There are many ways of documenting the 20th century. This book tries to capture the century through its poetry. The century threw up new moods and new lifestyles and most, if not all, of them were reflected in what the poets wrote. The selection is, of course, personal which is as it should be but Peter Forbes has a sensitive ear and most lovers of poetry will discover new gems here.
In English poetry, the presiding spirits of this collection are Auden and MacNeice. Forbes is obviously enamoured by Auden: “No other poet was so good on so many of the key themes of the century.” MacNeice articulated the urbane speaking voice which captured unforgettably the sights and sounds of modern life: “The blue smoke rising and the brown lace sinking/ In the empty glass of stout.” One could argue, that since Eliot’s “Preludes” (“The winter evening settles down/ With smell of steaks in passageways.”) this has been the voice of modern poetry as it tried to represent the experiences of everyday life in verse.
The surprises in this book come often from the non-English poets or even the American ones. Osip Mandelstam’s “The Stalin Epigram”, which led to his arrest and exile is well-known but not included in anthologies as often as it should be. Carolyn Kizer’s “Twelve O’Clock”, written on the anniversary of Hiroshima, “we thought we heard/ The awful cry of God.” The subsequent despair came through in Lawrence Ferlinghetti’s “Sometime during eternity” (“And everybody after that/ is always making models/ of this Tree/ with Him hung up/ and always crooning His name/ and calling Him to come down’’). The loss of faith and innocence led to emptiness and alienation. Auden again, “The stars are not wanted now; put out every one,/ Pack up the moon and dismantle the sun,/ Pour away the ocean and sweep up the wood;/ For nothing now can ever come to any good.”
Defiance and hope lay just beyond despair. Soon young men and women, in the immortal words of Joni Mitchell, were eager to protest against “the bombers riding shotgun in the sky.” They dreamed that the bombers “were turning into butterflies.” It was the time of man and life was for learning. The promise of peace and liberation proved elusive but the learning led to greater awareness about the environment and about the society. Forbes brings such poems into his collection which also shows a remarkable sensitivity about the responses of poets to developments in science, technology and media.
Love and human relationships were the century’s perennial themes. The section on the theme leads off with MacNeice’s “Time was away and she was here/ And life no longer what it was,/ The bell was silent in the air/ And all the room one glow because/ Time was away and she was here.”
What does one choose as the century’s epitaph' Forbes votes for Donald Davie’s “Remembering the Thirties” (“A neutral tone is nowadays preferred./ And yet it may be better, if we must,/ To praise a stance impressive and absurd/ Than not to see the hero for the dust.”). No reader of this volume can remain neutral to poetry.