Books: Write it in fire on the sky over Salisbury head head head

Thomas Hodgkinson reviews the last poetry book of the year

Last Words: New Poetry for the New Century edited by Don Paterson and Jo Shapcott Picador pounds 7.99

Earlier this year, during its annual literary festival, Salisbury briefly became the poetry capital of England. Poems were displayed on beermats, in buses and on bodies. They were hung in shop windows, carved into stone and placed in the cloisters of the cathedral, dragged across the sky by aeroplanes, grown into fields and franked on the mail. It sounds like a nightmare. Luckily, the festival's director, Helen Marriage, managed to extract contributions from 89 big guns of modern poetry in English, thus giving both the festival and this anthology of the works commissioned) star quality - there are new poems by Motion, Armitage and Duffy, for example, not to mention Tobias Hill, Charles Causley and Wendy Cope.

The best of these enforce the point of the scheme by successfully grappling with their allotted medium. Wendy Cope's second "Fireworks Poem" has achieved notoriety ("Write it in fire across the night: / Some men are more or less alright"), but the first is perhaps more interesting:

Faster and faster,

They vanish into darkness:

Our years together.

Sitting snug on page 21 of Last Words, the content of this lament at the passing of time contrasts nicely with the permanence of the letters in ink. But when we picture the same words flaring up against the sky, as they did one night in Salisbury, and then "vanish(ing) into darkness", the effect is clearly different - the substance is in harmony with the format.

Similarly focused are Michael Donaghy's three short "tattoo" poems, the best of which is the third:

Copy this across your heart

And whisper what your eyes

have heard

To summon me when we're apart

This spell made flesh, this

flesh made word.

They are touching lines, and they get to grips with the commission. The problem for the festival, though, was finding someone willing to sacrifice their flesh. Donaghy might have had more luck if he'd restricted himself to couplets. There was a volunteer, I was informed, prepared to take on the whole burden, and have all three poems tattooed on her skin (I could not discover where), but she subsequently became pregnant and changed her mind.

The back of the book contains a handy key, telling us how each poem was presented at the festival. So, flicking back and forth, we discover that Charles Causley's "In Asciano", a discourse on a detail of a Renaissance Adoration of the Shepherds, was designed to be carved into stone. And the formality of the rhyming pentameter couplets, evocative of 18th century Augustan poetry, seems particularly suitable for this medium.

Although it is this engagement with a range of unusual formats that distinguishes Last Words from other poetry anthologies, it is just as important to mention that it contains a great deal of material which is good whichever way you look at it. In their committed introduction, editors Don Paterson and Jo Shapcott comment on the recent pressure on poets to take part in workshops and public readings. The attraction of the festival, they claim, is that it represented an opportunity for poets to get back to "doing what they do best: writing poetry"; the resultant enthusiasm comes across in the works produced.

Blake Morrison's plea to a lover to stop dieting sticks in the mind ("Try to see it from my point of view. / I want not less but more of you"), as does Tobias Hill's shot at a definition of poetry in "Later": "Beautiful things. The perfect words you say / only later, too late, driving away." Of course not every entry is inspired, and the drabber efforts are not all by the least well-known poets, but commissioning poetry must inevitably be a hit-and-miss affair.

Potential readers should not be put off by the anthology's tediously upbeat subtitle, "New Poetry for the New Century". Thankfully, the word "millennium" scarcely crops up among the collection, and few of the poets seem to have felt burdened by any portentous sense of occasion. If the year of publication is relevant, it is because Last Words will probably stand as a testament of the state of poetry at an agreed milestone in our calendar.

Arts and Entertainment
Call The Midwife: Miranda Hart as Chummy

tv Jenny Lee may have left, but Miranda Hart and the rest of the midwives deliver the goods

Arts and Entertainment
Legendary blues and rock singer Joe Cocker has died of lung cancer, his management team as confirmed. He was 70
music The singer has died aged 70
Arts and Entertainment
Maisie Williams looks concerned as Arya Stark
Arts and Entertainment
photography Incredible images show London's skyline from its highest points
Arts and Entertainment
'Silent Night' last topped Classic FM's favourite Christmas carol poll in 2002
Arts and Entertainment
Rhys says: 'I'm not playing it for laughs, but I have learnt that if you fall over on stage, people can enjoy that as much as an amazing guitar solo'
musicGruff Rhys on his rock odyssey, and the trouble with independence
Arts and Entertainment
Krysia and Daniel (Hand out press photograph provided by Sally Richardson)
How do today's composers answer the challenge of the classical giant?
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

Shenaz Treasurywala
Arts and Entertainment
Jason Watkins as Christopher Jefferies
Arts and Entertainment
Star Wars Director JJ Abrams: key character's names have been revealed
Arts and Entertainment
Pharrell Williams won two BBC Music Awards for Best Song and International Artist
Arts and Entertainment
Mark, Katie and Sanjay in The Apprentice boardroom
Arts and Entertainment

Film The critics but sneer but these unfashionable festive films are our favourites

Arts and Entertainment
Frances O'Connor and James Nesbitt in 'The Missing'

TV We're so close to knowing what happened to Oliver Hughes, but a last-minute bluff crushes expectations

Arts and Entertainment
Joey Essex will be hitting the slopes for series two of The Jump


Who is taking the plunge?
Arts and Entertainment
Katy Perry as an Ancient Egyptian princess in her latest music video for 'Dark Horse'

Arts and Entertainment
Dame Judi Dench, as M in Skyfall

Arts and Entertainment
Morrissey, 1988

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    A Christmas without hope: Fears grow in Gaza that the conflict with Israel will soon reignite

    Christmas without hope

    Gaza fears grow that conflict with Israel will soon reignite
    After 150 years, you can finally visit the grisliest museum in the country

    The 'Black Museum'

    After 150 years, you can finally visit Britain's grisliest museum
    No ho-ho-hos with Nick Frost's badass Santa

    No ho-ho-hos with Nick Frost's badass Santa

    Doctor Who Christmas Special TV review
    Chilly Christmas: Swimmers take festive dip for charity

    Chilly Christmas

    Swimmers dive into freezing British waters for charity
    Veterans' hostel 'overwhelmed by kindness' for festive dinner

    Homeless Veterans appeal

    In 2010, Sgt Gary Jamieson stepped on an IED in Afghanistan and lost his legs and an arm. He reveals what, and who, helped him to make a remarkable recovery
    Isis in Iraq: Yazidi girls killing themselves to escape rape and imprisonment by militants

    'Jilan killed herself in the bathroom. She cut her wrists and hanged herself'

    Yazidi girls killing themselves to escape rape and imprisonment
    Ed Balls interview: 'If I think about the deficit when I'm playing the piano, it all goes wrong'

    Ed Balls interview

    'If I think about the deficit when I'm playing the piano, it all goes wrong'
    He's behind you, dude!

    US stars in UK panto

    From David Hasselhoff to Jerry Hall
    Grace Dent's Christmas Quiz: What are you – a festive curmudgeon or top of the tree?

    Grace Dent's Christmas Quiz

    What are you – a festive curmudgeon or top of the tree?
    Nasa planning to build cloud cities in airships above Venus

    Nasa planning to build cloud cities in airships above Venus

    Planet’s surface is inhospitable to humans but 30 miles above it is almost perfect
    Surrounded by high-rise flats is a little house filled with Lebanon’s history - clocks, rifles, frogmen’s uniforms and colonial helmets

    Clocks, rifles, swords, frogmen’s uniforms

    Surrounded by high-rise flats is a little house filled with Lebanon’s history
    Return to Gaza: Four months on, the wounds left by Israel's bombardment have not yet healed

    Four months after the bombardment, Gaza’s wounds are yet to heal

    Kim Sengupta is reunited with a man whose plight mirrors the suffering of the Palestinian people
    Gastric surgery: Is it really the answer to the UK's obesity epidemic?

    Is gastric surgery really the answer to the UK's obesity epidemic?

    Critics argue that it’s crazy to operate on healthy people just to stop them eating
    Homeless Veterans appeal: Christmas charity auction Part 2 - now LIVE

    Homeless Veterans appeal: Christmas charity auction

    Bid on original art, or trips of a lifetime to Africa or the 'Corrie' set, and help Homeless Veterans
    Pantomime rings the changes to welcome autistic theatre-goers

    Autism-friendly theatre

    Pantomime leads the pack in quest to welcome all