By Karen Langley
If you’re a reader of a certain age who went through the British school system, you most likely encountered the Penguin Modern Poets series. They, along with a number of other Penguin Poetry collections (‘The New Poetry’ being the main one), were the basis of much study of verse for those of us cramming for our ‘O’ levels, and they have a fascinating history.
The Penguin volumes were intended to bring poetry to a much wider audience than had previously been the case. Prior to their arrival on the scene, verse was often published in large, expensive and rather off-putting volumes not readily available to less affluent readers. The Penguins, featuring three poets each with 30 poems from each author, were slim, inexpensive and therefore readily available to all, as well as being much less intimidating to look at!
Penguin has, of course, always been a publisher intent on democratising reading; from the early orange paperbacks onwards, its aim has been accessibility to a wide variety of literature for the general reader. So the Penguin Modern Poets were a laudable addition to this tradition and probably opened the eyes of a lot of people to the merits of poetry who might not have had the chance before.
If you cast your eyes over the names of the poets that featured in the original series, there are some impressive writers involved: Denise Levertov, Kenneth Rexroth, William Carlos Williams, Stevie Smith, Allan Ginsberg, Roger McGough, R.S. Thomas and Adrian Mitchell, to name but a few. The series initially ran to 27 volumes, from 1962 to 1979; a second series made its appearance in the 1990s. The design of the early volumes was striking, each having a plain black background with an image that was a kind of print – leaf, flower etc. This lasted for some of the run, but was eventually replaced with a more straightforward pictorial image.
One of the best known and most influential books of the series was #10, subtitled “The Mersey Sound” and featuring Roger McGough, Brian Patten and Adrian Henri; the Liverpool influence was strong in the 1960s, thanks to the Beatles, and this particular volume went on to become one of the best-selling poetry anthologies ever.
The strength of the series was in bringing new poets to the general reader; reading poetry can appear daunting, but a small, interesting looking book like a PMP was something friendlier and more appealing, and for a small outlay the reader could explore new poets they hadn’t heard of. I can’t think of anything comparable in the publishing world, and in fact I’ve set myself a project on my blog of reading my way through the original series, discovering fascinating new poetry as I go.
So I was very, very excited to hear that the imprint is being relaunched by Penguin with a whole new generation of poets waiting to be brought to the eager reader – and very beautiful the books look too. Sensibly, Penguin has opted not to attempt to recreate the original, iconic design. Instead, the books have been given a generic style, somewhat reminiscent of the Penguin Great Ideas series, but also drawing on the recent Pocket Penguin look. Each book names the three poets on the cover, in white against a (varying) coloured background and has a subtitle of sorts running at right angles to this on the left hand side. Just as in the originals, there is limited blurb and you are just left to read the poems and judge them on their own merits. The tagline is “Three of the best poets now writing. Every three months.” The books are beautifully produced, ideal for collecting, and a row of them is going to look very lovely on a bookshelf…
Another pleasing innovation is the inclusion of more women writers; the original series had few women poets, the second more but still many less than men. However, the first volume of the relaunched imprint, entitled “If I’m Scared We Can’t Win”, features three female poets – Emily Berry, Anne Carson and Sophie Collins – and the second volume is a mix of male and female.
Rebooting the Penguin Modern Poets series is a wonderful initiative by the publisher. In a modern world full of trivia and distractions, sitting down and reading a poem – and I mean reading it properly – is something that many of us probably don’t give time to. But reading verse is an enriching experience, particularly when you can explore new writers – so let’s hope the new Penguin Modern Poets are a huge success.
Karen Langley blogs at kaggsysbookishramblings and loves any excuse to start a new collection of books… (www.kaggsysbookishramblings.wordpress.com)
Read Karen’s review of the first two volumes in the new series here.