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

Thomas Hodgkinson reviews the last poetry book of the year
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The Independent Culture
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.