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Arts: Neither rhyme, nor reason

The battle lines are drawn. The big guns have been deployed. Penguin and Picador have published anthologies on an identical theme, and almost simultaneously. But have they both shot themselves in the foot? By Michael Glover
On Friday of this week Poetry International, the nation's largest poetry festival, will get under way at the South Bank Centre, playing host to some of poetry's most distinctive talents - Derek Walcott from St Lucia, Czeslaw Milosz from Lithuania (though long resident in California) and Nina Cassian from Romania. On stage at least, poets of all nations will be in harmony with each other.

But off that stage, something a little less harmonious will be happening. Two new anthologies of poetry have just been published that appear to be aimed at exactly the same market. These two books are the Penguin Book of Poetry from Britain and Ireland Since 1945, jointly edited by the Huddersfield poet Simon Armitage and the Scottish poet/academic Robert Crawford, and The Firebox: Poetry from Britain and Ireland after 1945, edited by the poet and critic Sean O'Brien, and published by Picador.

A few years ago three publishers released different English translations of the same prose work by the intriguingly obscure Portuguese modernist poet Fernando Pessoa within a few months of each other, thus skillfully ensuring that none of them would make a brass farthing out of the project. Have Penguin and Picador committed a similar act of costly insanity?

These two poetry anthologies are, in many different respects, very similar to each other. Each offers the reader a representative selection of poems from the hands of more than 120 poets. Each sets the scene with an essay- length introduction describing the editorial principals which have guided the decision-making process and the state of poetry between then and now. Each poet is given a headnote containing useful background information. The Penguin anthology runs to 450 pages and costs pounds 10.99 in its trade paperback edition and pounds 25.00 (ouch!) in hardback. The Picador anthology runs to 500 pages and costs pounds 9.99 in paperback and pounds 16.99 (hmm...) in hardcover.

Who was first out of the stalls? Armitage and Crawford approached Penguin with the proposal for such a book about three years ago. They didn't get wind of the fact that a direct rival was due to be published until about a year ago when Picador permissions department approached Crawford's publisher for the right to reproduce poems of his in an anthology that would be in direct competition with the one he'd been sweating tears of blood over for at least a couple of years.

The publication dates of the books are significant. Penguin was due to publish an anthology in November and initially in hard cover only. When the news broke, it brought the publication date back to September - thus ensuring that the book would be in the shops on National Poetry Day earlier this month - and went ahead with a trade paperback edition immediately, although it's still pounds 1 more expensive than its slightly longer rival.

According to Mary Mount at Picador, Sean O'Brien was very much aware that Penguin was working on an anthology when he proposed his. His calculation was that one earnest and fast-moving Picador could do a better job than two waddling Penguins. In certain respects though, Picador may be said to have faltered in its tracks somewhat.

For reasons best known to Picador's executives, they were originally due to publish the book two weeks after National Poetry Day, but that publication date has slipped back another week. So it's now due on 30 October, which will guarantee, according to Mary Mount in a somewhat lame formulation, that it's "around for Christmas". Along with all the rest of the Christmas seethe, of course. Penguin, as you might expect, organised a series of readings from the book on and around National Poetry Day itself.

In many ways, Penguin has a head start in this race. They have the familiar brand name, and they have been publishing important anthologies of poetry since at least the 1960s. Their last significant anthology of this scope, Contemporary British Poetry, edited by Andrew Motion and Blake Morrison, was published in 1982, and still sells on average 2,000 copies a year. Cumulatively, it's sold 88,000 copies to date. This kind of long-term sale is vital if the book is to make any money, because the cost of producing an anthology of this kind is quite horrendous. According to Tony Lacey at Penguin, the permissions fees for the new book were in the region of pounds 24,000. Poets - especially popular poets - don't come cheap. Some pounds 70- pounds 80 a poem on average. Set that against the modest print runs - 6,500 in paper covers, 1,500 in hardback - and you get some notion of how long it will take for the book to break even. The hardback print run also seems excessive. I put that point to Tony Lacey and he agreed. "We've subscribed 600 covers," he replied, "which means that we may have printed 500 copies too many in hardback."

Picador was as coy as Penguin was open. No one would tell me the print runs of the respective editions. Why? I asked Mary Mount. "Because people might be disappointed to find out how few copies are in fact printed in hardback. It would let people know what our expectations were."

There might be an opposing argument to this one: if you intimate to people how few copies you think the book is likely to sell, they might take pity on the poor, neglected thing, and nudge the publisher towards an early reprint. Picador had no specific marketing plans for the book either and refused to breathe a word about any marketing budget because, being English, it's not the sort of thing the company is happy discussing in public. It's strictly an internal matter.

The success of both these books depends upon whether they are taken up by educational institutions as set text in schools and colleges. Do either of them deserve to be? O'Brien's book wins hands down. The introduction is more cogent, better written, better argued, and the selection of poems - often from the very same poet that the other book is representing too - seems more varied and exciting. The book is often a surprise and almost always a pleasure. The headnotes to the individual poets are much more informative than Armitage's, and usually very accurate and up to the minute.

O'Brien is deft and skillful in his summaries of a poet's particular strengths. Armitage, by contrast, seldom even tries to define a poet's achievements in a single, telling phrase. The Penguin book will therefore prove to be much less useful to the student who is requiring a modicum of sound literary-critical guidance.

And that title too, The Firebox, has a stamp of quirkishness and originality about it. "It's all to do with Sean's obsession with trains," says Mary Mount, unbuttoning her lip at last. "The energy of the train comes from the Firebox - and this represents the concentrated energy of the poetry in this book." Well put.