In the race for poetic immortality, a few get to enter the Pantheon. Others seem destined for the library store of history…

Against Oblivion is a fascinating and eye-opening book. Written by Ian Hamilton, a British poet, biographer and critic, it was his final (posthumously published) work, dating from 2002. It consists of a series of potted biographies-cum-short critical appraisals of 45 poets who were active and published in the twentieth century. According to Hamilton’s introduction, the book’s genesis came when he was approached to write a modern version of Samuel Johnson’s Lives of the Poets. Thinking this a decent idea, if a little gimmicky, Hamilton says that he duly went back to Johnson’s book to get some ideas and inspiration. However, of the sixteenth and seventeenth century poets ‘immortalised’ by Johnson,  Hamilton says there were a number he’d never heard of at all, and of those names he recognised there were not many he had read in great depth.

This set Hamilton’s mind off in a different direction, and it seems that he was soon pondering which of the twentieth century poets he had planned to include would still be read in decades and centuries to come.  If Johnson’s book was any indication, it seemed that very few would survive. Hence the approach of  Against Oblivion as it appeared in its final form, which outlines the strengths and weaknesses of the poets put forward. For good measure,  a representative poem or two or three is printed at the end of each section. The resulting book is interesting, provocative and enlightening.  What Hamilton doesn’t do (though it is implied in a few instances) is make himself a complete hostage to fortune by coming out and explicitly saying who he thinks will be for posterity’s chop and who will survive to be read in ages to come. While he gives some hints about who he’d back to survive, the odds for most of them are not probably good since this seems to be just the way these things go.  As he states in the introduction, “it does seem a fair bet than in, say, one hundred years from now, about half of the poets I have chosen […] will have become lost to the general view”.

If you are interested in poetry in whatever capacity, I would highly recommend you take a look through this book if you come across a copy. It’s not perfect, but it is supremely good at getting you thinking, and some of Hamilton’s judgements are very sound indeed. He was a very good writer, capable of a memorable turn of phrase. In the months to come I think I may take a closer look at some of the poets mentioned in the book, and see if I agree with Hamilton in his judgements.

It remains to be seen what role the internet may have in terms of keeping alive the names and works of poets otherwise destined for obscurity and ultimate oblivion. In a sense the internet acts as a place where anything is available at any time. To go back to Samuel Johnson’s lives of the poets for instance, had you read that twenty years ago and come away with a sudden urge to take a look at some of the works of, for example, Thomas Tickell, Mark Akenside or Thomas Sprat, it might not have been easy. Chances are most public libraries would not have the works of these men in store. University libraries would perhaps have been a better bet, but even then there’d have been no guarantee you could have tracked their works down easily. With the internet, however, suddenly almost everything is to hand. It doesn’t mean forgotten poets will be widely read again, but it means that things otherwise forgotten now have far more potential to be recalled at some future point.

Anyway, here’s the list of poets Hamilton includes in Against Oblivion.  For the record, there are 8 poets on it I’ve never heard of. There are 7 I’ve heard of but never read.  There are 12 whose work I’d say I know pretty well (and extremely well in a few cases). The rest I know and have read a few poems by over the years.

(Note: the list does not include Yeats, Hardy, Eliot or Auden. Hamilton does not write about them in his book since he states with some certainty that enough has already been done to establish their names in the canon for posterity. Do you agree?)

Rudyard Kipling

Charlotte Mew

Robert Frost

Edward Thomas

Wallace Stevens

William Carlos Williams

DH Lawrence

Ezra Pound

Hilda Doolittle (HD)

Marianne Moore

Robinson Jeffers

Rupert Brooke

Conrad Aiken

Edna St Vincent Millay

Hugh MacDiarmid

Wilfred Owen

EE Cummings

Robert Graves

Hart Crane

Allen Tate

Stevie Smith

Norman Cameron

William Empson

John Betjeman

Louis MacNiece

Theodore Roethke

Stephen Spender

Elizabeth Bishop

Roy Fuller

RS Thomas

Randall Jarrell

Weldon Kees

Henry Reed

John Berryman

Dylan Thomas

Alun Lewis

Robert Lowell

Keith Douglas

Philip Larkin

Allen Ginsberg

James Merrill

James Wright

Gregory Corso

Ted Hughes

Sylvia Plath

 

Who do you think will be forgotten in another hundred years? Who do you think will survive? And is there any twentieth century poet not in Hamilton’s list who you think stands an equal chance against oblivion? Feel free to leave a comment.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Ted Simon’s Triumph. A Review of “Jupiter’s Travels” by Ted Simon

Jupiter’s Travels, about Ted Simon’s round the world motorbike journey over four years in the early-mid 70’s, is a justly famous and widely-read book.

As Simon has discovered over the years (documented in, among other places, the opening pages of his follow up book from the early 2000’s, Dreaming of Jupiter) the original book not only proved to be very popular among armchair travellers, but also inspired scores of people to get out of the house, get on their bikes and see the world for themselves. I count myself through circumstances as very much in the former armchair category at present, but who knows? I’m still younger than Simon was when he made his first journey (he was in the his early 40’s) and I’ve always fancied owning a Triumph. The idea of seeing more of the world has always appealed. Mind you, I bet the wife and kids would have a lot to say about it if I suddenly upped sticks and took four years to go around the world like Simon did.

Sponsored by the Sunday Times and with no dependents to keep him at home, Simon set off from England in an uncertain frame of mind, unsure as to whether he was doing the right thing or was just plain mad. These moments of doubt and self questioning are beautifully captured in the book’s opening, along with the more practical parts, which are no less interesting,  about how he learned to ride a motorbike (he was a total novice rider when the idea for the journey occurred to him) and from there started gathering the equipment together for his marathon trek.

His journey through Europe and down through Italy is dealt with in relatively few pages, and it’s when he hits Africa that the prose starts to flow and the vista well and truly opens up. I have read Jupiter’s Travels twice before, and every time I have been utterly captivated by Simon’s descriptions of his passage through that Continent. This is a great book overall, but for me I think it reaches its peak early on. Of particular interest are his descriptions of trying to negotiate roads which aren’t really roads at all, and at times seem like they’d struggle to deserve the description of dirt track. It’s at times like these I got the clearest sense of what a stupendous undertaking this journey (and all others like this) was and is. It really was Simon and his Triumph Tiger out on their own, against the world. If either of them failed then, at certain times in certain places such as out in the desert, it really would have been the end of both of them.

Say what you like about the supposed shortcomings of British workmanship, but that stalwart Triumph is one of the stars of this book. Simon’s relationship with it is clearly one based on respect, although as is to be expected the book is peppered with scenes in garages or stuck on the roadside while various running repairs or even full-scale overhauls are performed. But the bike not only survived but served with distinction, and currently resides in the Coventry Transport Museum (see here for more info).

A curious thing has happened every time I have read this book. After the wonderful sense of freedom and momentum built up when reading of his successful crossing of Africa, the tone changes the moment after crossing the Atlantic that Simon lands in Fortaleza, Brazil. It’s not that the writing flags, but because of the almost total contrast with what has gone before, the narrative does hit a sticky patch of sorts for the simple reason that it was while in Brazil (then under military rule) that Simon was held for a time in police custody. He describes his sense at the time of how much like touch-and-go it seemed as to whether he’d ever be released or not. In the end he made it out, to enjoy a spell of r and r in Rio which is described in detail, after which his way though the rest of Brazil and Argentina is glossed over somewhat. The narrative then goes on to focus in detail on his journey back up the central and eastern parts of South America through the Andes, much of which he made in the company of two Frenchmen who had their own four-wheeled transport.

Central America and then the USA follow, where Simon made a long stop at a kind of commune in Northern California. Once in Australia we get some of the most interesting and perceptive descriptions of people. Simon makes no bones of the fact that he arrived Down Under with a head full of preconceptions and stereotypes about the kind of folk he’d find there, but these are largely dispelled by the interesting assortment of people he encountered, and there are some keenly observed character sketches of the truckers among whom he spent an enforced spell while waiting for the floodwaters of swollen rivers to subside while heading up the East Coast.

After Australia comes the far east, and the centrepiece of this section of Jupiter’s Travels are his travels in India, again a time of fateful encounters and much spiritual rumination about his own nature, and the nature of his journey. One thing that struck me when I first read this book more than ten years ago, and which still strikes me when I read it, is that it could be some time yet before the journey he made overland from Pakistan back into Turkey can be made so relatively safely again. Of course there are ways and means even today, but in some ways the World was a more certain place back then.

Packed full of insight, colourful characters, a sense of wonder at the vastness of the world and a general joie de vivre, I highly recommend Jupiter’s Travels. You don’t have to be a member of the Triumph Owners’ Club or a long distance motorbiker to enjoy it, but be warned: reading the book could well turn you into either one or the other, and possibly both.