Selected Poems: 1956-1996 by Anthony Thwaite
Too much together, or too much apart:
This is one problem of the human heart.
Spanning 40 years, Anthony Thwaite’s collection explores human hearts across the world, from his native Britain to Japan, from the Americas to Libya. And just as they cover many eras of his life, so Thwaite’s poems cover a great span of human history: ‘The Letters of Synesius’ weaves Roman antiquity with modernity; ‘September 3rd 1939: Bournemouth’ marks the beginning of the Second World War for the nine-year-old author; and ‘Education’ laments modern day trivialties, such as ‘making up shapes and colouring each / For something called Projects.’
Anthony Thwaite is known to many only as the literary executor of Philip Larkin. If that’s your reference point then let me phrase the matter thusly: it is this writer’s opinion that Thwaite is the best English poet since Mr Larkin. As this collection proves, Thwaite employs the same rich language and sardonic wit as Larkin, but with much less despondency. He is also more varied. The contrast of the opening two poems, ‘Death of a Rat’ and ‘To My Unborn Child’, suggests as much. The former is ‘a farce right from the start’; the latter ‘Not yet real, we make for you / a toy that is reality.’ He is equally comfortable describing the Raj in lengthy verses of iambic pentameter as he is in dainty poems about snow and dust, foxes and hedgehogs. He is also able to snap the reader to attention with a striking word and a perfect image: ‘Where ‘fall by the sword’ is no Sunday metaphor / Echoed antiphonally down gentle arches’.
Thwaite is most intriguing in his own past; ‘Sinuous rememberings,’ as he describes it. He recalls his years in Japan, in particular the natives’ interpretation of English: ‘My garden is only the size of a cat’s forehead / This is because my fees are a sparrow’s tears’. Here, as everywhere, he ranges far and wide, from the sensation of an earthquake (‘The flavour of fear, / Something fragile in the air. / Gone, it remains here.’) to a cockroach in the kitchen (‘Plated and helmeted and plumed and proud / I faced him as a common yokel might’).
As the impressive and patient collection nears its end, the grandfather Thwaite contemplates the old and the ancient: a wounded snake slithering, ‘Back into barricades of compost, back / Into the winter of death, and out of sight’; a curious object purchased abroad, ‘bright tapestry, / Orange and red. It was a mystery. / My mother made it into a tea-cosy’; and ultimately poetry itself, ‘which no one wants to teach / Because it has rules and no one knows enough / To know how the rules work’. Fortunately, this quiet and tousled poetic sage knows the rules and how they work.