A Diverse Century of Poetry beginning and ending in Strife

This is my review of The 20th Century in Poetry by Michael Hulse,Simon Rae.

The fact that these 400 pieces form only a fraction of those written in the C20 is a salutary reminder of the richness of this century for poetry. The dramatic changes of this period probably make the poetry more diverse than for any previous century: not just in the themes and issues covered, but also in the progression from poetry that must rhyme and scan with metre, to the blank verse which had become the norm post World War 2.

The poems are presented in the order of first publication, starting in 1900 with Hardy’s “Darkling Thrush” in which he is struck by the incongruous beauty of the bird’s song in a bleak landscape which forms a metaphor for the Boer War – which he subtly does not mention specifically. The year 2000 is marked at the end with Kit Wright’s poem “Hoping it Might be So” which hopes for a utopian world without evil, hinting at the holocaust with the line “For at least six million reasons or else no reason”. The last poem is Jeffrey Harrison’s “Pale Blue City” which provides a beautiful description of New York seen from a plane during takeoff, with the paired towers of the Trade Center (deliberate US spelling!) still standing and the poignant wish “I want it all to stay like this”.

Some poems seem included since they form part of a standard “canon” like both John Masefield’s “Sea-Fever”, and his “Cargoes”, William Owen’s “Dulce et Decorum est” , or Dylan Thomas’s “Do not go gentle into that good night”. On this basis, of course, we are all likely to regret the omission of some favourite poems!

The choice of lesser known works is inevitably arbitrary, reflecting the subjective personal preferences of the editors Michael Hulse and Simon Rae. Poems included share the common factor of describing some event, or topical situation for each year of the century. Many of the later poems selected seemed fairly unremarkable to me, or a bit too laboured, but I made some discoveries to note, such as “Sportsmen” by Keith Douglas, the World War 2 poem, half admiring and half despairing over the misplaced courage of men who persist in going off to war as if it were a game. It’s also good to be reminded of the power of an epic-style poem like “Flannan Isle”, commemorating the unexplained disappearance of three lighthouse keepers in the Outer Hebrides.

The need to reflect real events, rather than choose poems which speak to the reader, may have been a straitjacket. Yet, overall, it is an interesting anthology to explore, very well-indexed with brief biographical notes on the poets.

⭐⭐⭐⭐ 4 Stars

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