (“interesting” is one of the words of high praise in Tuma’s assessment of the century’s poetry). I can only applaud Tuma and Dorward for their industry in making the book, and Oxford University Press New York for having the courage to publish it. I hope they make efforts to distribute it in the UK, where a broader perspective is sorely needed.
    Used well, and supported by the range of other anthologies and resources which Tuma refers to in passing, it will provide a very fresh and often exciting approach to teaching and studying the poetry of the last century.
    One hopes that it will also, in time, come to be supported by wider publication of many of the writers “rediscovered” here, and lead to deeper study of the issues relating to their neglect.

Richard Caddel
Durham, England, April 2001

In Jacket 4 you can also read the complete and unexpurgated Introduction to the anthology OTHER British and Irish Poetry since 1970, some three hundred pages of poems by some fifty non-mainstream poets, edited by Richard Caddel and Peter Quartermain. The Introduction is 8,700 words or about twenty-six printed pages long.

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