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The Penguin Book of Contemporary Verse (1950)

by Kenneth Allott (Editor)

Other authors: See the other authors section.

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This is a “new revised edition” reprinted in 1963 so you can get an idea of how long I have had it.

I had never heard of most of these poets, but knew the famous ones, of course – W.B. Yeats, Walter de la Mare, James Joyce, D.H. Lawrence, Aldous Huxley, W.H. Auden, Dylan Thomas, Lawrence Durrell (whom I had not realized was a poet but knew from his Alexandria Quartet), Kingsley Amis of Lucky Jim fame, Ted Hughes and Sylvia Plath.

Regarding T.S. Eliot, extracts from The Waste Land and Ash Wednesday are included:

From Ash Wednesday:

“ … In this brief transit where the dreams cross
The dreamcrossed twilight between birth and dying …
This is the time of tension between dying and birth
The place of solitude where three dreams cross
Between blue rocks
But when the voices shaken from the yew-tree drift away
Let the other yew be shaken and reply.”

(I can’t say I understand this.)

And from the chorus of The Family Reunion:

“In an old house there is always listening, and more is heard than is spoken.
And what is spoken remains in the room, waiting for the future to hear it.
And whatever happens began in the past, and presses hard on the future.
The agony in the curtained bedroom whether of birth or of dying,
Gathers in to itself all the voices of the past, and projects them into the future.
… There is nothing at all to be done about it,
There is nothing to do about anything,
And now it is nearly time for the news
We must listen to the weather report
And the international catastrophes.”

I looked in vain for the poems by Walter de la Mare I had learnt by heart at school. I think one of them was “The listeners”:
“’Is there anybody there?’ said the Traveller,
Knocking on the moonlit door.”
“Someone came knocking at my wee, small door”.

(He is interested in knocking at doors.)

I also looked to no avail for Sea Fever by John Masefield:

“I must go down to the seas again, to the lonely sea and the sky,
And all I ask is a tall ship and a star to steer her by,
And the wheel’s kick and the wind’s song and a white sail’s shaking,
And a grey mist on the sea’s face and a grey dawn breaking.”

And Home-Thoughts, From Abroad by Robert Browning.
“Oh, to be in England.
Now that April’s there,
And whoever wakes in England
Sees, some morning, unaware,
That the lowest boughs and the brushwood sheaf
Round the elm-tree bole are in tiny leaf,
While the chaffinch sings on the orchard bough
In England – now!”

My Dad, who was also my Headmaster and teacher, loved poetry and got us to learn all these poems and more by heart. But, sadly, none were to be found in this anthology.

To return to the present anthology, it contains two poems by Arthur Waley, whom I did not know. These are translations of Chinese poetry.

The chrysanthemums in the Eastern Garden (Po Chü-i A.D. 812)

“The days of my youth left me long ago ( )
  IonaS | Aug 19, 2020 |
I have a feeling my English teacher at A level gave me this, and also "The New Poetry", in 1970. Favourites included here are Harold Monro's "Living" (less well-known than his much-anthologised (but still a favourite) "Overheard on a Saltmarsh"), Robert Graves' "Warning to Children", and Sidney Keyes' "William Wordsworth".
  PollyMoore3 | May 15, 2020 |
When my friends and I first came across this anthology in the school library, I remember that we had a little giggle at the title: how could it be "contemporary" when the most recent poem had been written in 1948? (some 25 years ago then...). But as soon as we dipped into it we found poems that grabbed our attention, and it's a book I've kept coming back to ever since. I'm very happy that I was able to find an early reprint with the two-colour cover a few years ago, but I had to pay a bit more than the stated 2/6 for it.

Allott's brief was to pick a representative selection of poetry by British writers composed between 1918 and 1948. He cheats a bit on both limitations (he ignores nationality changes for Yeats, Eliot and Auden, for instance), but the rules give him scope to exclude the Georgians (whom he regards as a pointless irrelevance), include a few First World War poems like "Strange meeting", and illustrate the shift in poetic taste from the French-inspired imagist writing of the twenties to the more socially and politically engaged poems of the thirties and forties.

The poets are arranged by date of birth, so the book opens with Yeats and closes with Sidney Keyes, a promising young poet killed in action in 1942. There are a few startling omissions, as you would expect in an anthology (otherwise how could we play "who's in and who's out"?) — Hugh MacDiarmid is perhaps the most glaring, but Allott was not exactly generous in his selection of female poets, either: only Kathleen Raine and Anne Ridler actually got in. Edith Sitwell should have been there too, but Allott had a fight with her about which poems he wanted to include, and they couldn't agree. Stevie Smith is never mentioned - she had published plenty of poems by then, but she only really became fashionable later.

On the "in" side there are a few small surprises - people like Rayner Heppenstall and Laurie Lee whom you wouldn't immediately associate with poetry - and plenty of names that have fallen off the radar. Betjeman is in, although he wasn't all that well-known as a poet yet in 1948 (Allott is spot-on in picking "Death in Leamington"), but some other younger writers who only really came into prominence in the fifties are not (Abse, Alvarez, Larkin, Hughes). Allott has no problem identifying the really big names of his period: Eliot, Yeats, Auden, MacNiece, and Spender all get expanded entries, and Dylan Thomas also gets a bit more space than most of his contemporaries.

Allott seems to be particularly concerned to show us poems that are representative of their times, so his selections often steer clear of the poets' best-known work (but not always: the choice of Yeats includes "Prayer for my daughter" and "Leda and the swan"). Sometimes he picks a piece that seems in hindsight to be super-obvious, but which wasn't necessarily well-known at the time, like Henry Reed's "Naming of parts" (a poem that appeared in just about every classroom anthology in the 60s and 70s, presumably because the editors, and our teachers, all belonged to the National Service generation).

An unusual feature is that every poet gets a short editorial introduction, not just the usual potted bio but a few pithy critical comments about their work as well. Allott doesn't bother with the kid gloves: "Rayner Heppenstall is ... a critic of intelligence with a real sensitivity to words, rarely a satisfactory poet".

Definitely an anthology that should be on everyone's shelf!

(Later editions of the anthology were extended to include poems written up to 1960: I don't have one of those to compare with.) ( )
2 vote thorold | Jun 30, 2016 |
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Author nameRoleType of authorWork?Status
Allott, KennethEditorprimary authorall editionsconfirmed
Alvarez, A.Contributorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Amis, KingsleyContributorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Auden, W.H.Contributorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Barker, GeorgeContributorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Beer, PatriciaContributorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Bell, WilliamContributorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Betjeman, JohnContributorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Binyon, LaurenceContributorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Blackburn, ThomasContributorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Blunden, EdmundContributorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Cameron, NormanComposersecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Campbell, RoyContributorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Conquest, RobertContributorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Corke, HilaryContributorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Davie, DonaldContributorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Day Lewis, CecilContributorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
De la Mare, WalterContributorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Durrell, LawrenceContributorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Eliot, T.S.Contributorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Empson, WilliamContributorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Enright, D.J.Contributorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Fry, ChristopherContributorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Fuller, Roy BroadbentContributorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Gascoyne, DavidContributorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Graham, W.S.Contributorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Graves, RobertContributorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Gunn, ThomContributorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Heath-Stubbs, JohnContributorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Hill, GeoffreyContributorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Holloway, JohnContributorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Hughes, TedContributorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Huxley, AldousContributorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Jennings, ElizabethContributorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Joyce, JamesContributorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Keyes, SidneyContributorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Kinsella, ThomasContributorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Kirkup, JamesContributorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Larkin, PhilipContributorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Lawrence, D.H.Contributorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Lee, LaurieContributorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Lehmann, JohnContributorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Levi, PeterContributorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Lewis, AlunContributorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Lewis, WyndhamContributorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
MacCaig, NormanContributorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Madge, CharlesContributorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Monro, HaroldContributorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Muir, EdwinContributorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Nicholson, NormanContributorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Owen, WilfredContributorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Plath, SylviaContributorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Plomer, WilliamContributorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Prince, F.T.Contributorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Quennell, PeterContributorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Raine, KathleenContributorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Read, HerbertContributorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Reed, HenryContributorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Reeves, JamesContributorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Ridler, AnneContributorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Roberts, MichaelContributorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Rodgers, W.R.Contributorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Rosenberg, IsaacContributorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Russ, StephenCover designersecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Sassoon, SiegfriedContributorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Scarfe, FrancisContributorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Scovell, E.J.Contributorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Silkin, JonContributorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Sitwell, SacheverellContributorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Spencer, BernardContributorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Spender, StephenContributorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Thomas, DylanContributorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Thomas, EdwardContributorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Thomas, Ronald StuartContributorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Thwaite, AnthonyContributorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Tiller, TerenceContributorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Tomlinson, CharlesContributorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Treece, HenryContributorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Wain, JohnContributorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Waley, ArthurContributorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Warner, RexContributorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Watkins, VernonContributorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
White, Jon ManchipContributorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Williams, CharlesContributorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Yeats, W.B.Contributorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Young, AndrewContributorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed

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This collection contains 127 poems.
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Poems arranged in chronological order of the birth of the poets, each with a potted biography. 1865 - 1922, Yeats - Keyes.
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