Do you have a little black book on your shelves?
It all started with a black cover and a design of white cow parsley - Penguin Modern Poets 1: Lawrence Durrell, Elizabeth Jennings, R S Thomas. I bought a copy from W H Smith’s bookshop in Stratford upon Avon when I was in the sixth form at the local girls’ grammar school. It was the first poetry book I ever bought. It cost half a crown and was not a first edition – volume one was already into its third printing.
Three contemporary poets, all represented by 25-30 poems from more than one collection – enough to get a feel of each poet’s individual voice. I never bought the whole set (27 books in the first series, 13 more in a later revived series) but I do have a selection of the little black books. There was a sense of excitement in these little books, a sense of being in on contemporary poetry as it was happening.
I was reminded of this excitement by Paul Farley’s recent Archive on Four radio feature celebrating the fiftieth anniversary of the start of the Penguin Modern Poets series in 1962. What a wonderful range of poetry – the Modernist poet William Carlos Williams, beat poets Ginsberg and Ferlinghetti, a whole volume named The Mersey Sound, up and coming Irishman Michael Longley, Orkneyman George Mackay Brown rubbing shoulders with fellow Scots Norman MacCaig and Iain Crichton Smith. There were few women poets in the first series (though Kathleen Raine and Denise Levertov made it), but this imbalance was corrected in the second series which included the current Poet Laureate, Carol Ann Duffy, and Scots Makar, Liz Lochhead.
But there were notable omissions. What, no Ted Hughes? No Thom Gunn? They were already signed up to Faber and Faber who apparently refused to give permission for their work to be included.
Looking back 50 years it is worth celebrating the fact that a major publishing house took contemporary poetry seriously enough to launch a whole series of books and also didn’t stint on design. The classic black covers with different linear designs have not dated. The poems are beautifully set in my (current) favourite type, the elegant Garamonde.
Of all the volumes The Mersey Sound was the most successful – it sold half a million copies. Not bad for a little black book of poetry.
Finally here's a poem by Denise Levertov from volume 9 - dedicated to everyone who has been walking their dog(s) in the rain. It's called "The Rainwalkers"
More information about the 50th anniversary of Penguin Modern Poets at