Poetry anthologies: Space with the stars

29th December 2000 at 00:00

For years, poems appeared in primary classrooms under the guise of "topic work": this week we are studying stars, here is a poem about them; this week it's animals, here's one about mice, and never mind that the one about stars is really about feeling lost and small, and so is the one about mice.

So the latest Faber 101 anthology, A Quark for Mr Mark: 101 poems about Science (pound;6.99) had my antennae buzzing - yes, but what are the poems really about? The editors, poet Maurice Riordan and scientist Jon Turney, were well ahead of me, declaring in the introduction that the poems were, "of course", about "love and death, frailty, grief, mischief".

In his introduction to The Faber Book of Science , John Carey laments a surprising dearth of good poetry on the subject, concluding that "generally speaking, science has had a bad effect on poets". Among the few exceptions to this rule he singles out Lavinia Greenlaw, John Updike and John Frederick Mins. Although Greenlaw and Updike get a poem each in the Quark book, several of their contemporaries get more, and while it would be comforting to conclude that this range of voices suggests that poetry has now moved on to embrace the possibilities of science, the odd mention of molecules does not convince me that John Carey's comments are any less relevant today.

Even the Quark editors remark on a preponderance of work on either the cosmos or evolution, but little in between. Poets, it seems, rarely delve very deeply into science, preferring to cast the odd glance at the night sky before getting down to the real business of feeling lost and small.

Where the 101 series delights in presenting the reader with a slim, quirky, and individual take on a particular theme, the other end of the anthology spectrum is represented by the encyclopedic New Penguin Book of English Verse edited by Paul Keegan (pound;20). This weighty volume is as radical and entertaining as its cover is vibrant, moving through the familiar territory of ancients, Anons, ballads, the famous dead and dead famous in a way that will take the most jaded curriculum-follower into unexpected corners and connections.

This is done by the simple device of arranging the poems by year of publication rather than in order of the birth dates of their writers. Among the many interesting effects of this arrangement are the re-appearances of those who write over a long period of time. Auden first appears between Yeats's "Among School Children" and D H Lawrence's "The Mosquito Knows", cropping up regularly in the following decades alongside Eliot, then Elizabeth Daryush and Laura Riding, through to "The Fall of Rome" alongside "Do not go gentle into that good night" for 1952.

Alternatively, a reader can take a horizontal slice through a year, reading anonymous ballads from the same year as Twelfth Night, or the points at which Sir Walter Raleigh and John Donne coincide, or finding out what else was published on the theme of womanhood at the same time as Pope's "Of the Characters of Women: An Epistle to a Lady".

This cross-section of a particular year or time of poetry is exactly the sort of reason for which avid collectors seek out The Forward Book of Poetry each year. Stylish and pocketable as ever, this year's selection (Forward pound;7.95) reads as more of a sampler than usual, perhaps because so many of the best works represented were designed to be read as longer or continuous narratives.

In an age of computer browsing and poetry CD-Roms, it is exciting to see anthologies putting the path of an imagined reader at the heart of the way a book is organised. Poetry is rarely read in a straight line, and all of these anthologies encourage the reader to read in reverse order, randomly, obliquely, however they choose, offering interesting juxtapositions and suggested lines of enquiry no matter which way the book is opened.

Also covered in this week's review pages:

  • Audio books for adults and children
  • The Picador Book of African Stories Edited by Stephen Gray Picador pound;16

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