And so I get to the end of the first volume of the Penguin Modern Poets! I’ve been ruminating as I read about the best way to approach writing about the books, and I don’t really intend to get into heavy poetic analysis, as I’m not really qualified to do that. Instead, I think I’ll just give a personal response to each poet and pick out some of my favourites to give a flavour of the books. So here goes volume 1!
Penguin opened the series with some big-name poets: Lawrence Durrell (1912-1990) is of course known for his fictions and his books about Mediterranean islands, and I’m not actually sure if I knew he wrote poetry as well; Elizabeth Jennings (1926-2001) is a poet I *was* aware of – I think I studied her at school, though I can’t actually recall which poems; and finally R.S. Thomas (1913-2000), a Welsh bard whose work I’m very familiar with, as I already own many of his books and love his verse! All would have been well-known at the time of publication, though I suspect that Thomas is possibly the name that readers would know nowadays as a poet.
So, to start with Durrell. Not surprisingly, his poetic style is quite dense and allusive, much like his prose work, and the subject matter is often set around myths and legends and islands. If I’m honest I didn’t always pick up all the allusions (particularly the classical ones) but some poems were very powerful despite this – “J’Est un Autre” with its hints of strangers following you in Budapest was particularly memorable. However, some of the wordplay lost me, and I think I’d prefer to stick with Durrell as a prose stylist rather than a poet.
Jennings had a much more straightforward style, but I was surprised to find that I didn’t recognise any of her works at all – not even a glimmer of familiarity. Her style is more personal, dealing directly with subjects like death and old age, family heritage and fear. Perhaps this is more traditionally what would be thought to be a woman’s subject matter, although that argument would quickly be subverted by either Plath or Sexton. Jennings’ poems are also studded with religious imagery and pretty consistently downbeat. “Ghosts” was probably my favourite, a pithy little verse about how events left undone cause a house to be haunted.
And finally to R.S. Thomas – now, there was an intriguing man! Notoriously reclusive and difficult, particularly during the latter part of his lifetime, he was an Anglican priest who was also a poet. Brought up an English speaker, he taught himself Welsh and became quite a militant supporter of the tongue, though he learned the language too late to use it in his poetry. His works are in the main about Welsh people, landscape and nature and they’re remarkably powerful. He wasn’t afraid to say what he thought and to criticise his country and fellow countrymen and women if he felt it was justified. Towards the end of his life he allowed some personal influence into his poems, and some of those written after the death of his wife, Mildred “Elsi” Eldridge, are remarkably moving.
The personal poems came later than this volume, where the verse is mainly concerned with Wales and its fate. “An Old Man” and “The Village” were two of my favourites, but I think the one I liked best, and will share with you here, is “Welsh Landscape” – my favourite in the book, I think.
So my first reading of the Penguin Modern Poets has been stimulating and rewarding. All of the poets have their strengths, though Thomas is obviously my favourite, and I’m looking forward to volume 2 very much.
Welsh Landscape by R.S. Thomas
To live in Wales is to be conscious
At dusk of the spilled blood.
That went into the making of the wild sky,
Dyeing the immaculate rivers
In all their courses.
It is to be aware,
Above the noisy tractor
And hum of the machine
Of strife in the strung woods,
Vibrant with sped arrows.
You cannot live in the present,
At least not in Wales.
There is the language for instance,
The soft consonants
Strange to the ear.
There are cries in the dark at night
As owls answer the moon,
And thick ambush of shadows,
Hushed at the fields’ corners.
There is no present in Wales,
And no future;
There is only the past,
Brittle with relics,
Wind-bitten towers and castles
With sham ghosts;
Mouldering quarries and mines;
And an impotent people,
Sick with inbreeding,
Worrying the carcase of an old song.