French Poetry from Medieval to Modern Times review – warm humanity, brave choices

Editor Patrick McGuinness has assembled a rich and wide-ranging anthology that shows the strong links between French and English

‘Il faut être absolument moderne,” wrote Rimbaud: we must be absolutely modern. Has there been a foreign-language tradition more influential to modern English poetry than French? From WB Yeats’s symbolist beginnings to Ezra Pound and TS Eliot’s discovery of Jules Laforgue and Tristan Corbière, from Gertrude Stein’s cubist prose poems to Frank O’Hara carrying a Pierre Reverdy book in his pocket, 20th-century Anglophone poetry offers strong evidence for Wallace Stevens’s claim that “French and English constitute a single language”.

Patrick McGuinness, who is among the most Gallic (or, strictly speaking, Belgian) of modern British poets, has assembled a careful yet copious anthology, demonstrating just how close the two traditions are. Handily pocket-sized, this is not the book for great tracts of the Roman de la Rose ...