Poetry books

Anthologies of time and space

People who know poets, or who like to talk about poets, often say that their world is particularly malicious, begrudging or competitive. It's true that this is part of the atmosphere, as it is part of any world in which people are forced into comparison, into competition for recognition, let alone survival. The world of poetry is particularly small, obscure and impoverished so perhaps such ill-feeling is magnified. Yet this may also be why poets depend upon and nurture one another. They are one another's advocates, editors, promoters, allies, critics and, yes, even friends.

Dead poets, foreign poets, the overlooked and forgotten are being reincarnated and revived all the time. Every year there are new versions, translations, anthologies and introductions that show poetry feeding, instead of eating itself. Some might think this insularity corrupting, but there are sadly few who read poetry with a passion and who haven't ever at least tried to write it. There are some whose judgements are patently limited by their politics, politesse or ego, but enough are cantankerously singular and tactless, refusing to be moved by anything but the poem itself. Then again, the first kind can disguise itself as the latter . . .

The widely respected poet Carol Ann Duffy has been a true advocate for years. She is well known for her support of newer poets, given both privately and in print. Her latest anthology, Time's Tidings: greeting the 21st century (Anvil, £7.99) is the only millennium compilation I've seen that takes the idea of this chronological watershed and makes something properly interesting out of it. The logistics make it sound somewhat prescriptive but the result is a serendipitous and illuminating arrangement of poems that speak to each other across the centuries. Fifty contemporary poets were asked to choose their favourite poem from another time, about time. Their selections were matched with a poem of their own, chosen either by themselves or by Duffy. The book is arranged Z to A, Zephaniah to Abse, alternating present and past. Few of the couplings could be predicted but once made, most seem altogether natural, casting new light on both: the quiet expanse of Deryn Rees Jones's "Calcium" matched with Pablo Neruda's white nights; Mebdh McGuckian's brilliantly faceted and concentrated "What Does 'Early' Mean?" alongside one of Emily Dickinson's diamonds; Hugo Williams's cinematic elisions next to the fade and cut and zoom of Louis MacNeice's "Soap Suds".

Don Paterson's 101 Sonnets (Faber & Faber, £4.99) is deceptively small, in the sense of a phone box turning out to be a time machine. His introduction gives a thorough and applied explanation of the sonnet, right down to its relation to Fibonacci and the golden section. He reminds us that poems are "a messy process not a single act" and that what their writer is striving for is the right Coleridgean "combination of music and sense". His selection starts with Robert Frost's "The Silken Tent" and ends with Seamus Heaney's "The Sky Light", both reflecting the capacious and thrillingly tenuous coherences that a strongly formed poem can create. These sonnets seduce, wail, spit, tease, celebrate, mourn and confess. They twist like snakes, knives, magician's handkerchiefs or a dog chasing its own tail. Don't put this book in someone's Christmas stocking, force it into their hands.

If your loved one has such a poor attention span that they can't even manage 14 lines, try Simon Armitage's equally delightful Short and Sweet: 101 very short poems (Faber & Faber, £4.99). He draws the line at 13, begins with Emily Dickinson and ends in a kind of pass-the-parcel suspense of "surely not one more layer". After the single line of words, one of syllables, then a paradox and to finish, Don Paterson's zen equivalent of the mathematical concept "i" (the impossible square root of minus one). The short form is clearly good for poets. They have to fit a big thought or a good joke into a tiny space, no mess or waste. There are many surprises as well as ever-popular pieces that have yet to wear out, from Gerard Manley Hopkins's "Pied Beauty" to Christopher Logue's "To a Friend in Search of Rural Seclusion": "When all else fails,/Try Wales." As Armitage says, "Not bad for a handful of syllables."

Oxford University Press may have made a terrible fudge of its attempts to recover from the fall-out when it axed its poetry list, but they have still turned out a brazenly lavish new edition of The Oxford Book of English Verse (£25). Christopher Ricks's introduction and preface are worth the investment. He argues modestly and well for his choices and also for the criteria he set himself. He chose to end with Seamus Heaney, feeling unsure about his appreciation of those considerably younger. This is just the kind of resolutely unfashionable, impolitic, ambitious, fusty and intelligent anthology we need.

The publisher/poet/critic/academic Michael Schmidt has no such qualms about assessing poetry's future. He has edited New Poetries II for his Carcanet Press (£9.95) and emblazoned it with a mirrored skyscraper. Schmidt gives almost no biographical details for the 13 poets herein, a Svengali-like touch that could suggest they have no lives of their own. The book opens with Matthew Welton, whose half- and alternately-rhymed couplets owe more to pop than Pope. Monica Youn, Nicole Krauss and Stephen Burt show that American poetry is staging a recovery, tightening its bagginess with poised formality and clean, disciplined lines. Otherwise, Jeremy Over and Sinead Morrissey are the ones to watch.

What better advocate for poetry has there been than the Poems on the Underground scheme? Its founders, Gerard Benson, Cicely Herbert and Judith Chernaik, have stayed with the project for over ten years, and have just published the ninth edition of Poems on the Underground (Cassell, £6.99). There is no better starting point than coming across one of these finely produced posters on the Tube. Take them home and read them in comfort.