Book Review

By Scammell, William | The Independent (London, England), February 6, 1994 | Go to article overview
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Book Review

Scammell, William, The Independent (London, England)

"COMPANION" has rather gone the way of "bookman" and "man of letters", suggesting the dear, dead world of J B Priestley, or Wallace Arnold knee-deep in Edwardians at the Garrick. On the other hand, there

are Yeats's "cold companionable streams", a bracing element for the unweary, and it is on these that Ian Hamilton trains his binoculars, to identify the swans, geese and ducklings of 20th-century English-language poetry.

Editor, poet, reviewer, biographer and veteran of the poetry wars, he is better placed than most to conduct a survey of this kind. In his introduction, he notes that fashions come and go, and that he has tried to resist a merely parochial view of the near past. But he has also "been wary of the passage-of-time school of literary judgement. It isn't true that `if it's good, it will survive'."

The strength of this Companion lies in its comprehensiveness: 1,500 poets from all five continents, the majority British and American (550 each). This easily provides its raison d'etre and makes it an excellent reference tool. There are more whimsical statistics on offer too - 15 suicides, 27 nervous breakdowns, 15 alcoholics (snorts of disbelief all round?), 19 jailbirds, 14 who died in battle, three murdered, one executed. Contrary to legend, most lived to a healthy old age. Women (200) and black writers (100) make up one fifth of the whole. Conspiracy or fact? Discuss.

Some might see it as a weakness that there are no less than 237 contributors (myself among them), and since some critical evaluation was rightly stipulated, in addition to brief biographies and bibliographies, there's a fair amount to squabble about in the way of who says what about whom. Sometimes friends write about friends: Douglas Dunn on Liz Lochhead, for example, whereas Dunn himself gets a going-over from Martin Seymour-Smith (who has surely ventilated enough opinions to last us all a lifetime).

Larkin gets considerably more space than Hughes. There are rather grudging entries on Geoffrey Hill (Mark Wormald) and James Fenton (Alan Brownjohn).

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