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Nicholas Lezard’s paperback of the week: Complete Poems by Jon Silkin – review

At last, this poet of many voices receives his due – with a postwar anthology all of his own

In 1998, two similar poetry anthologies were published: The Penguin Book of Poetry from Britain and Ireland since 1945, edited by Simon Armitage and Robert Crawford, and The Firebox: Poetry from Britain and Ireland after 1945, edited by Sean O’Brien. In neither did Jon Silkin, one of Britain’s most prolific and influential postwar poets, who had died the year before, appear. This, despite the fact that he had edited a well respected collection of first world war poetry, written the very popular poem “Death of a Son”, and had his work included on the GCSE syllabus. He also founded and edited for 45 years (with a three-year hiatus between 1957 and 1960) the poetry magazine Stand. But then inclusion in anthologies is always a matter of taste and circumstance.

The editors of this Silkin collection have done a supremely conscientious job. The book is not cheap, but it does include a lot of poetry. Silkin published 11 volumes from 1950 on; also included here are 11 sections containing uncollected and unpublished poems, which do his legacy no harm. His first collection, The Portrait and Other Poems, published shortly after he was discharged from national service as a sergeant instructor, was one he didn’t reprint, and he didn’t include any of its poems in collections published during his lifetime. But there is good work in it (such as “The Author Addresses His Razor”: “You do not flinch. / Your edge is fire and calm oiled seas. You know / Your ultimate power as I know mine, you are keen / For the end”. Note the double edge, so to speak, that he gives the word “keen”).

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