Fifteen years ago, Ted Hughes and Seamus Heaney compiled their highly successful anthology The Rattle Bag. Their follow-up, The School Bag, is 'less of a carnival, more like a checklist'. Will it too be a winner?

When Seamus Heaney and Ted Hughes published their first jointly- edited anthology, The Rattle Bag, 15 years ago, it immediately became that poetic rarity, a bestseller. Why? Partly because the choice of poems seemed inevitable - as though the book had somehow selected its own contents ("amassed itself like a cairn"). And partly because the editors, while admitting that they had kept to the mainstream, nevertheless managed to give the impression that they were not exactly a part of the "formal educational process". They might be establishment figures, but their selection was excitingly unpredictable. They were insiders who were also enlightened about the outside.

Now we have The School Bag - and the title suggests something more orthodox. (At least, it does when we have suppressed other and simply distracting thoughts about where the sequence might lead next: The Hand Bag? The Sponge Bag?) But does this necessarily mean the book will be less likeable? Only if its poems reinforce old-fashioned ideas of a fixed and stable canon. Only if Heaney and Hughes have sold out to the system by compromising their heart-felt sense of what is essential.

Heaney's Foreword to the anthology gives some cause for concern. At one moment he speaks of the contents in terms of absolute value, referring to them as "a checklist". At others he sounds much less dogmatic, talking about "a memory bank", "a compendium of examples", and "a kind of listening post". This shift between two languages is not surprising: Heaney's gift has always depended on a shrewd suppleness. Yet it is slightly unsettling to the reader. Is the book canon-fodder, we want to know - admittedly of an inspired kind? Or is it centred in the same sense as The Rattle Bag, about which Heaney and Hughes said "Most of the poems lay about for the taking in places already well known to people, younger or older, who read verse"?

Some of the editorial practices raise similar questions. We are told, for instance, that the anthology embraces "the whole score of poetry in English", only to find that it concentrates almost exclusively on work produced within "these islands", America and Australia (though there is no Les Murray). And it contains very little modern vernacular verse from anywhere. In a book that was completely sure it did not aspire to canonical status, like The Rattle Bag, the omissions would not matter (or would matter differently). As it is, they seem to have a categoric emphasis. Are Walcott and Brathwaite not here because Hughes and Heaney don't rate them? Or are they ruled out by some unstated editorial principle? Or is their absence an oversight? There's no way of telling.

There are other problems, too. On the one hand, the structure of the book is refreshingly original: Heaney and Hughes have included only one poem per poet (there are 271 of them). Furthermore, they have grouped their choice "in ways that invite different kinds of historical and thematic reading", sometimes forming clusters of poems which have to do with, say, water or forests, and sometimes creating much looser associations around subjects like suffering, the supernatural and sex.

On the other hand, The School Bag cannot help being focused by its editors' interests and tolerances. It has a good deal to say about heroic individual endeavour, and is filled with poems which are mud-spattered and wind- swept, intensely organic, fundamentalist and (in the best sense) primitive. It has almost nothing to say about cities and traffic jams, tower blocks and street life, specifically urban angst.

In a sense this doesn't matter. The human lessons of one world can easily be transferred to a different one by sympathetic and well-practised readers. But, once again, this is a school bag - and the many city children who will use it to discover poems for the first time may feel excluded, or suppose that poetry can only describe a landscape of the mind, rather than one they actually inhabit. For these sorts of reasons, it might have helped if there had been a larger and more diverse selection from contemporary writers.

Heaney and Hughes have included only eight poems written during the last 25 years; when we set these against the 48 by ancient Anon, and the significant number of medieval poems which are also included, we can easily appreciate the prevailing mood of the anthology as a whole. It is early.

All of which makes The School Bag sound a little unstable - hesitant either to resist or to accept the implications of its title. This is not the same as calling it a disappointment. Once we have finished weighing the structural arguments, and are living in the thick of the book itself, the experience of reading is exhilarating. Hughes and Heaney repeatedly breathe life back into familiar masterpieces by placing them in surprising contexts. (To read a selection of Berryman's "Dream Songs" after Pope's "Epistle to Dr. Arbuthnot", or an extract from William Langland's "Piers Plowman" after Ginsberg's "A Supermarket in California", is to discover fascinating similarities in form and address.) Elsewhere, less well-known minor poems are often shown to contain a major dimension when juxtaposed with something unarguably greater than themselves. (Graves's "Lost Love" reads better when it is only a page away from Shelley's "Ode to the West Wind".)

Of course there are some bizarre choices (Auden's "Law Like Love" seems chosen more to illustrate a theme than to prove its author's gift). Of course there are times when the positioning of a poem in one group rather than another seems arbitrary (Keats's "La Belle Dame" could fit comfortably into a number of different contexts.) But these things, even when they combine with the larger, over-arching questions which shadow the book, cannot obscure its central and very valuable achievement.

The School Bag - whether or not it wants to define a canon - teaches a lesson that no sensible reader can afford to ignore. It shows how different ages can communicate with each other about unchangeably important human subjects. It proves the inter-dependency of forward-looking culture and backwards- glancing heritage.

'The School Bag' is published by Faber at pounds 20 (hardback) and pounds 12.99 (paperback).

Arts and Entertainment

Arts and Entertainment
Creep show: Tim Cockerill in ‘Spider House’

TVEnough to make ardent arachnophobes think twice

Arts and Entertainment
Steven, Ella Jade and Sarah in the boardroom
tvThe Apprentice contestants take a battering from the business mogul
Arts and Entertainment
TV Presenters Ant McPartlin and Dec Donnelly. Winners of the 'Entertainment Programme' award for 'Ant and Dec's Saturday Night Takeaway'
musicAnt and Dec confirmed as hosts of next year's Brit Awards
Arts and Entertainment
Jewel in the crown: drawings from ‘The Letter for the King’, an adventure about a boy and his mission to save a medieval realm
Arts and Entertainment
Juergen Wolf won the Young Masters Art Prize 2014 with his mixed media painting on wood, 'Untitled'
Arts and Entertainment
Iron Man and Captain America in a scene from
filmThe upcoming 'Black Panther' film will feature a solo black male lead, while a female superhero will take centre stage in 'Captain Marvel'
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
The Imperial War Museum, pictured, has campaigned to display copyrighted works during the First World War centenary
Arts and Entertainment
American Horror Story veteran Sarah Paulson plays conjoined twins Dot and Bette Tattler
tvReview: Yes, it’s depraved for the most part but strangely enough it has heart to it
Arts and Entertainment
The mind behind Game of Thrones George R. R. Martin

Will explain back story to fictional kingdom Westeros

Arts and Entertainment
Dorothy in Return to Oz

film Unintentionally terrifying children's movies to get you howling (in fear, tears or laughter)
Arts and Entertainment

Arts and Entertainment

Arts and Entertainment
Robert James-Collier as under-butler Thomas

TVLady Edith and Thomas show sad signs of the time
Arts and Entertainment

Arts and Entertainment
The Dad's Army cast hit the big screen

Arts and Entertainment

Arts and Entertainment
JK Rowling is releasing a new Harry Potter story about Dolores Umbridge

Arts and Entertainment
On The Apprentice, “serious” left the room many moons ago and yet still we watch

Arts and Entertainment
The Doctor finds himself in a forest version of London in Doctor Who episode 'In the Forest of the Night'
TVReview: Is the Doctor ever going stop frowning?
Arts and Entertainment
A scene from David Ayer's 'Fury'

Arts and Entertainment
Taylor Swift performs at the 2014 iHeart Radio Music Festival
music review
Arts and Entertainment
Paul Anderson plays Arthur Shelby in Peaky Blinders series two
tvReview: Arthur Shelby Jr seems to be losing his mind as his younger brother lets him run riot in London
Arts and Entertainment
Miranda Hart has called time on her award-winning BBC sitcom, Miranda
Arts and Entertainment
Sir Nicholas Serota has been a feature in the Power 100 top ten since its 2002 launch
Arts and Entertainment
Awesome foursome: Sam Smith shows off his awards
music22-year-old confirms he is 2014’s breakout British music success
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.

    Isis in Syria: A general reveals the lack of communication with the US - and his country's awkward relationship with their allies-by-default

    A Syrian general speaks

    A senior officer of Bashar al-Assad’s regime talks to Robert Fisk about his army’s brutal struggle with Isis, in a dirty war whose challenges include widespread atrocities
    ‘A bit of a shock...’ Cambridge economist with Glasgow roots becomes Zambia’s acting President

    ‘A bit of a shock...’ Economist with Glasgow roots becomes Zambia’s acting President

    Guy Scott's predecessor, Michael Sata, died in a London hospital this week after a lengthy illness
    Fall of the Berlin Wall: History catches up with Erich Honecker - the East German leader who praised the Iron Curtain and claimed it prevented a Third World War

    Fall of the Berlin Wall

    History catches up with Erich Honecker - the East German leader who praised the Iron Curtain and claimed it prevented a Third World War
    How to turn your mobile phone into easy money

    Turn your mobile phone into easy money

    There are 90 million unused mobiles in the UK, which would be worth £7bn if we cashed them in, says David Crookes
    Independent writers remember their Saturday jobs:

    Independent writers remember their Saturday jobs

    "I have never regarded anything I have done in "the media" as a proper job"
    Lyricist Richard Thomas shares his 11-step recipe for creating a hit West End musical

    11-step recipe for creating a West End hit

    Richard Thomas, the lyricist behind the Jerry Springer and Anna Nicole Smith operas, explains how Bob Dylan, 'Breaking Bad' and even Noam Chomsky inspired his songbook for the new musical 'Made in Dagenham'
    Tonke Dragt's The Letter for the King has finally been translated into English ... 50 years on

    Buried treasure: The Letter for the King

    The coming-of-age tale about a boy and his mission to save a mythical kingdom has sold a million copies since it was written by an eccentric Dutchwoman in 1962. Yet until last year, no one had read it in English
    Can instilling a sense of entrepreneurship in pupils have a positive effect on their learning?

    The school that means business

    Richard Garner heads to Lancashire, where developing the 'dragons' of the future is also helping one community academy to achieve its educational goals
    10 best tablets

    The world in your pocket: 10 best tablets

    They’re thin, they’re light, you can use them for work on the move or keeping entertained
    Lutz Pfannenstiel: The goalkeeper who gave up Bayern Munich for the Crazy Gang, Bradford and a whirlwind trawl across continents

    Lutz Pfannenstiel interview

    The goalkeeper who gave up Bayern Munich for the Crazy Gang, Bradford and a whirlwind trawl across continents
    Pete Jenson: Popular Jürgen Klopp can reignite Borussia Dortmund’s season with visit to Bayern Munich

    Pete Jenson's a Different League

    Popular Klopp can reignite Dortmund’s season with visit to Bayern
    John Cantlie video proves that Isis expects victory in Kobani

    Cantlie video proves that Isis expects victory in Kobani

    The use of the British hostage demonstrates once again the militants' skill and originality in conducting a propaganda war, says Patrick Cockburn
    The killer instinct: The man who helps students spot potential murderers

    The killer instinct

    Phil Chalmers travels the US warning students how to spot possible future murderers, but can his contentious methods really stop the bloodshed?
    Clothing the gap: A new exhibition celebrates women who stood apart from the fashion herd

    Clothing the gap

    A new exhibition celebrates women who stood apart from the fashion herd
    Fall of the Berlin Wall: Goodbye to all that - the lost world beyond the Iron Curtain

    The Fall of the Berlin Wall

    Goodbye to all that - the lost world beyond the Iron Curtain