Well-versed for every occasion;Books

16th April 1999 at 01:00
SCANNING THE CENTURY.The Penguin Book of the Twentieth Century in Poetry. Edited by Peter Forbes. Penguin pound;20.

Schools have an infinite appetite for representative or occasional poems: something about the Armistice, perhaps, for assembly; about the Holocaust for history; about love, death, the environment for the latest GCSE theme.

Teachers, then, may be delighted to discover Peter Forbes's new anthology, which sets out to tell the history of the century in poetry. Could the long hours of searching the library shelves for verse really be over?

Maybe "Work-out in reality gym: the Eighties and Nineties" and "The dream of wearing shorts forever: Sport and Leisure" haven't been set topics yet, but surely it is only a matter of time.

In fact, it is under these and other offbeat headings - such as "Younger than that now: The Sixties" and the catch-all "The Way We Live: Existence" - that teachers might find the freest selection of verse, most attractive song lyrics, and most class-friendly poems.

Elsewhere the choice of verse reflects Forbes's scrupulous, densely-argued introduction, and the gravity of his chosen topics.

The presiding spirits of the volume are W H Auden and Louis MacNeice, and the tone is set by two of their great long poems of the Thirties, "Letter to Lord Byron" and "Autumn Journal": ruminative, witty, lengthy, sophisticated - vernacular, certainly, but definitely for the grown-ups.

Grown-ups reading for themselves, though, will find much to enjoy. Forbes is relentless in his avoidance of old chestnuts, and insistent on an international outlook.

It is a particular pleasure to read, for example Anna Akhamotova in the context of other poets of Stalin's terror, and to realise the full courage and wit of her "To Death": "I have turned off the lights and thrown the door wide open For you, so simple and so marvellous."

Forbes includes many Eastern bloc poets, together with voices from France, Germany and, predominantly, the United States.

He evidently has a fondness for jazz - his section on the jazz age in America, and a selection of songs and poems of the civil rights movement are unexpected, sharp and moving.

It is wonderful to realise, for example, how strong Lewis Allen's "Strange Fruit", made famous by singer Billie Holiday, is as a poem, and how well it sits with another song of the period, Brother Will Hairston's "Alabama Bus Song", a piece that reminds the reader of the importance of the particular and the human - the bus seat - in the larger scheme of history.

Poets need the particular too. Some of the most enjoyable poems in this volume deal not directly with the big issues but with subtle refractions of them. Paul Muldoon's "Cuba" is not about the Bay of Pigs but about his family's response to it, and an overheard confession which hints at the relation between the two superpowers: "He brushed against me, Father. Very gently."

Readers browsing through these particulars, though, will stumble upon one huge occasional poem which would grace any Armistice Day assembly: Louis Aragon's "The Lilacs and the Roses", a lament for the soldiers of the Second World War: "Bouquets of the Retreat, delicate roses, tinted Like far-off conflagrations: roses of Anjou!" What do they expect when they heed not the dance of numbers?

Blunders and bloomers will be their undoing bugs will flower in their computers from Millennium Bug. By John Agard Tiananmen Is broad and clean And you can't tell Where the dead have been And you can't tell When they'll come again.

They'll come again To Tiananmen.

from Tiananmen. By James Fenton Truly, I live in dark times!

The guileless word is folly. A smooth forehead Suggests insensitivity. The man who laughs Has simply not yet had The terrible news.

from To Those Born Later By Bertolt Brecht Two minutes long it pitches through some bar: Unreeling from a corner box, the sigh Of this one, in his gangling finery And crawling sideburns, wielding a guitar.

from Elvis Presley By Thom Gunn

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