The First Poems in English (Penguin Classics)
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So it almost pains me to say that Keegan's is the superior volume; but it is. If you can't find a poem in the Oxford, you sigh resignedly and reach for the Penguin. Keegan isn't simply more inclusive the paperback is just the right side of unwieldy ; he has rewritten the rules of the poetry anthology.
He includes poems by order of their appearance in book form, and not under authorial headings by order of birth. The running heads, to put it another way, are years, not names. At first this might seem like a gimmick, and a slightly frustrating one at that, as you can't access a single writer's output in one block. But you soon realise the great good sense behind it. You can handle it.
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I'm not wild about some of the more modern inclusions too much Ted Hughes; a character in a Howard Jacobson novel says he "couldn't take one more fucking poem about a pike", and I concur , but everything else is wonderfully chosen. There's no dead wood, and every unfamiliar poem provokes gratitude that it has been included, rather than the flattened sense of probity that comes with pious quota-filling - as in, "let's put in more women poets, even if they're bad".
There are many more women poets in here than in older anthologies, but they all deserve to be there, by any standards. But what is particularly pleasant about the book is that, over extended reading, you get a sense of the state of mind that poetry both celebrates and demands: independent, wilful, sensuous and sensual, alive and, even when most miserable or seemingly abstracted, engaged with life.
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Whether this is a deliberate or unconscious policy of Keegan's, there are rather more poems here that applaud love, sex, drink, and loafing about than Augustan temperance and self-denial, which is great. Figures such as Mandelstam, Akhmatova and Pasternak embodied the highest, and somewhat romantic, expectations we imagine of poets: that they would not only live for poetry but that they were prepared to die for it, too.
The translations of their poetry provided in the anthology demonstrate the thoughts and ideas at the heart of their work and also, where possible, maintain the form and metre of the poems. This is important in understanding the work of Akhmatova and Mandelstam: the rhythm and metre of their poems made them easier to memorise at a time when possessing paper copies of the work was dangerous. In contrast to the western poets of their era, traditional form in Russian poetry became an expression of freedom.
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A later generation, including Voznesensky and Yevtushenko, emerged in the post-Stalin years and often convey a humanism irreconcilable with the State, yet they were tolerated and—at times—even accommodated by that state. This brought with it accusations of, at worst, complicity but more often of apathy towards the system. We should remind ourselves, however, that these poets were born and wholly brought up in the USSR. Now in his eighties, he remains active and something of a celebrity in contemporary Russia.
For whatever reason, there is just a single Yevtushenko poem—and not one of his finest—in the anthology. The exiled Brodsky, of course, is the other side of this story: as the USSR turned away from the brief post-Stalin thaw, he became the latest in a long line of persecuted poets in Russia.
Brodsky and Yevtushenko illustrate two very different experiences of writers under the Soviet regime—those who openly and actively resisted and those who chose to work within the system.
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The treatment meted out to Brodsky is a sobering tale for any writer who feels hard done by in their literary endeavours. The inclusion of lyrics by the popular Soviet singer and actor Vladimir Vysotsky highlights the importance of music and musicality in Russian poetic culture.
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Yet, the lyrics depend on the sound of the Russian language, the slang and wordplay used by Vysotsky: they are poetic at times but—like many fine songs—not always poetry. Likewise, the sequence of non-Russian poems— albeit inspired by Russia—included at the end of the book also seems an odd choice. These are not bad poems by any means, but they seem out of place in an anthology of Russian poetry, particularly when there is so little included from poets of the Russian diaspora or anyone born after There is still a vibrant Russian poetry, and among the newer Russian poets there exists voices that continue the proud tradition of not simply being an echo of power.
Disappointing omissions aside—and there will inevitably be some in an undertaking of this scale—the fact remains that this is an eruditely assembled, comprehensive and thought-provoking book.