Dalrymple recounts in the New Criterion, “I decided on an experiment recently while visiting a second-hand bookshop. Would I be able to tell whether the poetry of poets of whom I had never previously heard was any good?”
After my sixteenth birthday, more or less, I was left to my own devices as to what to read and how. On the whole, I accepted the world’s judgment of what was good and bad, and when I disagreed with that judgment I assumed that the fault was mine. I had been left without systematic or objective criteria by which to judge; I assumed that such criteria were necessary, that they existed, and that they were rigorously applied by proper critics.
Eventually, I stumbled upon an exercise that, unexpectedly, served me well in my appreciation of literature: that of reading the documentation of murder trials in which I was about to appear as expert witness.
There follows an analysis of the two books he selects, by unknown poets: First Poems (1941) by Richard Elwes, and Far from the Land and Other Poems (1944) by James Monahan, both of which he finds meaningful:
It is as if enchantment and disenchantment were lenses through which the two of them looked at the world, each lens no doubt with its power of distortion, but each also capable of revealing truths that the other cannot.
A question remains that I am technically ill-equipped to answer. Is it true that undisturbed on the dusty shelves of obscure bookshops lie poems of some merit?