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.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

William Burroughs’s most entertaining book? A review of Letters 1945-59.

The letters in this book- written mostly to Allen Ginsberg with some to other notable recipients like Jack Kerouac and Brion Gysin scattered among them- are amongst some of the most entertaining and well written by any writer that I’ve come across.

They cover a key period in Burroughs’s life, commencing in the mid 40s when he was trying to make a go of being a family man and a farmer. Odd to think of this latter day scourge of authority and conservatism worrying about how much his carrot and cotton crops will fetch, but he did all the same. Then comes the move to Mexico, the fatal ‘William Tell routine’ gone wrong when he shot his wife Joan, and the years of addiction and wandering, first through South America, and then to the Continent and North Africa.  All of this is fully documented here, at length and in fascinating detail.

If you want to learn more about what made Burroughs the man and the writer he was, and how his later world view developed, I think a lot of the answers are in these letters. Certainly without the letters I don’t think he could have been the writer he was. In fact on a very real level I don’t think he would have progressed as a writer at all without these letters as the initial spur to get his thoughts out and onto the page. They were his lifeline- at one stage he comments on how much he needs an audience, and for a long time Ginsberg and Kerouac fulfilled this role- at a time when he was effectively serving his writing apprenticeship, looking for things to write and still without an audience. The letters effectively kept him going and gave him a chance to develop. Also, we see his world view change and mature and by the end of this book we’ve seen him come to terms with his status as an outsider.

From would-be farmer worrying about how much his crops will yield, to a fully-fledged avant-garde artist in 15 years is pretty good going, Along the way there’s a lot of hardship, a lot of moaning about his lot and above all some genuinely funny passages. You can gain a lot from reading these letters in their own right, and if you’ve always been left cold by Burroughs or put off him, they will help you understand a lot more about why he wrote as he did and where his particular sardonic take on the world came from.

In a similar vein, the William Burroughs ‘reader’ called Word Virus is well worth a look.

In effect, this is Burroughs for slackers and lazy readers like me. I have had my copy for a fair while now, and I still regularly dip into it. While I think he’s a great writer, I have to admit that most of his work after Naked Lunch is a bit of a trial to get through. For example, whole novels written via the cut-up method are just too much for me to wade through, I’m afraid, even though I will readily admit that it can be a really exciting and often illuminating way of writing.

This is why this anthology is so valuable, in that it gives you tasters of everything of note he ever published. There is some stunning work in here, including samples of the very readable 1950s letters mentioned above, excerpts from early works like Junky and Queer, and also excerpts from Naked Lunch. There are also some stand alone gems collected in the book, like the chilling “Last Words” and also “Remembering Jack Kerouac”, a heartfelt and wise memoir of his friend and colleague, which manages to reveal a great deal about Burroughs himself, as well as his whole psychological approach to writing.

An extra bonus the extended biographical notes that link each section. These not only explain a lot of the work and put it into context, but they also fill you in on the key points of this extraordinary man’s extraordinary writing life.

This is perhaps all the Burroughs you will ever need, at least until you pluck up courage to get to grips with the individual texts in their entirety.

 

 

Poem for the day: Gary Snyder “Changing Diapers”

gary snyder

The great Gary Snyder: Never a man to be afraid of kicking up (or even picking up) a stink.

Gary Snyder’s a poet that I don’t read enough of, but I really ought to. His work can be serious, since it covers a lot of weighty and complex issues (for instance he was in the vanguard of writers who were taking up themes of environmental concern). However, I’ve always found the dominant tone in his writing to be a good humoured openness, which allows him to convey the significance of everything from the wonders of nature to more domestic joys. Here’s  good example which I picked at random today. It’s called “Changing Diapers” (or ‘nappies’ where I come from).

What I like most in this poem is that it deals with an everyday domestic occurrence in tender language. In so doing this allows him to subtly convey his underlying serious point about how you define being a man.

He knows that if you want to make a convert, you’ve got to make them laugh and smile first.

Changing Diapers

How intelligent he looks!

on his back

both feet caught in my hand

his glance set sideways,

on a giant poster of Geronimo

with a Sharp’s repeating rifle on his knee.

I open, wipe, he doesn’t even notice

nor do I.

Baby legs and knees

toes like little peas

little wrinkles, good-to-eat,

eyes bright, shiny ears,

chest swelling drawing air,

No trouble, friend,

you and me                and Geronimo

are men.