The sharp-eyed amongst you will have notice that once again I have got behind on my reading of the Penguin Modern Poets series. I plead in my defence that life has been getting in the way and also there have been a significant number of review books lately…. Be that as it may, I finally had a little gap recently in which to pick up volume 6 and so here are my thoughts on it.
The three poets in this volume are Jack Clemo, Edward Lucie-Smith and George MacBeth. The former is a writer completely new to me; I’ve heard of the second; and I’m pretty sure I read the third at school. However, as that was a long, long time ago, I came to this book with no preconceptions at all, which is what I’ve been doing with many of these volumes, and it’s been stimulating to read the poems ‘cold’.
First up was Jack Clemo (11 March 1916 – 25 July 1994). A Cornish poet inspired by the landscape of his country and by a strong religious belief inherited from his mother, he suffered from early loss of sight and hearing. I have to be very honest here and say I didn’t like his work at all. In fact, he’s probably the poet I’ve liked least of all I’ve read in this series so far. His poetry is dense and bleak, shot through with visions of clayey landscape and religious imagery to which I found it difficult to relate. There was little I could get a handle on, and in fact many of the motifs seemed to be repeated over and over again in a way that completely lost my interest. So I think Clemo’s poetry is definitely not for me, and I moved on swiftly to the next in the book.
It’s possible I might have read Edward Lucie-Smith (born 27 February 1933) at school, as we studied a *lot* of poetry when I was in Grammar School – but as my reaction to him this time wasn’t particularly positive, I imagine I would have forgotten him fairly quickly. The poems are almost chronological, drawing from his early childhood in the tropics, through what are presumably school and college days with the attendant sports, to later poems which often drawn on artistic inspiration. I didn’t warm to these at all and once again moved on in hope!
And the final poet, the Scottish George MacBeth (19 January 1932 – 16 February 1992), was one I enjoyed much, much more. His poems are memorable and quite dark – drawing on imagery of concentration camps, imprisonment and trials. I can’t recall which of his works we studied at school, but with the kind of education we were having, we did look quite deeply at this kind of literature, still being within fairly recent memory of WW2 and all its horrors. Interestingly, the poet provided a short coda at the end of the book in the form of notes to his poems, which was really interesting, clarifying his subject matter – and I think this is something that certainly the more dense poems of any writer could do with, as so often the subject and meaning can be obscure and the reader can get lost trying to untangle them!
I think it’s worth reminding myself at this point that the verse featured in these books isn’t necessarily representative of each poet’s work as a whole; in many cases they continued writing for a long time after publication of these volumes. However, had I encountered this book in my youth I think it might rather have put me off poetry a little… So choosing a favourite won’t be easy. The poem that spoke to me most was probably the chilling “Report to the Director”, in which a functionary reports on the efficiency of a centre for torture – it could be a concentration camp or a more modern site, that’s not made clear. The language is matter-of-fact, showing how the most horrible things can become ordinary – Hannah Arendt’s “The Banality of Evil”, maybe? I won’t quote it all here, but I’d recommend searching it out if you can.
So, not the most satisfying of Penguin Modern Poets collections this time. Hopefully, the next one will be a bit more enjoyable and stimulating…