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The Map and the Clock review – a delicious mix of ancient poetry and contemporary wit

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This out-of-the-ordinary anthology curated by Carol Ann Duffy and Gillian Clarke is playful, enigmatic and heart-rending

Every now and then, a book comes along that insists on shouldering individual collections temporarily aside. The Map and the Clock is an anthology of chronologically organised British poetry, an out-of-the-ordinary compilation – big as a brick – that will keep me reading for as long as it lives on my shelves. In her introduction, Carol Ann Duffy describes the search for poems, with Gillian Clarke, and the discovery that Shakespeare’s line still holds: “The isle is full of noises.” Their resolve was not only to include great poems, but to go under the radar, to avoid waving union jacks, to surprise us and themselves.

The book opens with Caedmon’s Hymn (600AD), translated by Paul Muldoon, the oldest known written poem – and a steadying piece. Reading it is like leaning against a cathedral door, preparing to step inside. But there is as much tavern as cathedral in this anthology and it is not long before the profane nudges the sacred with a four-line medieval poem, translated by Maurice Riordan: “There is a lady in these parts/whose name I’m slow to divulge/but she’s known to let off farts/like stones from a catapult.” 1300-1500 brings us Chaucer, Sir Gawain, Pearl, birdsong, dalliance and Anon’s beer: “Bring us in no butter, for therein are many heres/Nor bring us in no pigges flesch, for that will make us bores/But bring us in good ale!”

Related: Carol Ann Duffy: my pick of British and Irish poetry

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