In a flurry of post-Christmas reading, I made my way to the end of the volume 4 of the Penguin Modern Poets collections. Once more we have three male writers, and once again two I’d never heard of. So I approached with an open mind, and again I didn’t look into the poets till after reading their work – I think this is an approach I’ll stick to all the way through, although I suspect I will recognise more names as the series progresses.
So, the three poets concerned this time are David Holbrook (9 January 1923 – 11 August 2011), Christopher Middleton (10 June 1926 – 29 November 2015) and David Wevill (born 1935). Wevill is the first in the series so far who is still living, and I had heard of him previously in connection with Assia Wevill, his wife, who’s probably most notorious for her involvement in the lives of Ted Hughes and Sylvia Plath. Sadly, Middleton passed away at the end of last year, but no doubt as the poets get younger later in the series I may be encountering more living writers. Of the three, Holbrook seems to have been the most prolific, so let’s see what I make of them.
Beginning with Holbrook, I was quite taken with his verse; personal, accessible and with striking imagery, it’s exactly the kind of writing I like. As I mentioned when discussing volume 3, I’m finding I like directness in my poetry; something I can respond to instantly, and feel a link with. Holbrook’s poetry deals with the daily life, the struggles of family life, landscape and nature, and of the three writers featured here, he’s the one I’d like to read more of.
Second to be featured was Middleton. I must say I just didn’t gel with his writing at all. The poetry was just too elusive, too obscure, for me to relate to; and obscure isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Eliot, for example, can be obscure, but even if I don’t always quite get what he’s saying, the musicality and beauty of his language make reading his work rewarding and enjoyable. With Middleton, I felt I was hacking my way through a dense forest and not getting anywhere at all. Not someone I instantly responded to, then!
Last up was Wevill. His work sat somewhere in the middle of the two other poets – less accessible than Holbrook, but not so dense and obscure as Middleton. Some of his poetry was very beautiful and the imagery striking. I had to stop myself trying to read too much into the verse, knowing what I do about his life and wife, although as this book was published in 1963 it’s not likely that much of this fed into the poetry.
Interestingly, this is the first volume of the series where I felt no great influence of WW2. Instead, the concerns were either personal or abstract and there was a definite sense of moving on from the previous generation; Wevill in particular was too young to have taken part in the conflict.
Choosing a favourite is difficult from this volume, because there’s nothing really that leapt out at me. I’m coming to the conclusion that with poetry, much more so than prose, there is no middle ground. For me, I either love a poet’s work or am indifferent to it – it has to resonate, speak to me and have the instant *Wow* factor. Although I liked Holbrook’s verse best, it was in many ways the best of an indifferent bunch. His “Winter Sunday” opens with these lines:
So severe this black frost that it bent
The white blurred burden of asparagus,
Hooped the old docks and broke the thistle’s spent
Grey screws of spine and floss.
and that probably gives you enough of a flavour to know what his work is like.
Ever onward – the next volume contains the beats: Corso, Ferlinghetti and Ginsberg. It’s a *long* time since I read any of them, so it will be interesting to see what I make of them all these years on!