Description from Goodreads: ‘Poets like to elude their public, lead them a bit of a dance. They take them down untrodden paths, land them in unknown country where they have to ask for directions.’
In this personal anthology, Alan Bennett has chosen over a hundred poems by six well-loved poets, discussing the writers and their verse in his customary conversational style through anecdote, shrewd appraisal and spare but telling biographical detail. Speaking with candor about his own reactions to the work, Alan Bennett creates profound and witty portraits of Thomas Hardy, A. E. Housman, John Betjeman, W. H. Auden, Louis MacNeice, and Philip Larkin, all the more enjoyable for being in his own particular voice.
I don’t typically review that many nonfiction books, but I’m not opposed to it, so when I was approached to review a copy of this book, I readily accepted. I’d never read any of the poets, as poets (what little of Hardy I’ve encountered has been his fiction, not his poetry) so this book proved an excellent introduction.
But I don’t know that I would have picked these poets for an anthology, personally. I found most of them mordant and depressing (and a trifle crude, in Larkin’s case), and I prefer my poetry to be uplifting. If writing a poem is a positive thing, then why make it about something negative? Why take such pains to show that glory and truth and beauty are mixed up with horror and ordinariness and lies, and then leave us at that?
But in any case, Mr. Bennett seems to have done an excellent job of offering us the good and the bad in these poets’ collections, and he does try to leave us on a more hopeful and optimistic note before moving on to the next one (or finishing the book altogether).
So here’s a closer look at the book’s Narration, Content, Artwork, and Overall Response.
Narration: 4 out of 5. In this anthology, the author’s narration only crops up in the comments he puts in, which were delightful. He wasn’t distracting, but he did slip in witty lines, and his historical and biographical commentary added to reading the volume. I felt that, in Mr. Bennett, I had a companion who knew equally little about modern poetry as I did, but who did his best to enjoy them, anyways.
My only complaint, aside from wishing for a greater range for the author’s dry wit, was that the book could be a trifle repetitive. From what I can tell about the book, it was adapted from the programs for Poetry in Motion, a television show from the very early ’90s, and, at times, it felt very much like reading a transcript rather than a book. You could almost imagine Mr. Bennett taking time to discuss something, while the camera panned to show the countryside, a railway, factory, etc.
Content: Subjective. I don’t know enough about these poets to be able to determine if Mr. Bennett chose well from their body of works or not. I personally did not appreciate some of the poems he chose, but they may be so respective of their style that leaving them out would’ve been wrong, giving me a false impression of their tastes and viewpoints.
As it was, I found most of them balanced and tasteful, even if I disagreed with the poets’ feelings about life. As you read from poet to poet, you could see the way poetry changed, growing and adapting from generation to generation (and perhaps, in some ways, the changing nature of poetry shown in this volume seems to account for the modern perception of poetry as non-rhyming, depressing gibberish). 🙂
Artwork: Subjective. I’m not sure why the cover was chosen for this volume. The drawing remind me of chemistry diagrams, or Spirograph doodles, where you take a pen and went around in circles, letting a stencil guide you. If it was intentionally designed to resemble the former, I don’t see how poetry is like chemistry –combining certain things creating a reaction, maybe?–or how it’s like Spirograph–tracing a stencil and trusting that it will produce a work of art?–but it is eye-catching and colorful.
Overall Response: 4 out of 5. I think, personally, I prefer older, Romantic poets to modern ones. The feel tends to be more uplifting, a celebration of beauty and wonder rather than a clear-eyed look at the harsh realities and inconsistencies (and ugliness, even) of life, but I would recommend this volume nonetheless. Thanks to Mr. Bennett’s comments, the verses are approachable, even if they weren’t always intelligible or agreeable, and I felt I came away knowing at least a little bit about these men, their lives, and their characteristics when I was done.
Copyright 2015 Andrea Lundgren
Photo used by permission from Deanna Tiao, Online Marketing Intern, Yale University Press