United by a common language;Poetry books;Book of the week

20th August 1999 at 01:00
THE HARVILL BOOK OF TWENTIETH-CENTURY POETRY IN ENGLISH. Edited by Michael Schmidt. Harvill Press. pound;20.

Kate Clanchy finds the only end-of-the-century anthology you'll need, and, below, Sian Hughes reports back from minefields of emotion

Poets and editors are seized by their own peculiar millennial panic: who will be deemed the important 20th-century writers and sail into posterity aboard the lifeboat of excellence? Who will miss the boat and sink unlamented into the sea of oblivion?

Anxiety to jump on board has recently produced a rash of anthologies and some undignified cat fights, as writers, often in only their first decade of publication, try to prise one another's fingers from the lifeboat's imaginary edge.

As Schmidt points out in his preface, the best of these very contemporary poets will probably be considered 21st-century writers, and will be part of literary movements with names we do not yet know. Centuries are poor indicators of literary movements, as teachers wrestling with the national curriculum's ludicrous pre-20th-century requirement know only too well.

Accordingly, Schmidt's choice of Nineties poets is sparse and unashamedly personal, while the strength and bulk of the volume comes from poets with established reputations, most of whom have been anthologised before. Indeed, most of the chosen poems have been selected or anthologised before, often repeatedly.

Schmidt is no despiser of the popular taste and for all his declared modernism, his agenda is elastic and inclusive, not narrowly triumphalist.

If that sounds dull, it isn't. You may have seen many of these poems before, but you won't have read them in such a generous or enriching context. This is not simply because the book is bulky - more than 100 poets, 800 pages, minimal notes - but because this is a collection of poetry in English, not poetry of England. This brilliantly simple concept at once rescues Scottish, Irish, Welsh and post-colonial writing from patronising marginalisation and abolishes the arbitrary national line which makes a problem of such BritishAmerican poets as TS Eliot, WH Auden and Sylvia Plath, and divides, for example, American Robert Frost from the English poet on whom he was so crucial an influence, Edward Thomas.

Here, the poets are placed in order of age, not nationality or canonical hierarchy. This system allows us not only to read Thomas and Frost together, but to appreciate the similar sensibilities of DH Lawrence and William Carlos Williams, and to make other, more unexpected connections: between Dylan Thomas and the Australian nature poet Judith Wright, for example; between the different classicisms of Geoffrey Hill and Derek Walcott, or the Irish fields of Seamus Heaney and the sprawling Antipodean plains of Les Murray.

The women poets who are so often spirited out of anthologies of their period are here amply represented. HD and Marianne Moore are restored to the places they made for themselves among the modernists; Edna St Vincent Millay and Stevie Smith display their distinctive ironic pathos; and Laura Riding is given as much space as her husband, Robert Graves.

This is not to imply that Schmidt is hidebound by political correctness. Ezra Pound, that controversial old quasi-Fascist, is centrally placed, in the introduction and the anthology, as is the multi-voiced Rudyard Kipling, while John Betjeman, excluded from some recent post-1945 collections, is here allowed to drop his bombs on Slough.

I have my own millennium nightmare: Education Secretary David Blunkett will get out of bed one morning and decide that once the 20th century is over, its poetry must be confined to a single book. Chris Woodhead, the chief inspector of schools, will back him and insist the book is taught only in a literacy context between 9am and 10am on Mondays. If this happens, we can only pray that Blunkett's hand will alight on the Harvill book.

I can imagine teaching out of this rich, warm, generous collection for years, without getting bored, limited, or enraged with its editor.

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