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Penguin Modern Poets 8 – Edwin Brock, Geoffrey Hill and Stevie Smith

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As I’m back in the groove of reading the Penguin Modern Poets series, I didn’t want to leave it too long before getting on to the next one, book 8 – and the added draw here was that it contained the first woman poet included in the series, who is also a poet I’ve read! As usual, I didn’t read up about the writers in advance, so all I had as I started reading was fuzzy memories of reading Smith back in my teens and twenties – well, or so I thought…

Edwin Brock (19 October 1927 – 7 September 1997)

Brock was a British poet who published ten volumes of poetry during his lifetime, and his work spoke to me instantly. His verse ranges across the personal political, and explores not only the complexities of personal relationships but also the changing shape of the world in which he was living. The works are drawn from a number of collections and also magazines, and often reflect the 1960s and 1970s; Brock, like a number of other poets I’ve read, was I sense too old to really embrace the swinging era, and so often observes it in a slightly puzzled way.

However, one poem really smacked me in the face as I read it: “5 Ways to Kill a Man” is a powerful and chilling piece of work which will stay with me. And then I got to the end of the Brock section and that last poem caused a lightbulb moment: it’s called “Song of the Battery Hen” and I’ve known it since my teens (and in fact typed it out in my younger years and had it displayed on my pinboard). I saw it at the time as a cry against battery farming and cruelty to animals; however, I read more into it now, with it suggesting state and political controls, and how adaptable human beings are to inhuman living conditions…

So I guess it isn’t surprising I responded so strongly to Brock’s verse, as I had actually read some before! Interestingly, when I looked him up after finishing the book, Wikipedia reveals that “5 Ways…” and “Song…” have been heavily used in anthologies. I can understand why – they’re stunning pieces of writing and I’m glad to have re-encountered Brock’s work.

Geoffrey Hill (18 June 1932 – 30 June 2016)

Hill is a poet who is *definitely* new to me, and the poor man had the misfortune to appear in this book immediately after a poet who very much affected me. However, that’s not to say his work isn’t good – it just didn’t grab me quite so strongly. His verse was a little more formal, a little more allusive, a little more full of references which needed following up than Brock and so therefore less immediate. It’s probably poetry which requires a bit more work than just a casual read, and I did notice that his work has been described as ‘difficult’. It’s his right, of course, to be as difficult as he likes with his writing, but I feel that there’s a risk of losing the casual reader.

Despite my reservations, I read that Hill was “considered to be among the most distinguished poets of his generation and was called the ‘greatest living poet in the English language‘.” That’s quite a claim, and perhaps I need to bear in mind that I’m seeing a snapshot at a particular point in time of these writers; Hill most probably wrote a lot more *after* this collection was published which might give me a different view. Nevertheless, poetry *is* a personal thing, and I shall continue to like what I like! 😀

Stevie Smith (20 September 1902 – 7 March 1971)

Stevie Smith (Akshay Nagaraju B, CC BY-SA 4.0 <https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0&gt;, via Wikimedia Commons)

Does the wonderful Stevie Smith need any introduction? She was a remarkable and individual person, writing fiction and poetry, and memorable portrayed by Glenda Jackson on film (though I *did* once know someone who had known Stevie in real life, and he said the film was nothing like her….) Anyway – the selection here includes favourites like “Fafnir and the Knights”, “Night-time in the Cemetery” and, of course, “Not Waving But Drowning”.

Her voice flies away on the midnight wind,
But would she be happier if she were within?
She is happier far where the night-winds fall
And there are no doors and no windows at all.
(from “The Wanderer”)

Smith’s quirky and witty verse is a delight, and she’s not afraid to look at the darker side of things; there are hidden depths in her seemingly simple works and “Not Waving…” is I feel quite profound. I’ve had a go at re-reading Smith’s fiction in recent years, and did stall a little; I think I might have to be in the right mood for it. But her poetry is always a joy to revisit, and her appearance here very welcome!

***

PMP8 was a really enjoyable collection; one of my favourite so far, though it *did* set me wondering about how the compilers decided which three poets to feature in each collection. In many ways, this seemed an odd choice of poets to put together; and certainly with some of the others there seems to be a kind of cohesion, e.g. with the Beat volume and Mersey Sound volume both having poets coming from a similar angle or location. Brock, Hill and Smith, although all fine poets in their own right, seem a slightly mismatched trio..

Putting that aside, though, I’m happy to have read this particular collection; and the next one features another woman poet plus I think I have read two of the authors before – so that should be interesting! 😀

 

Exploring my Library – the Viragos!

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I thought it was about time I shared a few more pictures of my very lovely library of books and this time I’ve decided on taking a look at my fairly extensive Virago collection! These have had to be photographed on the shelves and the picture quality isn’t going to be that brilliant as they were taken at a bit of an awkward angle and the lighting is not that great – so apologies for any fuzziness!

shelves-middle

As you can see, the Viragos *do* take up quite a lot of space in my library – spreading over several shelves and double stacked. And that’s after I had a little bit of a cull!

shelves-left

When I last had a bit of a tidy, I put all the books neatly in alphabetical order. That’s rather gone by-the-by thanks to the books that have come in since. And as you can see, the occasional non-Virago has slipped in when I had the book in a different edition or it’s a Virago author.

shelves-rights

More books from the right of the shelves – again plenty of overflow where new volumes have arrived, and all double stacked.

shelves-west-and-whartonThere are quite a few titles by Rebecca West and Edith Wharton, two wonderful and prolific writers. Needless to say, I’ve not read as many of these as I’d like to!

more-west-and-comps

The Wests have overflowed onto another shelf, where they’re joined by some Virago compilations.

taylorsAnd behind the Wests are some Rosamond Lehmanns and all my Elizabeth Taylors. I rather wish I had enough space to have all my books shelved in single rows because you do tend to forget what you have when it’s tucked behind other books.

I first started reading the Virago titles when the Modern Classics range began to take off in the late 1970s and possibly the first one I owned was Antonia White’s “Frost in May”, the very first VMC. Picking favourites is hard, but some of the earliest ones I read were these Steve Smiths:

smith

I loved these to bits but I haven’t read them for so long – the beautiful covers seem to really capture what’s best and most striking about VMC jacket design and I do wish they were still produced like this.

litvinov

Some more recent favourites are these books by Ivy Litvinov, a fascinating woman. Born in England, she married an exiled Russian revolutionary who ended up as a prominent Soviet diplomat. This collection of short stories and crime novel are marvellous!

peepshowAnd finally one of my favourite Viragos, a book that I read fairly recently when I started to rediscover the imprint after a bit of a gap – F. Tennyson Jesse’s “A Pin to see the Peepshow”. A fictionalised retelling of the Thompson/Bywaters murder case, it’s a wonderfully written piece of fiction which packs a huge emotional punch and brilliantly evokes the time and place it’s set in. If for nothing else than bringing back into to print this and other wonderful women’s writing, Virago would deserve a place in history. I’ve no doubt I shall always read Viragos and I hope you’ve enjoyed sharing some of my collection!

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