Last month while scrolling through my Twitter feed I came across a link to an article by Adam Kirsch in The New Republic titled “The Greatest English Poet you Haven’t Heard of.” This kind of title never fails to bring me running (or clicking) in the hope of discovering a writer I’ve been missing out on, someone I will fall in love with. It reminds me of the time I discovered a dusty copy of Patrick Kavanagh’s Selected Poems in Dauphine Street Books or, to go back a little further, the time my cool Aunt Jill, seeing my twelve year-old self tapping his foot to the latest twee pop album, slipped me a copy of Peter Gabriel’s Security and said, “You need to listen to this.” Every bibliophile has an inbox of books that keeps growing, and I’m no different. Just knowing that there are words out there to hunt down, unearth, or stumble upon randomly, and that at any moment someone can add genuine value to my life, maybe even completely change its course, by offering the unexpected—well, that’s one of the things that gets me out of bed.
So I was a little disappointed when Kirsch’s piece turned out to be an introduction to the poetry of Edward Thomas and, in part, a review of Matthew Hollis’s (partial) biography of Thomas. To be clear, the piece itself is not disappointing. Kirsch is a fine writer. I enjoy his thoughtful essays on Modern poetry, and this one is absolutely worth your time, especially if Thomas is a poet you haven’t heard of. But I found Kirsch’s title puzzling. Thomas is represented in every major anthology of twentieth-century British literature that I own. He was one of Robert Frost’s dearest friends. Anne Stevenson, Andrew Motion, Seamus Heaney, and Geoffrey Hill all admire him as an important predecessor. R. S. Thomas cut his poetic teeth on Edward Thomas. Ted Hughes called him “the father of us all.” In short, his was, and remains, a known voice. Kirsch says as much in the article, pointing out that Thomas, once he had found that voice, “became one of the most beloved poets of the twentieth century.” So I was scratching my head a little. I also have quibbles with calling Thomas an “English Poet” since he was Welsh by blood and much of his work is motivated not chiefly by a love for the English countryside, as is commonly assumed, but by hiraeth, as Andrew Webb demonstrates in his brilliant new book on Thomas.
But never mind. For the sake of this post, let’s say that an English poet is any poet who writes poetry in English. I don’t happen to believe this, but I will pretend to for a moment because even though I was disappointed by Kirsch’s teasing title, it did lead me to consider just who is, in my view, the greatest English poet (of the twentieth century, at least—I didn’t stray into earlier territory) that most people have never heard of, and unless I broaden that category to include all English-language poets, I can’t use the brilliant poet that keeps asserting herself in my mind.
Of course, “greatest” is a loaded, subjective term. I think there is as much “greatness” in Caddel and Quartermain’s Other anthology as there is in the Oxford staples. Maybe “important” is a better adjective because it’s at least kind of demonstrable. But Kirsch uses “greatest,” so that’s what I’m going with. In my estimation, the most neglected “great” poet of the twentieth century is Lynette Roberts (1909-1995), a wonderful, difficult poet who was born in Argentina to parents of Welsh extraction, moved to London as a Spanish-speaking child, and lived in Wales as an adult. Her work was championed by Edith Sitwell and Dylan Thomas, who was best man at her wedding. T. S. Eliot thought she was a tremendous writer, and he published both of her volumes at Faber. Wyndham Lewis (of BLAST fame) championed her work and sketched this image of her. Like the work of most Modernist poets with experimental inclinations, Roberts’s work is uneven, but in the words of Robert Graves, who called her “one of the few true poets now writing,” “her best is the best.” I view her magnum opus, the heroic Gods with Stainless Ears, as a forgotten Modernist masterpiece. And yet, outside of Wales, I’ve never met another person who is familiar with her work. The closest I’ve come is this excellent 2006 piece by John Wilkinson in Boston Review.
Roberts is a war poet of the home front, and her work blends the inertia of domestic life in a small Welsh village with an awareness of devastating global conflict. Much of the relatively little writing that does exist on Roberts focuses a bit too much on her failed marriage to the Welsh poet and editor Keidrych Rhys, her mental breakdown, her becoming a Jehovah's Witness, and the fact that she abandoned poetry late in her life. All of this has its place, of course, and it provides a context for her work. But there is certainly not enough focus on her linguistic innovation, the stark originality of much of her work, and the fact that it offers what Katie Gramich calls “an impressionistic evocation of a west Wales enclave becoming a wasteland.” What matters most to me, as a lover of words, is that Lynette Roberts could write poems like this one:
We must uprise O my people. Though
Secretly trenched in sorrel, we must
Upshine outshine the day’s sun: and day
Intensified by the falling prism
Of rain shall curve our smile with straw.
Bring plimsole plover to the tensile sand
And with cuprite crest and petulant feet
Distil our notes into febrile reeds
Crisply starched at the water-rail of tides.
On gault and greensand a gramophone stands:
In zebrine stripes strike out the pilotless
Age: from saxophone towns brass out the dead:
Disinter futility, that we entombing men
Might bridle our runaway hearts.
On tamarisk, on seafield pools shivering
With water-cats, ring out the square slate notes.
Shape the birdbox tress with neumes. Wind sound
Singular into cool and simple corners,
Round pale bittern grass, and all unseen
Unknown places of sheltered rubble
Where whimbrels, redshanks, sandpipers ripple
For the wing of the living. Under tin of earth
And wooden boles where owls break music:
From this killing world against humanity,
Uprise against, outshine the day’s sun.
Read that again, out-loud, and even before you look up all the words and allusions, tell me the sound alone didn’t just make your life better.
Keith Tuma included two sections of Gods with Stainless Ears in his controversial (and I think admirable) 2001 Anthology of Twentieth-Century British and Irish Poetry (Oxford), and Patrick McGuiness has now edited both Roberts’s Collected Poems (Carcanet, 2005) and her Diaries, Letters, and Recollections (Carcanet, 2008). Hopefully this will lead to increased awareness of her work among readers and critics, and not just in Wales, where, to be fair, it has received attention. In the meantime, imagine that I’ve just approached you in the aisle of your favorite used bookstore with a copy of Lynette Roberts’s Collected Poems in my hand, and that I am handing it to you and saying, “You need to read this.”