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Poetry. What is it good for? Absolutely nothing at all? Or is it a prism through which we can view history, society, humanity, science etc in all their many-coloured glory?

Peter Forbes, editor of Scanning the Century: The Penguin Book of the Twentieth Century in Poetry believes so. "The poems I value most by this century's great poets - like Yeats, Auden, and Eliot - are about some key aspect of the century, directly commentating on, or - as with `The Wasteland' - helping to make the mood." So Scanning the Century is, in an unusual approach, organised around this century's "world events and the new moods thrown up by technological and social change".

Two other anthologies published in the past year - Sean O'Brien's The Firebox and Simon Armitage and Robert Crawford's Penguin Book of Poetry - have both stuck to poetry in English, published in the UK and Ireland since the Second World War. Both aim at the formation of a canon. "Someone's got to do canonical anthologies," says Forbes, "but I didn't want to. I'm not very interested in selecting poets."

But most reviewers of Scanning the Century have assumed that it has canonical intentions and played "spot the omission". Forbes wonders if anthologies bring out the worst in reviewers because so few are published. "People see them as territory, and they fight over it, because there isn't much of it.

"And one reason so few anthologies are published in Britain," Forbes says, "is economic. Faber & Faber charges anthologists so much to include work by its poets, that other publishers are terrified of publishing anthologies, because they're so expensive to do. It's very poor of Faber, especially as it hasn't done a major anthology for decades..."

Also starting this week: the South Bank's unmissable `Sense & Sensibility' talks, featuring AL Kennedy, Peter Ackroyd, Don Paterson, John Burnside and various others on reason and emotion in books and beyond.

Peter Forbes with Peter Conrad at the Brighton Festival: `Modern Times Modern Places', Pavilion Theatre, New Road, Brighton (01273 709709) tomorrow, 6pm, pounds 5. Website:

`Sense & Sensibility': the Voice Box, South Bank Centre, London SE1 (0171-960 4242) starts today, 7.30pm, pounds 5/pounds 3

Lisa Gee