A former Oxford professor offers a lively introduction famous and little-known poems
Good Companions: A Personal Anthology. By John Bayley. Little, Brown/Abacus, 246 pp., $9.95, paperback.
By Janice Harayda
Most poetry collections pose one of two problems for the casual reader: They have no commentary, now matter how inscrutable their poems may be, or they are textbooks that are full of commentary but too dry and academic to interest most nonscholars.
John Bayley’s Good Companions is the rare anthology that finds the perfect balance between those extremes. This compact paperback – just the right size for a briefcase or nighttable – consists of good short poems or snippets from novels, letters and diaries of the past three centuries. But it has far more poems than prose, and with good reason: Though Bayley is too diplomatic to say so, this is where most people need help, and he provides it superbly.
Bayley doesn’t try to supply a comprehensive introduction to each poem but instead offers a few insightful and opinionated lines that focus on whatever he finds most interesting about it. Sometimes that’s a bit of context, such as when he writes of Lord Rochester’s “A Song of a Young Lady to Her Ancient Lover”:
“The ancient person was probably no more than forty-five. Rakes and dissipated young men, as Rochester certainly was, thought of themselves as completely worn out at an age which people today would consider the prime of life.”
Elsewhere Bayley notes a strength or weakness of a poem, or an especially interesting idea that it raises. He admires Elizabeth Bishop’s “The Fish,” in which the speaker catches a valiant fish but releases it after seeing five earlier fish hooks “grown firmly in his mouth.” But for all his admiration, Bayley wonders: “Perhaps the end is a bit too much of a pat on the back for the poet?”
That gentle question exemplifies the conversational tone of the book, its greatest charm. After decades as a professor at Oxford, Bayley might have claimed a Zeus-like right to fling thunderbolts of erudition down from Olympus. Instead he invites you to take part in a lively dialogue about some of his favorite poems. And if you accept, you’re likely to find that some of his selections become your favorites, too.
Best line: Bayley’s shows his gift for summing up a poem in a few deft sentences in his brief comment on Thomas Hardy’s “The Self-Unseeing”: “Hardy at his most moving, and also at his most cannily perceptive. When children are really most happy, and indeed when grown-ups are too, they are very seldom aware of the fact. Perfect happiness is not a state in which self-awareness plays a part.” The last lines of Hardy’s poem bear him out: “Childlike, I danced in a dream; / Blessings emblazoned that day; / Everything glowed with a gleam; / Yet we were looking away!”
Worst line: Bayley includes Blake’s “The Tyger” but punts on the commentary: “What is there to say about the Tyger?”
Published: 2002 Little Brown/Abacus www.littlebrown.co.uk. [I discovered this book this summer at a large Borders store, shelved somewhat oddly in the memoirs section, next to Bayley’s Elegy for Iris, so you may find it in a spot other than the poetry aisle.]
Furthermore: Bayley also wrote Elegy for Iris www.picadorusa.com, a memoir of his marriage to the novelist Iris Murdoch and her descent into Alzheimer’s Disease.
Janice Harayda is an award-winning critic who has been the book columnist for Glamour, book editor of the Plain Dealer and a vice-president of the National Book Critics Circle www.bookcritics.org. She also wrote the comic novels The Accidental Bride (St. Martin’s, 1999) and Manhattan on the Rocks (Sourcebooks, 2004).
© 2007 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.