Six Poets: Hardy to Larkin: An Anthology by Alan Bennett is a collection of over seventy poems with commentary from six different poets. Bennett is an English author and Tony Award-winning playwright. Bennett’s first stage play, “Forty Years On”, was produced in 1968.
I jumped at this book. As a latecomer to poetry and having little in the way of formal education on the subject, I readily recognized the poets Hardy and Larkin. However, I found that the four between them were new to me: Houseman, Betjeman, Auden, and MacNeice. Like Bennett, I was baffled by poetry in my younger years and never took more that the required literature classes for a bachelor’s in science degree. I do remember having my review of Eliot’s “The Wasteland” torn apart because I concentrated on the historical realities rather than the fertility symbolism. I was a history major. That turned me off to poetry until a few years ago. Earlier, I recalled my fourth-grade public school teacher reading to the class Larkin’s poem “Church Going” which seemed to directly clash with my Catholic Sunday school teachings. I look back at my fourth-grade teacher and the books she brought to class for us to read and I see her as a subversive hero that kept me interested in reading.
Bennet gives a bit of a biography of each poet in their separate sections and comments on the poems and the poet’s lives. Hardy had a thing about graveyards. Bennet tells of how Hardy took his soon to be second wife to visit the grave of his first wife. He pointed to the empty plot next to his first wife and told his wife to be, “This will be yours.” She accepted his proposal and they were married in what is probably the creepiest marriage proposal outside of fiction.
The information included with the poems opens the readers to common themes in the poetry as well as the poet’s influences. Larkin, the librarian, is quite blunt and even vulgar at times. Auden was better with engineering than love and it shows in his poems. There was a difference to these men and it reflected in their writing. There is no mold that poets are formed from.
Bennett is unintrusive in his discussion and notes on the poems and poets. He does relate themes and explains the influence of the style of writing without a lecturer’s despotic intolerance to interpretation. It is more at a casual conversational tone with a touch of humor and personal discovery. It is like talking with an enlightened friend rather than a lesson.
Six Poets is the sort of book that will draw in those who have been intimidated by poetry and those wanting to enjoy the words without the theory. One can love aviation without being an aeronautical engineer. One can appreciate military history without being a soldier. And one can also appreciate poetry without a degree. Six Poets is a welcome addition for anyone curious about poetry yet intimidated by the reputation. Very well done.