On Friday of this week Poetry International, the nation's largest poetry festival, will get under way at the South Bank Centre, playing host to some of poetry's most distinctive talents - Derek Walcott from St Lucia, Czeslaw Milosz from Lithuania (though long resident in California) and Nina Cassian from Romania. On stage at least, poets of all nations will be in harmony with each other.
But off that stage, something a little less harmonious will be happening. Two new anthologies of poetry have just been published that appear to be aimed at exactly the same market. These two books are the Penguin Book of Poetry from Britain and Ireland Since 1945, jointly edited by the Huddersfield poet Simon Armitage and the Scottish poet/academic Robert Crawford, and The Firebox: Poetry from Britain and Ireland after 1945, edited by the poet and critic Sean O'Brien, and published by Picador.
A few years ago three publishers released different English translations of the same prose work by the intriguingly obscure Portuguese modernist poet Fernando Pessoa within a few months of each other, thus skillfully ensuring that none of them would make a brass farthing out of the project. Have Penguin and Picador committed a similar act of costly insanity? These two poetry anthologies are, in many different respects, very similar to each other. Each offers the reader a representative selection of poems from the hands of more than 120 poets. Each sets the scene with an essay- length introduction describing the editorial principals which have guided the decision-making process and the state of poetry between then and now. Each poet is given a headnote containing useful background information. The Penguin anthology runs to 450 pages and costs pounds 10.99 in its trade paperback edition and pounds 25.00 (ouch!) in hardback. The Picador anthology runs to 500 pages and costs pounds 9.99 in paperback and pounds 16.99 (hmm...) in hardcover. Who was first out of the stalls? Armitage and Crawford approached Penguin with the proposal for such a book about three years ago. They didn't get wind of the fact that a direct rival was due to be published until about a year ago when Picador permissions department approached Crawford's publisher for the right to reproduce poems of his in an anthology that would be in direct competition with the one he'd been sweating tears of blood over for at least a couple of years. The publication dates of the books are significant. Penguin was due to publish an anthology in November and initially in hard cover only. When the news broke, it brought the publication date back to September - thus ensuring that the book would be in the shops on National Poetry Day earlier this month - and went ahead with a trade paperback edition immediately, although it's still pounds 1 more expensive than its slightly longer rival. According to Mary Mount at Picador, Sean O'Brien was very much aware that Penguin was working on an anthology when he proposed his. His calculation was that one earnest and fast-moving Picador could do a better job than two waddling Penguins. In certain respects though, Picador may be said to have faltered in its tracks somewhat. For reasons best known to Picador's executives, they were originally due to publish the book two weeks after National Poetry Day, but that publication date has slipped back another week. So it's now due on 30 October, which will guarantee, according to Mary Mount in a somewhat lame formulation, that it's "around for Christmas". …