Against Oblivion: Some Lives of the Twentieth Century Poets by Ian Hamilton
The idea for Ian Hamilton's unorthodox new book was sparked by a rereading of Samuel Johnson's classic "Lives of the English Poets". Johnson included appraisals of 52 poets, but of these only a tiny handful - four or five, perhaps - are still remembered. What, then, of the 20th century? How many English-language poets of that epoch will we be admiring 200 years from now? How many will resist oblivion? Hamilton takes 45 dead 20th-century poets and offers a personal - and sometimes highly critical - response to each of them. And in the process he constructs a portrayal of what the living of a 20th-century "poetic life" has actually involved. Underpinning Hamilton's narrative are two main propositions. Firstly, that the 20th century was almost from the beginning dominated by four key figures - Yeats, Eliot, Auden and Hardy -and that subsequent poets have, in one way or another, had to "take on" these overshadowing exemplars. For these four, Hamilton insists, oblivion presents no threat. Secondly, that, faced with a secular, mass-educated and largely philistine "audience", the poet's appetite for durability, for lastingness, has been intensified - in some cases, constructively; in others, with disastrous results. Larkin, Lowell, Berryman, MacNiece: will we continue to remember them? Ginsberg, Spender, Tate: real talents, or mere poetry-world careerists? And, in the end, how many do we need? Examples of each candidate's verse accompany Hamilton's prose text, so that "Against Oblivion" can be taken as an informal introduction to 20th-century poetry, or as a basis for critical dispute, or as a useful and provocative anthology: three books in one.