Am Bratach No. 313
November 2017

by Kevin Crowe

“The Map and the Clock: A Laureate’s Choice of the Poetry of Britain and Ireland”, edited by Carol Ann Duffy and Gillian Clarke, 2017. Faber & Faber. £9.99.

Many people have been introduced to the joys of poetry from popular anthologies. In my youth, it was the updated version of “Palgrave’s Golden Treasury” that got some of us exploring the highways and byways of poetry. For a later generation, it may have been “The Rattle Bag”, edited by Irish Nobel laureate Seamus Heaney and one time UK poet laureate Ted Hughes.

This anthology, edited by current poet laureate Carol Ann Duffy and by Gillian Clarke, is at least as good, and perhaps even better, than its predecessors. Covering the years from the seventh to the twenty-first centuries and featuring poetry from most genres and languages native to the British Isles, it is an impressive collection. My only reservation is that we only see those written in Welsh, Anglo Saxon, Middle English, Scots Gaelic and Irish in modern English translations: it would have been nice to have seen them in their original languages as well. However, to do so may have made the book’s size impractical. As it is, it runs to over 700 pages. Poetry included in the Scots language has not been translated (thank goodness: surely even those who may be unfamiliar with written Scots don’t need English translations of the likes of Fergusson, Burns and MacDiarmid).

The chronological arrangement allows the reader to appreciate how poetry has changed over the centuries, from its origins in the oral tradition with folk ballads and bardic epics. All too often poetry is thought to be an art form requiring high levels of literacy, yet nothing could be further from the truth. Both Shakespeare and Burns — often seen as being the national bards of England and Scotland respectively — were primarily oral poets: Shakespeare wrote for the stage and many of Burns’ most famous poems are songs.

Particularly impressive is that, while featuring most of the greats from Chaucer onwards, the editors have explored the work of many less well known poets, writers who deserve a wider audience. This is particularly the case with women poets, many of whom have been ignored for far too long. For example, Greenock born Jean Adam, who was self-taught, worked as a domestic servant and died in a Glasgow workhouse in 1765. Burns was an admirer of her poetry. Joanna Bailey was born into a comfortable Lanarkshire family and during her life was admired by Byron, Walter Scott and John Stuart Mill, yet since her death in 1851 has been largely forgotten. Also from Lanarkshire and the daughter of a shoemaker, Janet Hamilton stopped writing in order to look after her family of ten children, only taking up her pen again aged 54, and wrote in both English and Scots.

English poet and socialist Dollie Radford was a friend of Karl and Eleanor Marx. Her husband, Ernest Radford, was a member of the Rhymers Club (which also included some of the leading poets of the time like Oscar Wilde and W B Yeats), but Dollie herself was not allowed to join because she was a woman. Charlotte Mew, who dressed as a man and often wrote from a male perspective, was admired at the time by Thomas Hardy and Virginia Woolf. She ended her life in a nursing home where she committed suicide.

Helen Cruickshank was an important figure in the Suffrage movement and in the Scottish Renaissance and helped the better known Hugh MacDiarmid and Lewis Grassic Gibbon, among others, get noticed. She also helped secure the reputation of earlier Scottish women poets Violet Jacob and Marion Angus (both of whom feature in this anthology). She was a Scottish nationalist, a member of the Saltire Society and the founder of Scottish PEN.

Whether you like comic verse or prefer more reflective poetry, whether your taste is for traditional forms or more modern styles such as free verse, whether you enjoy the classics from the past or twenty-first century poets, there are a wealth of pleasures here. In an anthology of so many highlights, it is hard to pick out particular poems, and every reader will have their own favourites. Among mine are Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s sonnet “How Do I Love Thee? Let Me Count the Ways”, surely one of the greatest love poems ever, which concludes with the lines: “and, if God choose,/I shall but love thee better after death.” In his humorous “Midge”, former Scottish Makar Edwin Morgan takes on the persona of the dreaded insect, inviting her sisters to join her in feeding off human blood: “Attack, my little Draculas, my Amazons!”. As I read it I was both laughing and itching! W H Auden’s “Refugee Blues”, about Jews fleeing from Hitler’s Germany, is as relevant now as it was when written in 1939: “Came to a public meeting; the speaker got up and said:/’If we let them in, they will steal our daily bread’;/He was talking of you and me, my dear, he was talking of you and me.”

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