Review: Scanning the Century: the Penguin Book of the Twentieth Century in Poetry, edited by Peter Forbes

Scanning the Century

Last Thursday I met Cristina Newton at her wonderfully bright home for a good talk about poetry. She is currently painting her library purple, so we sat at her work table and I drank a bottle of Dr Pepper Zero amid scattered collections while we bounced from topic to topic. Since she is a very skilled poet herself our talks are generally long, and very satisfying. If you haven’t yet had the joy of reading Cry Wolf, her first English collection, do so as soon as possible. It is a wonderful experiment in compassionate narrative, published by Templar Poetry. I’m speaking as a reviewer here, not a friend. Pick it up when you can.

I am the sort of person you should avoid having over. I make a terrible guest; if I see a book, I open it up. If the book interests me, I will twist your arm until you lend it to me. Scanning the Century was buried three layers down, beneath the strata of Nobel Prize winning authors and cook books. I scented it out with the appetite of a pig hunting a truffle.

Scanning the Century: the Penguin Book of the Twentieth Century in Poetry (Viking, 1999) is a massive anthology that runs to 596 pages, and 514 of those pages contain poems from a startling variety of sources. The book was compiled with the goal of dividing the century into eras with names such as, ‘Prelude to War: Fascism v. Communism 1933-1939’. The editor selected poems that might not necessarily have been written in that particular fragment of time but which reflect the flavor of climate that the editor wished to convey. For example, the anthology opens with ‘Omens: 1900-1914’ and the first poem is an excerpt from ‘History of the Twentieth Century (a Roadshow)’, written by Joseph Brodsky in the second half of the century.

This poem is an eminently appropriate beginning for an anthology that is, in itself, a passionate survey. The section quoted spans the years marked out by the editor, and the flavor is appropriately ominous:

1905. In the news: Japan.
Which means the century is upon
us. Diminishing the lifespan
of Russian Dreadnoughts to naught.

The arrangement of the poems in this anthology was very skillfully done- they all served the goals of the editor and generating the emotional climate that he thought most fitting for the era at hand.

I must say, though, that I while found that the anthology was very well executed, I question the ethics behind the layout. It was an enormous project and I understand that there is no way that any editor alive could capture every intricate layer that made up the texture of even one decade, but the presentation left no room for the reader to draw their own conclusions. Each chapter was prefaced with a paragraph wherein the Forbes wrote down exactly what he was trying to accomplish, and how the poems would contribute to the thesis he laid out:

The repeated invocation of ‘Family Values’ by politicians towards its end suggested that the century was t a good one for the family… Andreas Okopenko’s sardonic ‘The End of Teenagers’ marks one of the century’s innovations: a new staging post in the ages of men and women- the teenager.

This may be my own taste asserting itself, but I thought that the anthology would have worked better if the poems had been laid out in exactly the same fashion but without the editor attempting to dictate my thoughts.

Male poets who are unfortunately neglected by the current cannon were shown here in force- although the women that the editor chose to include were more known to me than others. The poems by female authors consisted mainly of work by Marianne Moore, Sharon Olds, Sylvia Plath, with Gwendolyn Brooks thrown in for good measure. The editor was very inclusive, all things considered, and these are all tremendous poets, but in the world of English Language poetry a known woman still seems to constitute as daring a risk as an unknown man.

Having said that, one of the great strengths of this collection was the diversity of poets included. This is not an Anglo-centric book, and it is all the better for it. I have never encountered such a fine clutch of translations between two covers, certainly not from such a huge variety of backgrounds. There were some fantastic poets here that I had never had the pleasure of meeting before, such as: Fernando Pessoa, Eugenio Montale, and Yuz Aleshkovsky. The translations were uniformly of a very high quality, so that it felt like I was seeing the poems through a clear pane of glass or a pure stream of water, without any of the terrible warped mirror effect I encountered once in a poor translation of Rilke.

The book is worth the price of admission for those authors alone. As soon as I can, I will purchase a copy myself.

Scanning the Century: the Penguin Book of the Twentieth Century in Poetry, edited by Peter Forbes (Viking, 1999) Buy your copy Here.

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