Ian Purser reads verse anthologies that will pass the time when the millennium bug bites.
Poetry publishers have joined television programmers and apocalyptic cults in millennium fervour. Most of this year's anthologies which survey either the whole century or its second half are weighty volumes, aspiring to the reference shelves, but here are two slimmer, less solemn options. Dip into them for assembly, buy them for the school library to lure older children and unconverted adults to the poetry shelves and order bulk copies for Christmas.
In News That Stays News Simon Rae aims to "build up a picture of the 20th century" by representing each year by one poem. This makes for a neat and appealing structure, though the aim is inevitably unrealisable. It's hard to see what Sylvia Plath's "Lady Lazarus" tells us about 1962, other than that's when she wrote it, and other pieces that are historically-specific, whether on Victoria's death or the General Strike, are often the least interesting poetically.
But quibbling over the selections is pointless given such a self-limiting framework and anyway, for every uninspired choice (John Masefield's "Cargoes", again, for 1903) there are less familiar gems - "The General Inspecting the Trenches", a scabrous World War I poem by A P Herbert, for 1916; Basil Bunting's "Aus Dem Zweiten Reich", an atmospheric evocation of the Weimar Republic, for 1931; "The Scrap Heap" by R I Crawford, a Scouse parody of T S Eliot's The Waste Land, for 1981 - which are rarely selected in popular anthologies. Such choices make this an often fascinating collection which also, in its chronological ordering, provides an interesting overview of how poetry has changed over the century.
Carol Ann Duffy, who provides Simon Rae's poem for 1989 ("Translating the English, 1989"), herself turns anthologist in Time's Tidings, a millennium project by a Greenwich-based publisher. She collected a poem on the theme of time from each of 50 living poets, then asked them to follow it with their favourite on the same subject by a poet of a previous generation.
The contributors, covering the contemporary spectrum from Charles Causley to Jackie Kay, by themselves provide a fine collection, but the addition of their diverse choices gives the anthology real range and depth, from the Book of Job in the Revised English Bible (Alice Oswald's selection) to Langston Hughes (chosen by Valerie Bloom); from the anonymous "Twa Corbies" (chosen by Matthew Sweeney) to Shelley (chosen by Benjamin Zephaniah).
Duffy's introduction hopes that each poet's selection will "reveal something new or concealed about their own work", but any such revelation must be deduced by the reader, as regrettably there are no comments from the poets on their favourite. It would have been interesting, for example, to know what made Selima Hill choose a pithy anonymous Inuit poem and where she found it. Neither are there any details of the contributors.
The quality and variety of the selections and the interest of the format make for enjoyable anthologies which will probably still be turned to for pleasure when heavier and worthier tomes gather dust. For those worried about the millennium bug, they are also recommended for reading by candlelight while eating cold baked beans from the tin on January 1, 2000.