Book Review: “The Penguin Book of First World War Poetry”

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Note: I read the second edition, published in 1981. From what I understand, Penguin now sells George Walter’s In Flanders Fields repackaged as the new Penguin Book of First World War Poetry. Check which edition you’re getting if you decide to buy a copy!

Now, before you all grab your pitchforks and come after me for giving anything less than five stars to a book that has work by Wilfred Owen in it, let me explain: I did not deduct points for the poetry itself. Where this collection fails, quite spectacularly, is editing. Jon Silkin was undoubtedly a very intelligent man who knew a lot this particular period, but I have issues with many of his decisions.

First, there is the introduction Silkin wrote to the volume. At a whopping seventy pages, it takes up almost one-fourth of the book and fails utterly at doing what an introduction is supposed to do: give the reader a brief, coherent context about the book, its author(s), and the historical period. Maybe it’s because Silkin is not an academic, like most people who are asked to write these things, but his introduction is incoherent, inaccessible, unnecessarily complicated, and at times downright impossible to follow (I’ve been studying literature in university for six years now, imagine how confused the general audience must be!).

As for the selection itself, Silkin makes no secret of the fact that he has picked the poems he personally likes best: “Much as the word may rightly be challenged, I was in the end concerned with excellence, not the representation of extrinsic concerns.” In the introduction, he has written elaborate explanations of which author is superior to all the others in his opinion (Isaac Rosenberg) and which is overrated (Siegfried Sassoon). Silkin set out to create a collection of works he deemed good enough to be included, not a historical anthology looking to cover all the bases. As a result, the volume consists mostly of the usual British suspects, the obvious choices. One-fifth of the book consist of non-British poets (in translation) and there are no women to be found. Wilfred Owen gets twenty-three pages (eighteen poems in total).

Finally, I was incredibly annoyed by the fact that Penguin tried to save some money by not having each poem begin on a new page. As a result, you can get the first two lines of a poem at the bottom of a page, completely separate from the rest of the text. There are also no publication dates or dates of writing listed anywhere except in the list of contents, meaning that you cannot envision any kind of time frame while reading.

What a mess.

Again, don’t buy unless it is the revised edition.


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