Books: Poetry anthologies

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Who reads poetry? 0.03 per cent of the population, according to research quoted by As the Poet Said: pickings and choosings (edited by Tony Curtis; Poetry Ireland Press, distributed by the Poetry Society, pounds 6.99), a must for all poets and the poor sods who live with them; which includes most of us, one way and another. ("People in the West don't know I'm a poet" - Colonel Gaddafi.) Its apercus will brighten any reviewer's desk. All quotations here come from its cheeky pages.

Even the Penguin Modern Poets Series is not selling like its original, 30 years ago. Number 12, now out, looks excellent: Jo Shapcott, Matthew Sweeney and Helen Dunmore (Penguin, pounds 7.99). But in the 1960s, slim vols were mainly hardback; Penguin pushed other poetry publishers into paperback. Many poets then were hard to find; it's a different ballgame now that you can get any poet (well, their work) for the price of three pints.

Anthologies introduce you to a wider range. You don't have to invest in a poet who may not be for you. ("I write for mutated arthropods" - Peter Reading). There are two types: introductions to the canon (plus attempts to re-make it); and variations on a theme. Canon anthologies guarantee you "best poems" from the past and (if you're lucky) the present. The spectacularly-priced Wordsworth Golden Treasury (edited by Antonia Till, Wordsworth, pounds 2.50) couldn't afford modern copyright fees. It stops at Yeats, but will carry you through life for the cost of a Tube ride. Bigger publishers include the 20th century and even revise the canon. ("A great pity Keats didn't shoot that fuckin' nightingale" - overheard in Dublin pub).

Enter The School Bag, edited by Seamus Heaney and Ted Hughes (Faber, pounds 12.99). Like a Wonderbra, it squeezes into one package all the goodies you thought you knew, and more. Old favourites plus a candelabra of new ones: Welsh, Irish, Scottish, Maori. Emergency Kit (edited by Jo Shapcott and Matthew Sweeney, Faber, pounds 9.99) does something similar for postwar poetry, to an agenda targeted at post-nuclear imaginations: strangeness, surprise.

Then there's the woman question. Why it's still a question is beyond me. What would a "Men's Poetry" anthology be like? Touching? Exasperating? Irrelevant? ("Male poets are amazingly opinionated. I've never met one that wasn't" - Wendy Cope.) Making For Planet Alice: new women poets (edited by Maura Dooley, Bloodaxe, pounds 8.95) showcases 30 women who began publishing in the 1990s. It shares with Emergency Kit a freshness of outlook; new ways of tackling the world.

"A primitive mnemonic urgency underlies all poetry" (Thom Gunn) and learning poems lets them into you for ever. By Heart: 101 poems to remember (edited by Ted Hughes, Faber, pounds 7.99) counterpoints Shakespearean passages with other poems. Here are all the poems that taught you to love poetry, poems you feel part of and want people you care about - such as children - to be part of too.

"Anything that gets a poet to say less seems a worthy project" (Irish Literary Supplement), but the poets in Poets on Poets (edited by Nick Rennison and Michael Schmidt, Carcanet/Waterstone's, pounds 9.95) say pithy, useful things. This is many anthologies in one: Australian, Indian, Caribbean, American and South African selections, chosen by fellow-national poets, plus 90 living poets selecting from 90 dead ones. It's imaginative, and a bargain.

Themed anthologies? Poets are "15 times more likely to be depressed than soldiers" (Bristol University). Witty, brittle, tortured, tranquil, the "survivors' poems" in Beyond Bedlam: poets written out of mental distress (edited by Matthew Sweeney and Ken Smith, Anvil Press, pounds 7.95) are an extraordinary lot. The editors picked from 5,000 poems by patients with the Bethlem- Maudsley Poetry Project, adding poems from professionals who have been through similar mills. Creating from pain something that speaks to other people certainly engendered a worthwhile and significant collection.

People turn to poetry in extremis, and the reader-friendliest extreme is love. Making Love to Marilyn (edited by Sue Roberts, Viking, pounds 9.99) unluckily omitted the love poem voted national favourite this year: Elizabeth Barrett Browning's "How do I love thee"? (Like a young whale with a satin heart on its brow, "the nation" zoomed in on this hoary, generous sonnet.) This love anthology crackles with sensuality. Don't leave it by the guest sofa-bed overnight; it won't be there in the morning.

Animals are another anthology perennial. The Faber Book of Beasts (edited by Paul Muldoon, pounds 14.99) is a sparky, poem-led collection; The Oxford Book of Creatures (edited by Fleur Adcock and Josephine Simmons, pounds 6.99) is theme-led. Serving up by category ("Procreation", "Extinction"), it includes riveting passages from naturalists in a tangy blend of poetry and prose. The difference between the two books is that between a guided tour and setting off alone. What do you want your anthology to do - categorise and explain, or leave things up to you? Poems in The School Bag and Emergency Kit flow into each other. You're on your own with the buzz of interaction. The Book of Beasts manages this, too, via its slyly crazy principle of alphabetical titles.

This approach lets poems speak for themselves: you make your own connections. Categorising takes you by the hand, which can feel rather bossy. But if you're uneasy alone with a gang of poems, if you feel it's like walking into a party of silicone-clad aliens, you'll welcome the introduction approach. There's a lot to be said for stating where people (and poems) come from. Any anthology is "a flower-collection": all these are thoughtfully arranged. Why not buy the lot? It would bump up poetry statistics, and do a kindness not just to people you give to but poets, poor things, who see themselves (according to Brendan Kennelly) "as angels on loan from heaven" when they're really "scruffy old bolloxes going round the place searching for a bit of inspiration".

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