POEMS FOR YOUR PENCIL CASE

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
Russell Tovey, Myanna Buring and Julian Rhind Tutt star in Banished

TV reviewGrace Dent: Jimmy McGovern's new drama sheds light on sex slavery in the colonies

Arts and Entertainment
Australia's Eurovision contestant and former Australian Idol winner Guy Sebastian

Eurovision 2015Australian Idol winner unveiled as representative Down Under

Arts and Entertainment
Larry David and Rosie Perez in ‘Fish in the Dark’
theatreReview: Had Fish in the Dark been penned by a civilian it would have barely got a reading, let alone £10m advance sales
Arts and Entertainment
Victoria Wood, Kayvan Novak, Alexa Chung, Chris Moyles
tvReview: No soggy bottoms, but plenty of other baking disasters on The Great Comic Relief Bake Off
Arts and Entertainment
80s trailblazer: comedian Tracey Ullman
tv
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
Attenborough with the primates
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Former Communards frontman Jimmy Somerville
music
Arts and Entertainment
Secrets of JK Rowling's Harry Potter workings have been revealed in a new bibliography
arts + ents
Arts and Entertainment
Fearne Cotton is leaving Radio 1 after a decade
radio The popular DJ is leaving for 'family and new adventures'
Arts and Entertainment
arts + ents
Arts and Entertainment
Public Service Broadcasting are going it alone
music
Arts and Entertainment
Eddie Redmayne as transgender artist Lili Elbe in The Danish Girl
filmFirst look at Oscar winner as transgender artist
Arts and Entertainment
Season three of 'House of Cards' will be returning later this month
TV reviewHouse of Cards returns to Netflix
Arts and Entertainment
Harrison Ford will play Rick Deckard once again for the Blade Runner sequel
film review
Arts and Entertainment
The modern Thunderbirds: L-R, Scott, Virgil, Alan, Gordon and John in front of their home, the exotic Tracy Island
TV
Arts and Entertainment
Natural beauty: Aidan Turner stars in the new series of Poldark
TV
Arts and Entertainment
Taylor Swift won Best International Solo Female (Getty)

Brits 2015
Arts and Entertainment
Shining star: Maika Monroe, with Jake Weary, in ‘It Follows’
film review
Arts and Entertainment

Brits 2015
Arts and Entertainment
Paloma Faith arrives at the Brit Awards (Getty)

Brits 2015
Arts and Entertainment
Anne Boleyn's beheading in BBC Two's Wolf Hall

TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Follow every rainbow: Julie Andrews in 'The Sound of Music'
film Elizabeth Von Trapp reveals why the musical is so timeless
Arts and Entertainment
Bytes, camera, action: Leehom Wang in ‘Blackhat’
film
Arts and Entertainment
The Libertines will headline this year's festival
music
Arts and Entertainment
Richard Dean Anderson in the original TV series, which ran for seven seasons from 1985-1992
tv
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

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

    Homeless Veterans campaign: Donations hit record-breaking £1m target after £300,000 gift from Lloyds Bank

    Homeless Veterans campaign

    Donations hit record-breaking £1m target after huge gift from Lloyds Bank
    Flight MH370 a year on: Lost without a trace – but the search goes on

    Lost without a trace

    But, a year on, the search continues for Flight MH370
    Germany's spymasters left red-faced after thieves break into brand new secret service HQ and steal taps

    Germany's spy HQ springs a leak

    Thieves break into new €1.5bn complex... to steal taps
    International Women's Day 2015: Celebrating the whirlwind wit of Simone de Beauvoir

    Whirlwind wit of Simone de Beauvoir

    Simone de Beauvoir's seminal feminist polemic, 'The Second Sex', has been published in short-form for International Women's Day
    Mark Zuckerberg’s hiring policy might suit him – but it wouldn’t work for me

    Mark Zuckerberg’s hiring policy might suit him – but it wouldn’t work for me

    Why would I want to employ someone I’d be happy to have as my boss, asks Simon Kelner
    Confessions of a planespotter: With three Britons under arrest in the UAE, the perils have never been more apparent

    Confessions of a planespotter

    With three Britons under arrest in the UAE, the perils have never been more apparent. Sam Masters explains the appeal
    Russia's gulag museum 'makes no mention' of Stalin's atrocities

    Russia's gulag museum

    Ministry of Culture-run site 'makes no mention' of Stalin's atrocities
    The big fresh food con: Alarming truth behind the chocolate muffin that won't decay

    The big fresh food con

    Joanna Blythman reveals the alarming truth behind the chocolate muffin that won't decay
    Virginia Ironside was my landlady: What is it like to live with an agony aunt on call 24/7?

    Virginia Ironside was my landlady

    Tim Willis reveals what it's like to live with an agony aunt on call 24/7
    Paris Fashion Week 2015: The wit and wisdom of Manish Arora's exercise in high camp

    Paris Fashion Week 2015

    The wit and wisdom of Manish Arora's exercise in high camp
    8 best workout DVDs

    8 best workout DVDs

    If your 'New Year new you' regime hasn’t lasted beyond February, why not try working out from home?
    Paul Scholes column: I don't believe Jonny Evans was spitting at Papiss Cissé. It was a reflex. But what the Newcastle striker did next was horrible

    Paul Scholes column

    I don't believe Evans was spitting at Cissé. It was a reflex. But what the Newcastle striker did next was horrible
    Miguel Layun interview: From the Azteca to Vicarage Road with a million followers

    From the Azteca to Vicarage Road with a million followers

    Miguel Layun is a star in Mexico where he was criticised for leaving to join Watford. But he says he sees the bigger picture
    Frank Warren column: Amir Khan ready to meet winner of Floyd Mayweather v Manny Pacquiao

    Khan ready to meet winner of Mayweather v Pacquiao

    The Bolton fighter is unlikely to take on Kell Brook with two superstar opponents on the horizon, says Frank Warren
    War with Isis: Iraq's government fights to win back Tikrit from militants - but then what?

    Baghdad fights to win back Tikrit from Isis – but then what?

    Patrick Cockburn reports from Kirkuk on a conflict which sectarianism has made intractable