It's only the poems that matter;Books

15th October 1999 at 01:00
THE FORWARD BOOK OF POETRY 2000. Introduction by Simon Armitage. Forward Publishing pound;7.95.

It's that time of year again: the aftermath of National Poetry Day. Shop windows full of another year's supply of anthologies. Weekend supplements full of the joys of verse. Local newspapers featuring heart-warming photograph of friendly poet sharing said joys with infant school. Taxes levied on all prose publications. Government line-breakers cutting the scripts for Match of the Day into five-beat sections. The national curriculum re-written in haiku.

And if National Poetry Day is a one-day revolution, The Forward Book of Poetry is the manifesto that outlives the event. Because, like all revolutions, National Poetry Day carries with it a lot of things that do not matter, and do not last. Only the poems matter.

The Forward Book of Poetry combines the best democratic principles with utter confidence in quality. It does not matter where a poem was published, whether it was in a book, magazine, pamphlet, newspaper, or competition. It only matters that it is good.

In the introduction, the chairman of the judges, Simon Armitage admits the five books shortlisted for Best Collection (the biggest prize) "chose themselves". They ought to. In a year when poetry has hardly been out of the news, collections by Paul Muldoon and Carol Ann Duffy don't have to beg for attention. And for those who don't want to buy every collection on the shelf, this gives them just enough to make up their own mind about these much-talked-about writers. But the pleasure of The Forward book becomes more dense and intricate the longer the prize continues.

This year the Best Collection shortlist contains a second book by Kate Clanchy, a previous First Collection winner, and a book by Jane Draycott, whose outstanding pamphlet from the small publisher, smith doorstop, made it into the shortlist for First Collection two years ago despite competition from full-length books. And smith doorstop has done it again this year: another newcomer, Christopher North, is on the Best First Collection shortlist with his pamphlet A Mesh of Wires. Which list will he be on next year? And who will be his publisher? You can see how it becomes addictive.

Most intriguing of all is the Best Poem section, where writers may find themselves in the most prestigious anthology of the year with a one-off poem, a first or only publication. This year Caroline Carver's "Horse Under Water", winner of The National Poetry Competition, puts the poet, a virtual newcomer to print, on the same shortlist as a new poem from R S Thomas, "Blackbird", Robert Crawford's instantly memorably "Zero", George Szirtes's 12-sonnet sequence "Backwaters: Norfolk Fields" and Robert Minhinnick's "Twenty-five Laments for Iraq", a stunningly visual piece of work, stepping in and out of colour like a film director: "A heron in white And a woman in black Knee deep together In the green Tigris."

Don't stop there. With work by Roger McGough and Jackie Kay on the "long list", there is no such thing as an "also-ran". Buy the Forward Book because you can't subscribe to every magazine, because you can't decide which collection to give a friend, but most of all buy it for the poems by those whose work is not yet collected, selected, or read to packed theatres.

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