Did Britain Produce ANY Great 20th Century Poets? - Magma Poetry (2023)

by Rob Mackenzie

Laurie Smith’s article in Magma 42, ‘The New Imagination‘, explores whether truly great poetry might soon emerge in the UK for the first time in many years. It’s an excellent article – well researched, controversial, and passionate.

At one point in the article, Smith asks why all the “indisputably” great 20th century poets are either American or Irish. He cites:

T.S. Eliot
Ezra Pound
Wallace Stevens
Robert Lowell
Sylvia Plath
W.B. Yeats
Seamus Heaney

He suggests various British possibilities. On most lists would be:

Edward Thomas
Wilfred Owen
W.H. Auden
Dylan Thomas
Ted Hughes

and some would make a case for:

Basil Bunting
William Empson
Philip Larkin
W.S. Graham
R.S. Thomas

However, Smith feels their influence has been more limited than their American and Irish counterparts (he details why in the article).

Do you agree with Laurie Smith’s lists? For instance, does Ezra Pound, undeniably a great editor, also qualify as a great poet? Is Sylvia Plath’s Ariel collection sufficient to justify her inclusion (her other work may be accomplished, but is it ‘great?’)? Are Edward Thomas and Wilfred Owen among the very best Britain has to offer?

And if you were asked to pick the seven most influential poets of the 20th century, who would you choose? How many UK poets make the grade?

The article goes on to examine the possibility of great UK poetry emerging in the years to come, but that’s for another post… (coming soon)

This Post Has 20 Comments

  1. It’s the old thing about the difference between “most influential” and “best”, or “greatest”, I suppose.

    For example, I’d definitely have Hughes and RS Thomas in my list of greatest, but while Hughes has undoubtedly had a massive influence, both for good and bad, I’m not sure if the same applies to Thomas. He’s too much of a one-off, and also was far less visible for most of his career.

  2. I would say that Dylan Thomas definitely makes the grade. I’ve never read/listened to something quite so poetically engaging as Under Milk Wood.

    Another thing I will point out is that the line blurs when it comes to 20th century and poetry, why can’t recording artist’s lyrics be included? The Beatles definitely wrote some of the most poetic lyrics of the 20th century.

  3. ‘Obviously there have been changes in style between 1830 and the present: a modernisation of language including the abandonment of archaisms; a cautious willingness to write without rhyme though not usually without recognisable metre; a lessening of overt rhetoric. But none of these changes has affected the central tradition of English verse since the early 19th century, the essential feature of which is language which is restrained, always grammatical and valued both thoughtful decoration – the well-placed adjective, metonymy or simile – and for plangent cadence, often expressing a sense of loss.

    Such poetry does not take risks, neither with language nor with subject matter. It does not attempt symbolism, nor delight in the musicality of words, nor express political commitment other than a simple nostalgic conservatism. It is, in short, the poetic embodiment of British diffidence, the embedded belief that it is bad manners to express strong emotion openly and that such feelings should be alluded to obliquely or ironically.’ [Laurie Smith, ‘The New Imagination’]

    So the poetry of 20th century Britain shouldn’t have been representative of the attitudes and social mores of the British, expressing and exploring what it is to be British, or indeed, a British writer? It seems to me that many 20th century British poets have written in just this way to fully explore and understand their English, Scottish or Welsh heritage, sense of place, and the social and emotional baggage that comes with this. To write otherwise may, I suspect, have felt alien and disingenuous to many of them.

    I am also wary of the old caricature of Larkin being alluded to here: as a ‘John Bull’ poet who embodies these English values and crafts emotionally flat verse that lacks passion. For one, Larkin is a poet clearly uncomfortable with his Englishness, as evident in poems such as ‘Here’ (the last lines desperately reaching for an elsewhere, an ‘unfenced existence: Facing the sun, untalkative, out of reach’), the serious meditation on British sexual mores that culminates in the Yeatsian close of ‘High Windows’ (‘Rather than words comes the thought of high windows: / The sun-comprehending glass, / And beyond it, the deep blue air, that shows / Nothing, and is nowhere, and is endless’), and of course, ‘The Importance of Elsewhere’. He also writes frankly of love (‘I think of your face among all those faces, // Beautiful and devout’ – ‘Broadcast’) and in ‘Wedding-Wind’, in the tender and questioning voice of a newly-wed bride:

    ‘Can it be borne, this bodying-forth by wind
    Of joy my actions turn on, like a thread
    carrying beads? Shall I be let out to sleep
    Now this perpetual morning shares my bed?
    Can even death dry up
    These new delighted lakes, conclude
    Our kneeling as cattle by all-generous waters?’

    All of these examples of Larkin’s poetic mastery and emotional range are neatly and regularly ignored by his detractors, who latch onto a few of his more famous (and in my opinion, lesser) poems in order to dismiss his incredible range and skill in favour of a weak caricature of a miserable, emotionally closed-off Brit – holding up a small number of poems including ‘This Be The Verse’, ‘The Old Fools’, ‘Mr Bleaney’ and ‘Vers de Société’. Larkin then – not the only British poet to be branded by critics in this way – does in fact ‘delight in the musicality of words’ (something I find that Smith seems to oddly set in opposition to the dextrous use of rhyme, rhythm, assonance and alliteration), and displays much more than ‘a simple nostalgic conservatism’ in provocative poems on urban development, capitalist growth, war and faith. For these reasons, in my opinion he is one of the great poets of the 20th century.

    Granted, of course, there’s a good deal of subtlety in much of Larkin’s work (setting him apart from the powerful and arresting imagery and symbolism evident in, say, the work of Sylvia Plath), but sometimes a subject matter demands this, and there is room for many poetries and approaches to writing a poem. I don’t think it is helpful though to gesture towards some idealised, transcendent sort of ‘Great Poetry’ – written with an obvious sense of urgency and passion – and dismiss the real achievements of British poets whose work is equally affecting and provocative, albeit in different ways. These poems speak to people as much as the sort Smith is championing. One only need look at the popularity of a poet such as Larkin both in his lifetime and today.

  4. Rob – in starting off this thread, you say:

    “Laurie Smith’s article in Magma 42, ‘The New Imagination‘, explores whether truly great poetry might soon emerge in the UK for the first time in many years.”

    No – Laurie talks about whether great poetry can emerge from Britain, not the UK; he is specific in talking about British, which means English, Scottish and Welsh, and is separate from Irish. The term UK – of course – includes Northern Ireland. To use Britain and UK interchangeably is to both disregard an immensely potent political actuality, and to muddy the distinction which I think does exist between British and Irish poetry.

    And where does MacNeice fit in? Hugely influential for many contemporary poets, as much as – if not more than – Auden. Bedevilled by a long mid-life fallow period perhaps, but writer of one of the greatest long poems of the twentieth century. Is he Irish, having been born there? Or British, given that his aesthetic is so powerfully shaped by his experience of living and working in the English Home counties?

  5. The acknowledgement of fixtures and forces from which the emodiment of the British poetic springs have:

    “..embedded (the) belief that it is bad manners to express strong emotion openly and that such feelings should be alluded to obliquely or ironically.” – whilst being no secret, the systematic frankness with which Smith sets about detangling the currents which lead to the contemporary, is refreshing.

    There is a lot of theoretical and historical ground laid out and covered in the piece, with plenty of points and pads to launch from and focus on, and it is an earnest attempt calling for a reinvention of British poetry. One Smith senses, “cannot now be long” coming.

    Whether this premontion will manifest in a printed shift Smith is willing to read and experience, or if there will be many infused into a revolution of the intellect and imagination which results in the slewing off of diffidence – who can say?


    Behind, or rather, above the grid Smith lays out, is the singular aspect which holds all the neat criss crossed lines of the British tradition, or rather, the modern English language poetry tradition which really got motoring after the Tudor dynasty had united England under the one line after the wars of the roses had ended in success for Yorkshire side and a the modern era of peace in England, began.

    It is the one apsect of English life which – though it needs no naming on the island of Britain at least – whose fundaments are rarely investigated on a private level, or discussed in public with any gusto and is the given glue or gaffer tape with which – as Smith puts it, the:

    “British have been conditioned to find intimate but equal relationships uncongenial or, at least, inexpressible.”

    Smith uses the R word in relation to “writing good poetry, even in Britain, we live in a de facto republic and this has always been the case” – which I take to mean a republic of the Imagination, where Joe Bloggs is the equal citizen of Elizabeth Windsor. The world of imagination in which, as Dave Lordon says, “there is no law.”

    This gets at the thrust of what lies behind what Smith is saying. That the *supreme fictions” begin life in a realm we alone populate and rule over. Where we can commit any act the imagination is capable of concieving, from world peace to global dictatorship and all points in between.

    The central plank of the article, that:

    “..the English (and their proxies in Scotland and Wales) have been educated to use language as control – to control their own feelings by denying or minimising them and to control others by suggesting, through fluency, grammatical precision, irony or accent, that they are inferior” — suggests Higher, human causes of the poetic state Smith believes existential, though unarticulated and off-stage of the article as it where.

    The tradition of British poetry, until recently, was insular, in the sense that it was an extension of the oxbridge common room culture, with all the attendant senses of automatic rights of inclusion and privilege – on display in the verse of a country founded and run on the principle of monarchy. So the canon is somewhat skewered, in the sense that for the majority of the time in which the British tradition has run, to be become a *great* British poet one had to attend one of two universities, set up by the monarch and whose students were inculcated into serving a Highness. And until the new universities began sprouting up, and still even now to some extent; there pool from which potential candidates for a laurel Crown were sourced, was a very small one.

    Even now, there is a case to make that there exists a nod and wink bias in publishing which favours those whose earliest juvenelia was written in a place a very small percentage of poets get educated at. This is a very contentious issue which is far more complex than the somewhat blunt manner in which it is stated here, but the general thesis is there. The great hopes of the future, have traditionally been students from these places, and a though culturally unrepresentitive of a wider Englishness most British people connect with – are still the primary poetic PR logos of the past which purport to embody the collective spirit of the British people.

    In Britian, the prize culture offers accolades not in the mix in America and Ireland, where everyone is either miss or mister, which allows the poet to be unencumbered with the business of success measured in an Honour from a monarch. The danger for the good health of poetry comes, if the majority of British poets, would measuring their poetic success in these terms. That Sir or Lady Poet would confer an increase of ability or intelligence. That ones poetic gift will get a leg up and we will start writing better stuff, if we seeks to be honoured in this way.

    This begs the question: could the link between Majesty, miss and mister, in Britain, be an inhibiting cause on what Smith argues as the heart of the poetic act, in which the “potentiality of mankind and of the self are seen as one.”?

  6. I think it is absurd to sideline Wilfred Owen, W.H. Auden, Dylan Thomas, Ted Hughes and Larkin. But I think that there is strong argument for the fact that the great English poetry of the 20th century has been expressed through lyrics as opposed to normal poetry. The same can’t be said for the US songwriters.

  7. There are several tangled questions here. Does the ‘great’ here mean ‘well-known/well-liked’ or ‘influential’ or ‘influential for the restricted range of poetry generally represented in much of our local production’?
    If the last, of course, the question is kinda self-defeating.
    If the middle one then one has to consider the likes of J.H.Prynne etc. love ’em or hate ’em such figures cast long shadows on a part of the UK poetry scene. (I suspect that Lawrie Smith’s frequent appeals to ’emotion’ ‘commitment’ and praising other traditions’ ability to ‘express feeling, describe vividly’ he is likely to fall into the latter camp.)
    And if the first we all know that posterity is pretty hard on popularity.
    It is also worth bearing in mind that the population of the US is approximately 5-6x that of the UK – why should we not be outscored?
    That same reflection suggests that the next major English language poet is most likely to come out of India.
    Oh…somebody else has already mentioned Pound & MacNiece, I also think he’s wrong on Auden and what happened to Thomas Hardy?

  8. JH Prynne is the ONLY great British poet of the 20th century, the only poet who can stand up to a Milton, Wordsworth, Wallace Stevens or James Joyce anyway. Yeats, Dylan Thomas, WS Graham and Tom Raworth are talented and original, but only Prynne is great in the C20th. Just ask posterity. The notion that Sylvia Plath or Wilfred Owen might be ranked alongside Donne, Pope and Shelley is beyond my comprehension – perhaps I’m just simple.

  9. I wonder if to be regarded as “great”, as opposed to “cult” requires a certain level of consensus. Obviously many people regard Prynne as great, but only those from the avant-garde side of things. It could be that, as has been the case for writers like WS Graham, Roy Fisher and Lee Harwood, the consensus will eventually shift in Prynne’s direction.

    I’m surprised no one has mentioned Geoffrey Hill yet (at least I don’t think anyone has). He’s often considered the greatest contemporary British poet.

    Thanks for all those interesting comments, by the way.

  10. ‘Only those from the avant-garde side of things’ we are still in a mess aren’t we? And when, one might ask, did ‘consensus’ shift in favour of Graham, Fisher and Harwood (or James Joyce and Sam Beckett): it certainly has not for the ordinary reader (even the ‘ordinary reader’ of contemporary poetry). The pattern of elevation here has much more to do with the academy than the street.

    It would be very interesting for Magma to carry a full scale debate on the merits of Prynne: three rounds, no biting or low punches. No winner obviously, but it might at least make the judges score-cards public (or their scoring methods).

  11. What no Hardy!
    Shame on you all.

  12. Gareth – Hear! Hear!

  13. By my own reckoning I’d say “The Triumph of Love” by Geoffrey Hill is perhaps the greatest single 20th century (book-length) poem – taking the measure of that tragic century into its serious analysis and compacted cadences – and I’d offer the corpus of Yeats’ verse as the best full body of work of that century (almost of any century – though Yeats, of course, wasn’t British).

    It is indeed an error that Hardy and Owen have been left out, and Dylan Thomas at his best is as lyrical and sonorous as any poet and one who refused playing the sedulous ape to the insipid and ephemeral vogues in which more forgettable poets got stuck like insects in honey. Auden has never appealed to me very strongly, but this may be a failing on my part.

    Someone mentioned that perhaps song lyricists should be taken into account, but if they were there are none that would match the benchmark of the best wordsmiths. Even Leonard Cohen would appear minor by comparison, ad Roger Waters, let alone the Beatles, who without the support of the music would sound inane beside the crafted elegance of Cole Porter.

  14. Consider at least a couple of Poets Laureate. Betjemann and Masefield.
    Also you cannot eliminate lyricists such as John Lennon or Noel Coward.
    However, no one person can judge what is good and what is not. There are those who would argue that one of the great American poets is Tom Lehrer – simply because he is instantly enjoyable.
    My own verse is doubtless considered to be shallow by many, but the fact remains that I manage to entertain people who would never consider reading or listening to “deep” poetry particularly if it has neither rhythm nor rhyme. If you are the kind of “highbrow” who relishes obscurity in what you read or write, then I feel sorry for you as you are missing out on a whole genre which gives we plebs a great deal of pleasure. It is in the nature of obscurity that it is largely invisible and is destined to remain so.
    I urge you to read without snobbery and to simply enjoy without trying to feel superior to we simpler souls: you have nothing to lose but your isolation and pretentiousness.

  15. First of all, delve into Ezra Pounds Canto’s, and tell me he’s not a great poet. Second what about non- English language guys like Rilke, Neruda, Pasternak and Milosz, all very influential, especially in their native languages, but also to English language poets.

  16. Greatest 20th century poet writing in English – Dylan Thomas. The beauty, heartbreak and singing joy of Fern Hill is, in my view, unmatched by anything I have ever read.

  17. I agree with those above that Thomas Hardy is the great British poet of the twentieth century. The range of his work, the subtle blend of tradition with modernity, place him at the level of Yeats. His modernism is less showy, but no one is better in the English language for focus and perception. How often his work uses the unexpected but revelatory word. He also has a complex, if pessimistic, ideology, that does not resort to soft headed answers. His star will rise as others fall.

  18. If we consider Auden and Eliot as British, the list of 12 must be ( in no particular order of merit ): Yeats, Eliot, Auden, Betjeman, Grigson, Sassoon, Hughes,Hardy,Larkin, Geoffrey Hill, Dylan Thomas, and R.S.Thomas/Andrew Young.

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