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The Key

On discovering poetry anthologies

Notebook and key

Like most writers, I have hundreds of books in a small, personally curated library built up over four decades. Some I know well; others I have still to read. And yet I recall, among this sometimes-confusing abundance, one book that, coming along at the right time, means more to me than almost any other. This single volume, in a far less distracting pre-internet age, was a key — and a magical one at that.

The year was 1983. Scotland was in an economic depression. I had few prospects. I lived in a caravan. I hadn’t useful qualifications. They had not been ‘careerfully’ chosen, owing to a bureaucratic mix-up when I moved from England to Scotland aged thirteen and had to pick my O level subjects in five minutes in the headmaster’s office on my first day. There were no jobs for the likes of me, an unqualified, Catholic twenty-four-year-old in sectarian Ayrshire. Yet I was dull-wittedly heedless enough of my vulnerabilities to chance to feel rich, in the spring of that year. I was a young man discovering poetry. And I had a key.

The previous summer I had started to curb, quite deliberately, my obsession for nature photography. I had grown fiercely indignant that my ability there had been derailed by my non-existent bank balance. (In those film camera days, serious photography was an affluent person’s pastime.) I’d had to find something else to serve as my ‘creative life’ — though as a bluff, pragmatic youngster, I wouldn’t have used that phrase. In this transitional frame of mind I had come across the book, probably in Kilmarnock’s Dick Institute, from where I did most of my book borrowing.

Poetry 1900 to 1975, edited by George MacBeth in the Longman English series, had first appeared in 1979. This small-format anthology, with its black cover, white lettering, and incongruous red snow crystal on the cover, enthralled me. Psychologically, trying to describe what was happening – and aren’t these complex matters, taking place as they do in that realm of inner life which is the substance of all imaginative writing? – I had uncoupled the chains of my attachment to photography and its infuriating requirement for money, and was stepping into the shoogly skiff of poetry drifting I had no idea where. Yet I seemed powerless to resist. It was happening as surely as the dawn.

I was far then from the attitude of Robert Frost who, in an interview, when asked if poetry was a way of escaping life, shot back, ‘No, it’s a way of taking life by the throat.’ After the practical exigencies and biological precisions of nature photography, and trying to sell photographs, poetry seemed notoriously ungrounded. I’m not sure I trusted it. I didn’t even, at that stage, have any aspiration to write it. I only knew I found reading it peculiarly, increasingly fascinating. It evidently supplied something I needed. And I was astonished that this artform was ‘free’, at least financially. It was, in that way, profoundly democratic.

Poetry anthologies tend to be of two types. They either opt for an individual poem or two by a lot of poets, or substantial selections from fewer poets. Poetry 1900 to 1975 was the latter. It’s interesting to note how my impression of it has changed. ‘It covers,’ a blurb on the back announced, ‘all the major, and several important minor, poets of the period from the beginning of the twentieth century to the present day.’ Without turning this into an account of the sociopoetics of poetry anthologies, I read this now after thirty-five years of editing and writing and say, ‘All?’ The assumed centrality of its major poets meant that the geographical area wasn’t even included in the title. It wasn’t Mainly English Poets 1900 to 1975. Such things now leap out at the informed onlooker, but then, for the naïve reader I was, I didn’t notice. The partiality and assumption of centrality was an advantage. It simplified; I was simple. A prefatory note on the editor said that George MacBeth had been ‘born in Shotts, Scotland, in 1932.’ I found this geographical fact strangely endearing. I had been stuck once in Shotts, a post-industrial town in Scotland’s Central Belt, in a traffic jam in a heatwave one July day. I was a truculent fourteen-year-old in the back seat of that sweltering car returning from a highland holiday. An Orange Walk surrounded the closed windows with deafening pipe music and pounding lambegs. MacBeth had my sympathies. Yet here he was, a poet himself, editing this anthology.

The format was straightforward: a small, black and white photograph of each poet followed by a brief, personable biographical note full of MacBeth’s own touches: ‘his best work rises to a massive seriousness’ (Edwin Muir); Philip Larkin was ‘by general consent’ (how one laughs at that now, given this poet’s plummeted posthumous reputation), ‘one of the two most important poets – with Ted Hughes – to appear since the war’; ‘her name and work have already taken on the quality of a legend’ (Sylvia Plath, italics mine); ‘critics’ – on Thomas Hardy’s resurgent standing – ‘see the power of his verse more and more clearly.’ The ‘great American poet Robert Lowell’ – considered less ‘great’ these forty years later – had said Ted Hughes’s animal poems were ‘like a thunderbolt.’ Electrifying stuff — especially after the dry dissections of Hughes’s work in my high school English class several years before. Following each author photograph and biography were the poems selected, the selections rounded off with a reader-friendly note for each poem. Twenty-five poets received this treatment. Hardy’s work opened the volume. Seamus Heaney’s closed it. Only two women: Stevie Smith and Sylvia Plath. Everyone white.

The photographs, too, fascinated me. They put a human face to this recondite activity. There was the (youngish) Ted Hughes, leather-jacketed, handsome, intent and peremptory as a hawk; Thom Gunn, smoking a roll-up, eyes narrowed to slits; Larkin, suited, unsmiling and admonitory, in a white silk tie, antique books in bookcases behind him; R. S. Thomas, dufflecoated, leaning forward with his hands grasping the top of a drystone dyke, with a small, wooden Welsh hill chapel in the background; Wilfred Owen, solemn yet faintly, enigmatically smiling, standing side-on, in full army uniform, gloved hands on the handle of a walking stick; a jowly T. S. Eliot, white handkerchief in his suit pocket, looking drily, profoundly, Prufrockly disenchanted.

And the poems! MacBeth’s ‘hit-rate’ was fantastically high; every poem had earned its place. It was easy even for uninformed me to understand his choices. None of them would be considered ‘experimental’ by today’s standards. Mainly they were beautifully clear — Eliot’s and Dylan Thomas’s being the most ‘difficult’. Millions of my own words later, I leaf through the book’s pages and experience some of the live frisson with which I first read it. In my nature photography, which was often macro, I was trying to portray order in chaos. These poems weren’t so different, except they used words and the astounding technical skill – let there be no doubt of the latter – the poets harnessed. But photographs were two-dimensional. Poems added time, via rhythm and metre. Here was D. H. Lawrence asking ‘why were we crucified into sex?’ in one of his famous free-verse pieces about tortoise courtship; the sonorous grief of Owen’s First World War contrasted starkly with the clinical clarities of Keith Douglas, his Second World War equivalent. It was all thrilling and much of it, to use a favourite word of MacBeth’s, ‘magnificent’. And I felt, that spring, the shock of life-changing discovery.

We can never separate the reading of a memorable book from the circumstances of our reading. It was April and May in Ayrshire. Lyrical light entered my caravan with a soft, new freshness. Despite the atrocities of twentieth-century history the world around me felt prelapsarian. The beeches puffed out crowns of gauzy, lime new leaves all across the county. Songbirds laid their variously patterned eggs in nests in their hundreds. Peewits – lapwings – display-flighted and swooped down onto the newly seeded barley fields at Fairliecrevoch, across the Annick Water. April was far from being the cruellest month to a caravan dweller. The world was coming alive as if it were the outward reflection of my inner self.

And in that book’s pages were the poets, all peculiarly engaged in this odd activity, making marks on paper. I could be, I realised gradually, one of them too, there – in however modest a way – with the R. S. Thomases, the Hardys, the Hugheses. I lived in a caravan but my poems could, if I was lucky, to paraphrase Tennyson, occupy ‘the palace of art’. All I needed was pen, paper, time, interest and whatever skill I could develop. Later I would follow up and explore all the wildflowered lanes of other voices, away from those tremendous thoroughfares. But I knew none of them then. Makers of poetry anthologies have a great responsibility to the so-called ‘common’ reader – and young, aspirant poets – not to fill their pages with puzzling mediocrity and demean thereby this major art. I still feel a strangely personal gratitude to George MacBeth, the editor of this one. After all, he, too, had experienced Shotts, where I had been imprisoned once for a seething hour in the back of a car among the bangs, shrillings and intimidating pomp of an Orange Parade.

Gerry Cambridge’s sixth collection, The Light Acknowledgers & Other Poems, was published by HappenStance Press in 2019. In 1995 he founded The Dark Horse, internationally known and Scotland’s leading journal of poetry and criticism, which he still edits today.

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