Christmas books: A century that went from bad to verse

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The Independent Culture
WHACK. THUMP. Thud. This is the sound of hefty poetry anthologies hitting the literary editor's desk as we approach the new Millennium. At least three deserve attention. Scanning the Century (Penguin, pounds 20), edited by Peter Forbes, regards poetry as an art of social documentation, somewhat akin to cinema or journalism. He scans the century for its major events and trends, from the Russian Revolution to sex 'n' leisure - and provides poems to show that poets, those social antennae, were there all the time.

The selection is both good and maddeningly partial. Great poets did indeed witness the social convulsions of the Russian Revolution and wrote fine poems about it. But the book also skews our perception by press-ganging poets and poems in this way. There are curious absentees: Rilke and Geoffrey Hill. And near-absentees: Wallace Stevens gets one small entry. These absentees are, generally speaking, poets of inwardness, not easily drafted into social service.

In The Harvill Book of Twentieth Century Poetry in English (Harvill, pounds 20), Michael Schmidt seeks out instances of poets as wrestlers with the primary stuff of language, poems which made something new out of that continuing battle between tradition and individual talent. Shorn of headnotes or biographical paraphernalia, the book concerns itself with tweezering out single examples of the excellent. Generally speaking, it does an excellent job.

That ageing Dylanologist and texual scholar Christopher Ricks has re- edited The Oxford Book of English Verse (Oxford, pounds 25): its third editor since 1900. The selection represents a solid and dependable view of the past. It falters as it approaches the present. You won't find any living poet under 60, and the choices from those who can still speak for themselves are sometimes rather questionable. Other eccentricities include an essay about great poet/critics which masquerades as the introduction, and Ricks's strange habit of printing alternative drafts of the same poem.

The only feather-lite anthology worthy of mention this year is Simon Armitage's excellent Short and Sweet: 101 very Short Poems (Faber, pounds 4.99). That oft-voiced platitude that poetry is the indispensable art form of these hectic times because you can read an entire poem between Green Park and Piccadilly is proven true. Some of the most emotionally charged poems ever did indeed have fewer than 14 lines. They diminish as the book proceeds - the last, by Don Paterson, boasts nothing but a title.

The year got off to a testy start for those who still buy volumes of verse by individual poets with Geoffrey Hill's The Triumph of Love (Penguin, pounds 7.99). This long poem, snipped up into 150 sections, is Hill at his most spitting and rancorous, railing against criticism, the church, politics and almost anything else, and only slowing down to weep - how memorably, though! - when he harks back to his boyhood in the West Midlands. A terrific, enormously readable, bad- tempered spat of a book.

It's been six lonely Christmases since we've had a new book from Carol Ann Duffy. Now she's back, parading in The World's Wife (Picador, pounds 10) the stories of hard-done-by wives of famous men of myth and fable - Jesus, Lazarus, Tiresias and the rest. An unstintingly brilliant exercise in cock-shrivelling sarcasm.

Then along came Uncle Seamus, always the very soul of Ulster geniality. Heaney has been on show as a translator three times this year, with a new version of Beowulf (Faber, pounds 14.99), a rendering from the Czech of The Diary of One Who Vanished (Faber, pounds 3.99) a late- ish song cycle by Janacek, and a small-scale, though excellent, contribution to After Pushkin (Folio Society/ Carcanet Press, pounds 22.50/ pounds 7.95).

Hand on heart, who can genuinely say that he has ever been thrilled by the prospect of reading Beowulf? Now Heaney has produced a version I wanted to read from start to finish: spirited, soaked in the Ulster vernacular, yet somehow imbued with that essential strangeness. And the long introduction is an excellent guide through the travails of a translator.

Of course, there are some poets who claim that poems cannot be translated; that we must all exist in a perpetual of state of ignorance, knowing nothing but seductive names: Pushkin, Dante, Machado... Machado? Yes, the poems of Antonio Machado, one of the great Spanish poets of the century, evidently cannot be translated by Don Paterson in a book called The Eyes (Faber, pounds 7.99) because he has told us so in the postlude to his "versions of Machado". What have we here then? Nothing but a scrap or two of Machado's "vision", he says. Worth having, though, in my opinion. Mightily so.