This book is not, as its title might suggest, a history of the Poetry Book Society, though it does contain a historical sketch of that organization; more interestingly, it is an anthology of the brief introductions written for the Society’s quarterly bulletin by poets whose books have been ‘chosen’ or ‘recommended’. Some 40 pieces are selected here, out of the quarter century’s 99 choices (1959 was the delinquent year, when only three choices could be squeezed out instead of the customary four) and 123 recommendations.
But what on earth is a poet to say about his own poetry that is not mumbling and fumbling, or breast beating, or clowning, or orating and prating? George Barker voices the dilemma for the other contributors: ‘I haven’t got anything at all to say about these poems that the poems don’t – or ought not to – say. Of course it’s the vast division between that “don’t” and “ought not” that causes all my trouble.’ And Vernon Watkins, confirming the dilemma, sees the only useful way out as at least telling people how the poems came to be written: ‘A poet is able to throw light on the source of a poem, but he cannot simplify it; he can only make it more difficult.’
Granted a general sense of the impossibility of the exercise, it is sometimes a single fact or statement that sticks in the mind, like Austin Clarke’s account of how he once tested the echo at Coole Park because Yeats had mentioned it, or William Plomer’s casual reference to his grandfather having been born two years after Blake died, or Theodore Roethke’s, simple, unexpected appeal, ‘I wish to be read aloud.’ Occasionally one is put off: by a too artful approach in Thorn Gunn, who begins ‘Picture Odysseus, deep in thought …’; by a lesson in aesthetics from Kathleen Raine, who in her short piece contrives to advert to Dante, Coomaraswamy, Blake, Yeats, Dom Bede Griffiths, A. E., Plotinus, Spenser, Vaughan, Traherne, Coleridge, Shelly [sic], Muir, Watkins, and Gascoyne. There are some pleasing confrontations, as when R. S. Thomas in his cloak of self-deprecation says, ‘I play on a small pipe, a little aside from the main road’, to be followed on the next page by tart Geoffrey Grigson: ‘The pronouncements I play in a mountain corner on a scrannel pipe and I play with myself in a confessional box without a curtain so that everyone can see the spasm on my face are self-advertising equally.’ Probably the most useful contributions are those like Seamus Heaney’s which give a crisply informative background to the main subjects and themes of the book. Heaney, writing on North, succeeds in a brief space in explaining his interest in the past of Ireland and northern Europe, his sense of the cultural interplay of words like ‘bog’ and ‘moss’, and his attitude to the idea of the ‘duty’ of writing about the Ulster troubles. In the same way, Peter Porter opens out the themes of his book The Cost of Seriousness by relating the elegiac subject of the personal poems (his wife’s death) to the wider issues of the ability or inability of art ‘to alter human circumstances or alleviate human distress’, at the same time dissociating himself from any Alvarez-type crisis art or apocalyptic crutches.
Special mention must be made of two contributions. Geoffrey Hill’s (on Tenebrae) is exceedingly short and tight-lipped, but far from uninformative, though (‘though’ rather than ‘and’, I think) thought-provoking. Can a book, or only a person, have ‘a sense of’ something? He claims his books have ‘a sense of history (neither Whig nor Marxist) and a sense of place (neither topographical nor anecdotal)’. Busy subtraction-machines must work out what is life, but how does whatever is left relate to what the author himself has ‘a sense of? Well, he adds that if Eliot was not right in denying that poetry is self-expression, he was ‘more right than wrong’. And there the reader, however hot for certainties, has to take over. Philip Larkin’s note on The Whitsun Weddings is by contrast very expansive, and particularly interesting as an example of how an initial sceptism and even mockery (‘the poems were written in or near Hull, Yorkshire, with a succession of Royal Sovereign 2B pencils during the years 1955 to 1963’) can get themselves transformed, as the writer bends to his task, into (in this instance) an illuminating discussion of the place of will in creative work:
Whatever makes a poem successful is not an act of the will. In consequence, the poems that actually get written may seem trivial or unedifying compared with those that don’t. But ·the poems that get written, even if they do not please the will, evidently please that mysterious something that has to be pleased. This is not to say that one is forever writing poems of which the will disapproves. What it does mean, however, is that there must be among the ingredients that go towards the writing of a poem a streak of curious self-gratification, the presence of which tends to nullify any satisfaction the will might be feeling at a finished job.