Poetry - Banging the anvil of words

Lavinia Greenlaw recalls how a $2,000 grant uncovered a world of unknown talent

Anvil Press, 30 years old , has been described by its publisher Peter Jay as "England's longest surviving specialist poetry press of the postwar period". Given the general fate of small businesses with such a decidedly uncommercial product, this emphasis on survival is understandable, but Anvil has done much more than get by. Jay founded Anvil shortly after leaving Oxford, where he had published a magazine called New Measure. One of his contributors was the American poet Stanley Moss, who put him in touch with the Rockefeller Foundation. Two weeks after a meeting with the foundation's director, Jay received a cheque for $2,000 for unspecified "creative activities". These days, such a magical combination of promptness and vagueness in a funding body can only be dreamt of.

Anvil published two books and six pamphlets in its first year. It was a good time for poetry, and in particular poetry in translation. The wonderful Penguin Modern European Poets series flourished. The first Poetry International Festival, directed by Ted Hughes and Patrick Garland, brought together the now unimaginable constellation of Yehudah Amihai, W H Auden, Hugh MacDiarmid, John Berryman, Hans Magnus Enzensberger and Yves Bonnefoy. From the beginning, Anvil committed itself to such work and its backlist features Federico GarcIa Lorca, Ana Blandiana and four Nobel prize winners: Odysseus Elytis, Pablo Neruda, Octavio Paz and George Seferis.

To celebrate the 30th anniversary, Jay has published The Spaces of Hope: poetry for our times and places, his own selection from all that he has published over the past 30 years. These 200 or so poems have an emphasis on Eastern Europe but they include versions of everything from the Aztec to 19th-century Korean. Some of the best are by poets who are overlooked in Britain for not being either "great" or "new", such as Salvatore Quasimodo, Sarah Kirsch and Johannes Brobowski. Anvil does a great service by keeping their work in the public eye.

The Spaces of Hope characterises the kind of poetry Anvil has focused upon - perhaps too much so, as some inclusions conform too monotonously to the book's ethos and are not that poet's most interesting work. Located somewhere between modernism and the mystical, this poetry is contemplative, symbolic and fable-like; fixed on brief, lyrical coherences. Ivan Lalic's "The Spaces of Hope", from which Jay's title is taken, typically evokes "The places which suddenly set/Into a random form: a lilac garden,/A street in Florence, a morning room,/A sea smeared with silver before the storm,/Or a starless night lit only/By a book on the table." These poems tend to occupy natural, historical or psychic worlds; very little about them is noisy or brash.

With the exception of Paul Celan and one or two others, the emphasis is on sensation and image rather than on sound, which is perhaps why Jay describes them as being memorable rather than memorisable. There is a prevailing consciousness of the poem being made, as when Carol Ann Duffy acknowledges: "this/is what it is like or what it is like in words". Many of these poets and translators nod to one another, and several change camps. All this affirms an idea of poetry as particularly living and connected; it's not surprising that Jay notes "a robust tendency towards hope and joy". These themes, like any aspect of happiness, are notoriously difficult to get right.

One of Britain's best known poets, Carol Ann Duffy, exemplifies Jay's favoured combination of "precision, wit and musicality". Her unsolicited manuscript dropped through his letterbox in the early 1980s and became the first of four award-winning collections. Duffy has an "interim collection" just out, lightly titled the pamphlet (£5). The jacket design is daring: Duffy's name, in skinny, lower case sans serif type, is suspended in orange, purple and brown squares on a beige background. The Spaces of Hope cover is in the same earthy, geometrical style, aubergine, with pink and orange discs.

If the fashion for 1970s retro extended to poetry then perhaps Anvil would be safe at last. As it is, the press has launched a fund-raising drive in an attempt to secure some working capital. In his afterword, Jay acknowledges the long-standing support of the Arts Council; his many colleagues and friends; even the staff at NatWest's Greenwich branch. That he thanks several generations in each case reflects the unremitting demands of keeping such a venture afloat.

Anvil currently publishes 12 new titles a year, as many as Faber and more than most. Its books feel like an investment, not least because they are well designed and printed on good paper. Other recent titles of note include a fine second collection from Martina Evans, All Alcoholics Are Charmers (£7.95); Take My Word for It (£7.95), the first work written in English by the Romanian Nina Cassian, who has produced some 50 books to date; and new translations of two of China's best known poets - Li Po, who wrote during the T'ang dynasty, and Bei Dao, who emerged around the time of Tiananmen Square.

Anvil has established its territory by taking a subtle but definite line that it has traced through some of the oldest and newest, best and least known voices of this century. Let's hope it finds the wherewithal to follow that line into the next.

"The Spaces of Hope: poetry for our times and places" (Anvil Press, 224pp, £9.95)

This article first appeared in the 15 January 1999 issue of the New Statesman, A slight and delicate minister?