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Tuesday, 11 March 2008

The Big Seven

Speaking of "the canon" and modern poetry - The Guardian is publishing seven pamphlet inserts this week, starting today. They've selected seven poets: Sassoon, Eliot, Auden, Larkin, Plath, Hughes and Heaney. Now, the first thing to say is, this is a good group - almost all would make most people's top 10 or 20 list of significant poets from 1908-2008. Clearly, the emphasis is on British poetry, and also on the second half of the twentieth century (just).

What is worth noting (though Eyewear in principle supports the mass distribution of poetry to newspaper readers at all times) is that this is completely a list taken from Faber and Faber's stable of poets. Now, they also publish Frost, Dylan Thomas and Wallace Stevens, in the UK, so Faber's top ten would still have been very admirable. And one might have added Lowell, Moore, Berryman and even Thomas Hardy, and they'd have been Faber, too. Ditto for W.S. Graham. Yeats seems curiously missing here - isn't he the greatest 20th century poet? Where is Hart Crane, or Langston Hughes? Other women, besides the iconic Plath? Post-colonial "voices"? An Australian, an Indian, a Canadian...

It might have been refreshing, and more open-minded, if the pamphlets had been compiled with several other publishers too, therefore leaving a little more room for something (even slightly) surprising (this list confirms, rather than enlarges, what people already think they know about modern poetry). For instance, John Ashbery or Frank O'Hara might have been included, or a contemporary poet like Riley, or Prynne. That is, drawing on the excellent catalogues from Carcanet, Bloodaxe, and smaller presses - where some major poetry has and does appear.

This series is informative, and welcome - but it also says more than it perhaps intends about the current state of the "canon" for British poetry readers: it is solid, safe, traditional - and all-too-willing to overlook whatever is not exceptionally mainstream; little place for the maverick, or the marginal. That being said, these are all poets to love, and let's have more of them.
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