How to bluff your way through English poetry: the 20th century, part 1
|May 28, 2012||Posted by Georgie Tindale under poetry|
In these articles I will attempt to give a brief overview of a century’s worth of poetry that I consider to be worth reading. I can’t possibly cover every great poet of the century, but hopefully I will offer a fairly non-pretentious dabble into the world of poetry for those people tentatively approaching the subject, or for those who feel they ought to have at least minimal knowledge in order to use the best chat-up lines.
I encountered Heaney during my GCSE English exam alongside another poet called Gillian Clarke (whose work I enjoyed less). I was impressed by both Heaney’s winning of the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1995 and the original way he approaches often quite ordinary subject matters. The poem At a Potato Digging is a perfect example of this: by altering a day-to-day occurrence in the Irish countryside to fit the horrors of the potato famine, he manages to capture the Irish suffering in an identifiable and unique way.
Here is an extract from another poem by Heaney called Death of a Naturalist. The highly visual language tied in with emotion and decay is what I enjoy most about this stanza, alongside the subtle war references:
All year the flax-dam festered in the heart
Of the townland; green and heavy headed
Flax had rotted there, weighted down by huge sods.
Daily it sweltered in the punishing sun.
Bubbles gargled delicately, bluebottles
Wove a strong gauze of sound around the smell.
There were dragon-flies, spotted butterflies,
But best of all was the warm thick slobber
Of frogspawn that grew like clotted water
In the shade of the banks.
More of Heaney’s work can be found here.
Sassoon has been described as the “accidental hero” of the war poets. He was born into a wealthy Jewish family and was completely naive to the realities of warfare after a life of cricket, fox hunting and poetry. Consequently, the impact of the war on him can be seen as even more powerful and damaging than otherwise, which is reflected throughout his poetry. He earned the nickname “Mad Jack” for his almost suicidal attempts at the German lines, believing them completely guilty, and was one of the poets who made his opposition to the war public.
This extract from Attack by Sassoon ticks all of the boxes for poetic techniques – alliteration, sibilance and so on – and unlike many poems uses them to great effect. The portrayal of colour and movement helps to bring this poem alive in all its unnerving detail.
At dawn the ridge emerges massed and dun
In the wild purple of the glow’ring sun,
Smouldering through spouts of drifting smoke that shroud
The menacing scarred slope; and, one by one,
Tanks creep and topple forward to the wire.
The barrage roars and lifts.
Then, clumsily bowed
With bombs and guns and shovels and battle-gear,
Men jostle and climb to meet the bristling fire.
Lines of grey, muttering faces, masked with fear
More of Sassoon’s work can be found here.
Born in Boston, Sylvia Plath had issues with depression and an unstoppable drive to succeed, which would eventually cause her to commit suicide in 1963 shortly after the publishing of her semi-autographical novel, The Bell Jar. She was the first poet to win the Pulitzer Prize after death. Her poetry is notable both for her use of alliteration and rhyme in an experimental and playful way, and for the influences stemming from the death of her father during her childhood. Many critics believe that his controlling, authoritarian treatment of Plath and his death defined her relationships and much of her poetry from then onwards.
Here is an extract from Daddy:
Not God but a swastika
So black no sky could squeak through.
Every woman adores a Fascist,
The boot in the face, the brute
Brute heart of a brute like you.
You stand at the blackboard, daddy,
In the picture I have of you,
A cleft in your chin instead of your foot
But no less a devil for that, no not
Any less the black man who
Bit my pretty red heart in two.
I was ten when they buried you.
At twenty I tried to die
And get back, back, back to you.
I thought even the bones would do.
More poems and more information on Sylvia Plath can be found here.
Our final poet comes from closer to my home in Yorkshire. He had a rural childhood surrounded by the landscape of the moors, which had a huge impact on his writing. His marriage to the emotionally unstable Sylvia Plath is certainly one of the most famous aspects of his writing career (and the extract I have chosen was apparently written in memory of her), but the numerous literary awards he won – including being Poet Laureate in 1984 – were awarded much more for his deceptively simple but elegantly formed poetry. His more controversial and provocative work focused on his character of “Crow”, a character moulded around god, man, and bird, and is also interesting and worth looking at.
Here is an extract from Daffodils:
Remember how we picked the daffodils?
Nobody else remembers, but I remember.
Your daughter came with her armfuls, eager and happy,
Helping the harvest. She has forgotten.
She cannot even remember you. And we sold them.
It sounds like sacrilege, but we sold them.
Were we so poor? Old Stoneman, the grocer,
Boss-eyed, his blood-pressure purpling to beetroot
(It was his last chance,
He would die in the same great freeze as you)
He persuaded us. Every Spring
He always bought them, sevenpence a dozen,
‘A custom of the house’.
More poetry by Hughes can be found here.