The Oxford Companion to Twentieth-Century Poetry in English

By Ian Hamilton | Go to book overview

Introduction

This Companion is offered both as a reference work and as a history, a map of modern poetry in English. It may be thought that the territory has already been well mapped, in anthologies and textbooks, but I can think of no other single- volume publication that runs from 1900 to the present day and covers topics, movements, magazines, and genres as well as individual poets, dead and alive.

Over the five years that I have worked on the Companion I have more than once paused to remind myself how speedily such maps can change, how fashions rise and dive. Imagine a similar compilation put together in, say, 1950. Dylan Thomas would have had more space than he gets here, and so too would Nicholas Moore, Karl Shapiro, Sidney Keyes, and other big-name figures of that time. Surrealism would have bulked larger, and there would have been a more tender deference to periodicals like Poetry Quarterly and Poetry London. The precise contours would of course have depended on who had done the mapping, but the general shape would surely have reflected the epoch's taste for the florid and religiose, its lack of any real interest in technique, its suspicion that the political poets of the 1930s had somewhat let the side down, and so on.

Ten years later, the map would have changed again, with Auden and Empson restored to favour. We would note a new respect for the output of the American academies and for those writers of the 1940s who had kept their wits about them and not turned to God, or Jung. Overall, there would have been more braininess than ecstasy, more common sense than communal subconscious. In covering these bygone decades, I have tried to keep in mind some notion of how things must have seemed then, and to balance this against what I take to be history's subsequent or current valuation. At the same time, I have been wary of the passage- of-time school of literary judgement. It isn't true that 'if it's good, it will survive'; someone, somewhere has to keep saying that it's good--or if not good, exactly, then at least worthy of a small piece of the historical jigsaw, the map. There are poets discussed in this Companion who would probably not get into any 'up-to- date' anthology of modern verse. Their inclusion, though, should not be viewed as merely archivistic. Who knows how things will look in ten years' time?

Perhaps the first thing to be confessed of this 1994 Companion is that it comes from England (or Britain: ' England', in this introduction, should be taken to mean the United Kingdom as a whole). Forty years ago this would not have seemed like much of a confession; after all, the book is meant to be about poetry in English, is it not? Indeed, when I imagined a pre-1960 version of it, I automatically did the imagining in terms of poetry in England, with only parenthetical

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