Wednesday, 21 January 2009

Penguin Book(s) of First World War Poetry

I've been using Jon Silkin's Penguin Book of First World War Poetry as a teaching text for years. First published in 1981, it was substantially revised in 1997 (the year of Silkin's death), but in both editions the introduction offered an opinionated, provocative and occasionally downright bizarre account of the terrain. It has been said that anthologies are only interesting to the extent that they leave people out. Silkin included all the obvious poems by the obvious poets, but he wasn't afraid to criticise them according to his own idiosyncratic standards. Rosenberg won the title; Owen was runner-up; Sassoon came out as best of the rest. Gurney was admired but not understood. Many others were present, Silkin informed us, for historical rather than literary reasons. The result was an infuriating and necessary book.

In 2004, with Silkin's anthology still in print, Penguin published George Walter's In Flanders Fields, their second anthology of First World War poetry. The introduction is much shorter and better behaved than Silkin's; there are no league tables, and Walter's emphasis is on being 'more protean than most recent editors of war poetry'. For protean read bland, a sceptic might argue. That would be unfair to such a thoughtful book; Walter is a fine scholar. But after the quirks and crazinesses of Silkin's anthology, Walter's seems very safe. What's more, the poems are arranged by 'theme', not by author. Does anyone ever reach for a war poetry anthology in order to look up a section called 'Somewhere in France' or 'Blighty'? Look to see which poems by Wilfred Owen have been selected and your only way of knowing will be to flick carefully through nearly 400 pages. What is the contents page of a poetry anthology for, if not to list the poems published in it?

In Flanders Fields is no longer in print. The Penguin Book of First World War Poetry, on the other hand, continues to sell. Silkin wins, or so it may seem. However, on closer inspection The Penguin Book of First World War Poetry turns out to be edited by... George Walter. It is In Flanders Fields repackaged. Silkin has been bumped off the list, his title usurped.

Other anthologies are available.

1 comment:

  1. I agree about the Walter. The thematic arrangement is very annoying, and
    there's no index of authors. But on the whole the poems are well-chosen, and
    any anthology that includes 'Trench Poets' gets my vote. Also, Walter's
    introduction is refreshingly sane after the Silkin.
    The anthology issue is an interesting one. What to include? In nearly every
    introduction to these anthologies, the editor will state that they 'wanted
    to include the well-known poems and some less-known material'. I only ever
    agree with this if it means more Gurney, more Thomas, more Owen, more
    Sassoon. Sweeping statement time, and I'm sure I'll be proved wrong during
    my PhD, but by-and-large I think there's a reason some poems are 'less
    well-known', or 'previously unpublished'. Cream rises etc.
    Of the 'other anthologies' Tim mentions, I would recommend Hibberd and
    Onions's 'The Winter of the World' (Constable). It's just been paperbacked.
    I'm still not sure about the chronological arrangement, and I feel it
    includes rather too much, but the notes are extremely good. Don't bother
    with Andrew Motion's 'First World War Poems' (Faber).