Of saints and martyrs

Here to Eternity: an anthology of poetry

Selected by Andrew Motion <em>Faber and Faber, 402pp, £16

"O dear white children casual as birds,/Playing among the ruined languages,/So small beside their large confusing words,/So gay against the greater silences/Of dreadful things you did." Thus St Cecilia responds to the prayer of mankind to be redeemed by music, by the power of the aesthetic, in W H Auden's "Anthem for St Cecilia's Day". St Cecilia, patron saint of music and musicians, has been a presiding spirit for poets, too. Dryden's song to the Roman martyr extols the classical ideal of art imposing order on chaos, presenting the image of God as the ur-musician whose "compass of notes" provides the necessary instrument to chart a safe passage through a disordered universe. Human passion is harmonised with universal order, and a means of expression is granted for the diapason of human feeling.

As with music, so with poetry. A good poet is a master musician, because he is someone who knows the right weight of words. Not for him the jurist's forensic equivocation, or the politician's pragmatic elision. Thursday 4 October is National Poetry Day and, at a time when a war of words rehearsed at full volume on television and in the newspapers can so easily presage a war of missiles and bombs, it's worth considering that skill, and accustoming ourselves again to the slower flow of poetry and its quiet infusion of intelligence.

Poets make words work; they know their specific valencies, understand their catalysing potency, and the array of compounds that can be created through judicious mixing. The adolescent Shelley, for all his youth and mad excess, knew this well enough to write (in "Queen Mab") that "Power, like a desolating pestilence,/Pollutes whate'er it touches; and obedience,/Bane of all genius, virtue, freedom, truth,/Makes slaves of men, and of the human frame/A mechanised automaton." Virtue, freedom, truth: these are indeed large, confusing words, yet one hesitates to use them. They are tender currency, too easily debased with the frequent careless handling they have received of late.

Yes, Shelley's bane and pestilence have been all too apparent in recent days. In our vernacular wisdom we glibly contrast the might of pens and swords, yet words do supply a means for power to extend its grasp when hurled about like the weapons they stand surrogate for. So much spilled ink: competing meanings collide, pile up one upon the other, and metastasise into something fearful. Journalism commodifies language as "information", which, like any narcotic, exists chiefly to create the conditions of its own enjoyment. Thus the sly confession of a senior editor of one of our national broadsheets, telling a colleague in the days after the American imbroglio: "I've had a most enjoyable week - the best for ages." Sometimes, this can be a truly degrading profession.

But poetry is a more salutary pool, in which we see a clearer version of ourselves and our horizons. Poetry breathes in "amicable weathers that bring up the grain of things" (in Seamus Heaney's phrase); it follows smaller, quieter paths, and (Auden again) "survives in the valley of its saying where executives/ Would never want to tamper; it flows south/ From ranches of isolation and the busy griefs,/ Raw towns that we believe and die in; it survives,/A way of happening, a mouth."

So here we have three books to embody that survival, and to celebrate it. The first is a pleasingly idiosyncratic selection - as such things should be - by Andrew Motion: poems from Chaucer to the present (though with the preponderance coming from the past 100 years), arranged around ten overlapping themes ("self", "home", "land", "war", and so on). The pleasure of such selections is partly in seeing the canonical stand alongside the neglected, and partly in the curious pairings the pages throw together: Stevie Smith rubs up against Christina Rossetti; Wordsworth against Thom Gunn. Then there is the ever-excellent Forward anthology, the collection of shortlisted poems for the annual prizes in the categories of best poem, best collection and best first collection. The Forward prize never fails to turn up outstanding work, and this year is no exception. The list of nominees for best collection alone - Anne Carson, Douglas Dunn, Matthew Francis, James Lasdun and Sean O'Brien - is indicative of the strength and vigour of the competition. And, as a bonus, there's also a selection from the anthologies of the previous ten years, chosen by the prize's founder, William Sieghart.

Poetry, a poet once told me, is what is left when you take the poetry out: that is to say, it doesn't deal in big issues and grand abstractions. Rather, it's in the use of unselfconscious words to talk about simple, inalienable things; it is a mouth, a way of happening, a shaping of the lips to breathe or speak. These books are proof that the spirit of poetry is not just alive, but flourishing, and without any need for the intercession of saints and martyrs. A good thing, too; we don't need any more of those just now.

Adam Newey is the New Statesman's poetry critic

This article first appeared in What would you do?

2001-10-01