By Greenlaw, Lavinia
New Statesman (1996) , Vol. 128, No. 4464
People who know poets or who like to talk about poets, often say that their world is particularly malicious, begrudging or competitive. It's true that this is part of the atmosphere, as it is part of any world in which people are forced into comparison, into competition for recognition, let alone survival. The world of poetry is particularly small, obscure and impoverished so perhaps such ill-feeling is magnified. Yet this may also be why poets depend upon and nurture one another. They are one another's advocates, editors, promoters, allies, critics and, yes, even friends.
Dead poets, foreign poets, the overlooked and forgotten are being reincarnated and revived all the time. Every year there are new versions, translations, anthologies and introductions that show poetry feeding, instead of eating itself. Some might think this insularity corrupting, but there are sadly few who read poetry with a passion and who haven't ever at least tried to write it. There are some whose judgements are patently limited by their politics politesse or ego, but enough are cantankerously singular and tactless, refusing to be moved by anything but the poem itself. Then again, the first kind can disguise itself as the latter...
The widely respected Poet CarolAnn Duffy has been a true advocate for years. She is well known for her support of newer poets, given both privately and in print. Her latest anthology, Time s' Tidings: greeting the 21st century (Anvil, [pounds]7.99) is the only millennium compilation I've seen that takes the idea of this chronological watershed and makes something properly interesting out of it. The logistics make it sound somewhat prescriptive but the result is a serendipitous and illuminating arrangement of poems that speak to each other across the centuries. Fifty contemporary poets were asked to choose their favourite poem from another time, about time. Their selections were matched with a poem of their own, chosen either by themselves or by Duffy. The book is arranged Z to A, Zephaniah to Abse, alternating present and past. Few of the couplings could be predicted but once made, most seem altogether natural, casting new light on both: the quiet expanse of Deryn Rees Jones's "Calcium" matched with Pablo Ner uda's white nights; Mebdh McGuckian's brilliantly faceted and concentrated "What Does 'Early' Mean?" alongside one of Emily Dickinson's diamonds; Hugo Williams's cinematic elisions next to the fade and cut and zoom of Louis MacNeice's "Soap Suds".
Don Paterson's 101 Sonnets (Faber & Faber, [pounds]4.99) is deceptively small, in the sense of a phone box turning out to be a time machine. His introduction gives a thorough and applied explanation of the sonnet, right down to its relation to Fibonacci and the golden section. He reminds us that poems are "a messy process not a single act" and that what their writer is striving for is the right Coleridgean "combination of music and sense". His selection starts with Robert Frost's "The Silken Tent" and ends with Seamus Heaney's "The Sky Light", both reflecting the capacious and thrillingly tenuous coherences that a strongly formed poem can create. …