Lesbians are us. Adam Newey; 101 reasons to read poetry

101 Poems by 101 Women

Germaine Greer (editor) <em>Faber and Faber, £9.99</em>

ISBN 0571207340

I never became a lesbian myself, but I knew some who did. Back in the mid-1980s, the high water mark of futile gesture politics, a university friend of mine called Richard declared himself a militant separatist. Those were the days before the term "politically correct" had crossed the Atlantic, but we had our own version: it was ideologically sound to ally yourself with the Greenham wimmin, and if that meant signing up for the dungaree-wearing sorority, so be it. Neither gender nor sexuality need be a bar. Yes, they were confusing times to be a bloke.

Anyway, I was reminded of this nonsense by Germaine Greer's introduction to her anthology 101 Poems by 101 Women (Faber and Faber). To her credit, she appears a little ambivalent about the whole project. As she candidly admits: "Some of the poetry I have chosen is frankly bad; all of it is imperfect." There are questions, too, about the "ghettoisation" of poetry written by women in an anthology of this nature. Still, there's some great stuff here by writers, such as Amy Lowell, HD and Marianne Moore, who don't need - indeed, never did need - the expedient of a segregated environment for their voices to be heard (though Greer's decision to limit each poet to one entry means we don't get enough of them). Where a book like this has real value, though, is in giving space to those - the 17th-century Mary Carey, for instance - who might otherwise be lost.

The appearance of a flock of anthologies on the landscape is as reliable a signifier of the Christmas season as scrummages in shops and perpetual dyspepsia. For some reason, 101 is the magic number for anthologists - a number that manages simultaneously to suggest cornucopial superfluity and Orwellian brutality. Probably the jolliest offering is Heaven on Earth: 101 happy poems, edited by Wendy Cope (Faber). It contains much that is regularly anthologised, as well as some unexpected turns by Philip Larkin ("For Sidney Bechet"), Emily Dickinson ("I taste a liquor never brewed") and Norman MacCaig's glorious hymn to whisky.

Hugo Williams's Curtain Call: 101 portraits in verse (Faber) is an intriguing variation on the genre - Williams writes in his introduction that "the person poem, the character sketch, has always been with us" and duly delivers a span of work from Catullus to Michael Hofmann. Poems Not on the Underground: a parody, edited by "Straphanger", aka Roger Tagholm (Windrush Press), is an enjoyable send-up of the poems on the Tube project, in which well-known works are reinterpreted through the eyes of the contemporary traveller in and around London. Had Edward Thomas journeyed a bit further south, his most famous line might indeed have been "Yes, I remember Chorleywood . . ."; if Keats had lived not in Hampstead but Earls Court, we might well have his "Ode to Autumn, on the District" ("Region of twists and shallow routelessness . . ."). Some of these are rather more forced than others ("Kubla Khan takes Junction 31 off the M25" is pushing it a bit), but this is a lot of fun.

Still in the anthology section, the indefatigable Michael Horovitz, organiser of the Poetry Olympics festivals, has edited The POM! Anthology, a selection of work by those, such as Allen Ginsberg, Adrian Mitchell and Paul McCartney, who have contributed to the events over the years (New Departures, £5.99 plus £1 p&p from: New Departures, PO Box 9819, London W11 2GQ). There's also a welcome new edition of Horovitz's own selected works, Wordsounds and Sightlines (New Departures), containing his fractal jazz poetry, as well as a wonderful homage to Private Eye's poetaster-in-residence, E J Thribb.

Strongly recommended is Edward Lear: the complete verse and other nonsense, edited by Vivien Noakes (Penguin). This is a huge labour of love by Lear's distinguished biographer and editor. "The adventures of the umbrageous umbrella-maker", "the Yonghy-Bonghy-Bo" and "Mr and Mrs Discobbolos" are handsomely illustrated throughout with Lear's jaunty line drawings, and the book is extensively annotated. This is nonsense treated with the seriousness it deserves.

Since there really isn't any tasteful way to segue from Lear to the great poet of the Holocaust, Paul Celan, I shan't try. The Romanian-born poet's stock is riding as high as ever just now, with a magnificent new biography by John Felstiner (Paul Celan, Yale University Press) and a selection of Felstiner's translations (Selected Poems and Prose of Paul Celan, W W Norton) newly available in paperback. And in January, Persea Books will be bringing out a bilingual German/English edition of the poems with translations by Michael Hamburger. So there'll be no excuse, come the end of the holiday season, for having a less than profound appreciation of Celan's meteor-like impact on postwar European poetry.

While we're in eastern Europe, it's worth mentioning Czeslaw Milosz's New and Collected Poems 1931-2001 (Allen Lane, The Penguin Press). It's a hefty slab of a book, and the new work it contains shows that, even at the age of 90, his vision has not dimmed. And Carcanet has produced a collection of Joseph Brodsky's poems (Collected Poems in English), which is a very useful compendium of the Russian master's oeuvre.

There's just room to mention a couple of this year's new collections: Dom Moraes's In Cinnamon Shade (Carcanet) is the Indian-born poet's first full-length work to be published in Britain for more than 30 years; Paul Durcan's Cries of an Irish Caveman (Harvill) is lyrical, witty and accessible as ever; and Geoffrey Hill's Speech! Speech! (Penguin) is an extraordinary, tragicomic sequence of 120 12-line poems (one for each of the days of Sodom) that plunder just about every aspect of the culture that you can think of. This may just be the book that marks Hill out as a modern-day Milton.

Adam Newey is the New Statesman's poetry critic