Going down but not under

Books: For National Poetry Day on Thursday: Les Murray goads, Christopher Reid goes from Martian to mobile, and a new anthology; EMERGENCY KIT eds Jo Shapcott and Matthew Sweeney, Faber pounds 9.99
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The Independent Culture
The sub-title of this anthology of sharp, modern work is "Poems for Strange Times", its epigraph by Charles Simic ("This strange century / With its slaughter of the innocent / Its flight to the moon -"). Sometimes this is taken literally, as though we need poems to help us grasp the moon landings. Hence the poorish Auden: "It's natural the boys should whoop it up for / so huge a phallic triumph, an adventure / it would not have occurred to women / to think worth while". Well-meaning chauvinism seems an odd item for anyone's emergency kit these days.

No lyric poetry after Auschwitz, but a bald reportage: "We move now to outside a German wood. / Three men are there commanded to dig a hole / In which the two Jews are ordered to lie down / And be buried alive by the third, who is a Pole" (Anthony Hecht). Tony Harrison, never one to shirk a news story, paints Sarajevo: "he holds her hand / behind AID flour- sacks refilled with sand". Derek Mahon's anthropologist surely speaks for the century: "I know too much / To be anything any more".

Sex is a hot topic for the women, though there are no guarantees that the effect will be any more convincing in poetry than prose: "Coming / is the body's way of weeping", states Heather McHugh, using the safety- net of panting short lines and obliquity. More risky is Sarah Maguire: "you came / into my mouth, covering my tongue with your good and bitter milk".

You might argue that in strange times we need to read more Milton, Spenser and Shakespeare than ever before. Despite the necessary qualities of observation, humour and discrimination here, the slack, flip, post-modern tone of some of the poems resembles lazy journalism rather than the news that stays news. Ciaran Carson reminisces gaily in "Calvin Klein's Obsession", about the perfume Blue Grass: "can it still be bought?" Well, can it?

Shapcott and Sweeney have restocked the Emergency Myth-kitty with Auschwitz ghosts, space travel, nuclear anxieties, incest survivors, paparazzi and car-crash victims, but actually their aims are modest, even traditional: poetry should surprise and delight. Focusing not on poets but on poems, loosely grouped, they have created one of the most readable, least careerist anthologies of recent years.

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