Penguin kicks off its own post-Modern revival

Poetry/ back in fashion
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The Independent Online
PENGUIN Modern Poets, the series of pocket paperbacks which introduced a generation to rhyme and rhythm and provided a passport to literary cool, are being revived as a showcase for contemporary poetry.

Tony Lacey, publishing director of Penguin and the man responsible for the revival, bought his first copy of Modern Poets in 1963 and admits that his affection for the series is in part due to the success it brought him with girls, to whom he would read extracts of poetry. "The books did wonders for my just-getting- going sex-life; Roger McGough was particularly useful," he said.

One of the most successful marketing stories in the history of poetry publishing, Penguin Modern Poets was launched in 1962 and, until its demise 17 years later, gave readers, particularly younger ones, a flavour of the most talented poets of the time. The paperback volumes were cheap and trend-setting. By the time the series ended, the writers of volumes one and two - Lawrence Durrell, Elizabeth Jennings, R S Thomas, Kingsley Amis and Peter Porter - had become part of the literary establishment.

But in their heyday the slim black volumes also gave a voice to the younger generation. Their popularity reached a peak with the best-selling volume 10, later renamed The Mersey Sound, which featured the work of the Liverpool poets, Adrian Henri, Roger McGough and Brian Patten. Thanks to Penguin Modern Poets, the literary world had found its equivalent to The Beatles - bright, peppy, young people who spent their nights in The Cavern and their days writing romantic verses laced with wit.

It was during the Sixties that Penguin Modern Poets seemed to be at the cutting edge of new writing. With volume five, the series introduced readers to the American Beats, Gregory Corso, Lawrence Ferlinghetti and Allan Ginsberg; Objectivists such as William Carlos Williams (volume nine) and concrete poets including Edwin Morgan (volume 15). But by the Seventies, Penguin Modern Poets almost seemed a misnomer. New volumes were full of the work of well-known writers such as Geoffrey Grigson and Edwin Muir.

The first five volumes of the new series focuses on the work of well- established writers, including James Fenton, the Oxford Professor of Poetry, Blake Morrison, Tony Harrison and that stalwart of the previous Penguin Modern Poets, Roger McGough.

Vicki Feaver, who appears in the all-woman volume two of the new series with Whitbread Prizewinner Carol Ann Duffy and Eavan Boland, remembers the original series with fondness and still has her copy of volume 10. However, her appreciation of the originals is tempered by its bias towards male poets.

"The first series only had about four women: Elizabeth Jennings, Kathleen Raine, Denise Levertov, and Stevie Smith. I didn't write poetry at the time, but I immediately loved Stevie Smith, the way she created her own world which subtly subverted the work of her contemporaries Auden and Spender. Until then I really thought all poetry had to be sexless - or male."

Feaver confesses that she is "amazed and extremely proud" to be included. A full-time teacher, she was on the panel for last year's much-hyped "New Generation" poetry promotion. "The proportion in the first five volumes of the new series is five women out of 15, and I think that pretty much reflects the proportion of female to male poets. I don't know how the series as a whole will go, but I would expect it to include poets like Moniza Alvi, who is doing tremendously exciting work."

Today, poetry is fashionable once more and small publishers such as Bloodaxe have introduced another generation to new voices. With Penguin Modern Poets costing pounds 5 per volume for established writers, Lacey is taking a gamble on producing books which can match the innovation, authority and influence of their 20p (four shillings) predecessors.