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Poetry - Poets

Notes on some poets whose work I'm familiar with. OK, just three so far, but it's a start. In some cases it's several years since I read them much, so apologies if quotations are thin on the ground.

I doubt if there are any poets whose entire opera (oo, get me) I've read. Therefore, there aren't reviews here of individual collections. However, there are recommendations of volumes that I know contain at least some of the writers' best work.

W H Auden
Philip  Larkin
R S Thomas

W H Auden

If I could only take one poetry book with me to a desert island, it might well be Auden's Collected Poems. This is not because he is, in a demonstrable technical sense, superior to the dozen or so other contenders for the accolade of Greatest British Poet; but because his particular voice is one that has spoken to me in a way that, however equivocally, I have always found moving and reassuring.

What I admire above all in Auden's poetry is its grandeur. Without being pompous or bombastic, it evokes human doings, at both the historical and the personal level, as contingent, insignificant, or misguided, when viewed under the aspect of eternity. Auden loved maps - to imagine the world from above - and there is always a sense in his work of a mind looking down upon human activity with some combination of compassion, sadness, disappointment, warmth and fascination. It is a mind that accepts the transience of all experience, good and bad, without being disengaged from that experience; that is wise to human folly and disappointment without feeling itself aloof from them. It's no surprise that, in mid-life, Auden reverted to his childhood Christianity, cultivating a faith that was never dogmatic or life-denying, but that simply reflected his commitment to the idea of transcendent truth, and a universe whose ultimate tendency is towards the moral.

Auden's poetry is not always easy to understand: he is always saying more than he seems to be saying, and you need to read a fair bit of him before you start to grasp the subtle, strange and elusive mind that lies behind the words. (In this respect, his poetry reminds me of Beethoven's music, to which, for me at least, a fair bit of exposure was required before it "clicked".) In addition, much of his writing has personal and private significance with which the reader may not immediately identify: railway machinery and limestone landscapes, for example, hardly fall into the category of universal archetypal symbols, though they clearly had deep, almost dreamlike, significance for Auden himself. For this reason, one understands the argument, proferred by the critic Martin Seymour-Smith, that Auden's work is meretricious, beguiling with its evocativeness rather than with actual meaning. In the last analysis, I don't think this is a fair judgment, applicable as it is to the odd line of Auden's here or there, but surely not to many complete poems, and above all not to his oeuvre as a whole.

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Philip Larkin

If an educated English person has just one Collected Works in their house, chances are it will be Larkin's. In a way this is rather strange, unless you regard as the desire to be depressed as an intrinsic English trait (which perhaps it is - few Americans, for example, have heard of him). The simple fact is, though, that in terms of pure poetic craftsmanship, there is little in the English canon to match his best work. To read The Whitsun Weddings, Church Going or Dockery and Son is to be presented with a manifestation of the marriage of emotion and intellect, of content and form, that in its way is as intricate and awe-inspiring as the great musical works of Mozart or Schubert.

Just to give one example: take the enjambement of "Unhindered moon" in Dockery and Son: the poet is at Sheffield's rail station:

... where I changed,
And ate an awful pie, and walked along
The platform to its end to see the ranged
Joining and parting lines reflect a strong
Unhindered moon. To have no son, no wife,
No house or land still seemed quite natural.

Well-chosen words at the starts of stanzas can reproduce the effect of sudden insight, which happens here. It is obvious from the context of the full poem that "unhindered" is an implicit qualification of Larkin's bachelor life; and yet the image to which the adjective is directly applied, the moon, is both beautiful and melancholy, suggesting the poignant unsatisfactoriness of a life lived for oneself alone. The reader absorbs these images and associations in exactly the right order and at exactly the right pace, so that the poet's intent - as it always should be - is understood intuitively, without analysis. This is the kind of brilliance that no technical expertise can produce alone.

Larkin's greatest poems are arguably his half-dozen medium-length ones in iambic pentameters, of which Dockery and Son is one example and others are Church Going, The Whitsun Wedddings and Here. All of them move slowly from vivid local description to contemplations of transcendent themes: love, the course of life, the inevitability of death, and eternity. Larkin has the striking gift of being able to locate the subconcious associations thrown up by a particular emotion or sensory impression, and to follow the train of thought they produce in a way that seems carefully logical at the same time as it is intuitive.

Especially in his later years, Larkin was a notorious pessimist and misanthrope. Yet his writing is notable for its insistent references to joy, albeit for the most part joy unattained or unattainable. There is always the sense in his poems that true joy can only lie beyond this life, but Larkin had a problem with this idea because of his (respectful and reluctant) rejection of religion. Yet evocations of eternity finish off all his most moving work, for example Here:

And past the poppies bluish neutral distance
Ends the land suddenly beyond a beach
Of shapes and shingle. Here is unfenced existence:
Facing the sun, untalkative, out of reach.

In spite of his intellectual inability to accept the concept of the numinous, and in spite of the limitations of his self-absorbed personality, Larkin always believed that love was the one thing in life that really mattered. Like many artists, he was far from a great human being - but perhaps he was a great spirit.

Note on editions of Larkin's work: Cynical Faber and Faber have proved determined to milk the poetic cash cow of Larkin, to the detriment of the reader's pleasure. The only Collected Poems that comes close to "working" is the 1992 edition: this contains all the poems that were published in Larkin's lifetime, along with much of his juvenilia, and numerous other unpublished or unfinished works. The only possible complaint is that the poems are reproduced in the order they are, or can be deduced to have been, written. So you'll find poems from his collections scattered among other bits and pieces, and sometimes at unexpected places, if they were written a long time before publication.

That volume was replaced in the 2000s with a new, thinner one, which limited itself to the four collections Larkin produced in his lifetime and ignored everything else, published or not. The inadequecy of such an approach speaks for itself; it is no coincidence that a collection devoted to Larkin's juvenilia appeared just a few months after this juvenilia-free Collected.

A Complete Poems appeared in 2012. In almost facetious style, Faber addressed the complaints about the incompleteness of the preceding Collected by producing a Bible-sized doorstep that included, not just all Larkin's poems, but an appendix of pedantic notes longer than the poems themselves. I've no complaints about notes on poetry, but when they make a book physically difficult to read, they should not be there. Auden's Collected manages without notes, and he is a writer whose references are far more erudite than Larkin's: if you want to understand them better, you buy John Fuller's excellent Commentary. No, this volume is just another tactic in the publisher's long-standing strategy of exploiting Larkin completists. Do yourself a favour, and hunt down a hardback edition of the first Collected.

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R S Thomas

RS Thomas was a grumpy Welsh priest whose passionate hatred of the English seemed to sustain him, in both art and life, as much as his religious faith. Certainly he was rare in continuing to write good poetry until his death in 2000 at the age of 87.

Even in the earlier poems, one never gets the sense of Thomas as a young man: phlegmatic, clenched and brittle, his poetry suggests someone born a sexagenarian. But there is a taut, controlled energy to his work - one wouldn't call it vitality but it is, however conditionally, ultimately life-affirming.

Almost all Thomas's poems are short and in free verse, giving them a sense of rawness appropriate to the rocky, unforgiving landscapes that form the backdrop of their subject mattter. Thematically they deal with religious faith and doubt, with the writer's not always compis mentis parishoners, and with the Welsh identity. The relative lack of variety in both form and content means that Thomas's large opus is best appreciated in small doses, rather than hour-long studies; but what's remarkable is that it doesn't matter much which page you open his books at: you're almost guaranteed to be find a work of depth containing striking images presented in richly memorable language.

Thomas's work is gathered in Collected Poems 1945-1990 (Phoenix; shame about the poor quality paper) and Collected Later Poems (Bloodaxe; nice paper, nice presentation, nice artwork).

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