Those not repelled by the pomposity of the back-cover copy (“there is no place here for the poet as entertainer,” etc.) might actually find themselves, well, entertained by this assemblage of 20th-century works by poets from the British Isles, with the occasional American or New Zealander thrown in for good measure. Longley stresses in her brisk preface the dominance of the lyric mode, in which “the common factor is concentration,” and she argues that the differences between “urban” and “rural” poetries are not as glaring as one might at first assume. Crucial to the poems of the century were the effects of industrialization, especially as manifested in urbanization and, to an even greater degree, war. Thomas Hardy dryly observes that “After two thousand years of mass / We’ve got as far as poison-gas.” The number of pages allotted to each of the 59 contributors peaks at 13 (for Auden), and brief critical/biographical notes preface all the entries, which are organized chronologically. We are reminded, for instance, that Stevie Smith was so nicknamed “because her fringe resembled that of the jockey Steve Donaghue.” T.S. Eliot, Philip Larkin, Sylvia Plath, Dylan Thomas, and W.B. Yeats are all here, and their positions are secure; of course, it is more difficult to predict the staying power of poets still writing today, although Seamus Heaney and Thom Gunn are likely candidates. Whether anthologists of 21st-century verse will include Medbh McGuckian or Tom Leonard (the latter, employing Glaswegian dialect, morphs W.C. Williams’s “This Is Just to Say” into “Jist ti Let Yi No”) is anyone’s guess.
Enlightening and entertaining, though not essential.