THE SCHOOL BAG edited by Seamus Heaney and Ted Hughes, Faber, $220 A recent eminent visitor to Hong Kong University from the United States declared that it was nowadays impossible to teach any literature there, at university level, from earlier than the 20th century. This crisis in literary studies - almost a crisis in literacy itself - is implicitly challenged by this magnificent new anthology of poetry in English going back more than 1,000 years. Not only does it take for granted that older literature is not beyond the reach of reasonably able students, it also assumes plenty of these students can be found at secondary school level. For though this anthology will give untold joy to poetry-lovers of any age, it is a collection aimed primarily at school students. Clearly, in the view of these poets, and of their no doubt commercially astute publishers, the situation is not - yet - as desperate in other parts of the English-speaking world as it is in America. It has become quite a tradition for English poets apparently deemed to be 'major' to be asked to put together verse anthologies. W B Yeats, W H Auden and Philip Larkin all produced theirs, and now Hughes (the British Poet Laureate) and Heaney (reputedly a candidate for the presidency of the Irish Republic) have come up with their second, a sequel to The Rattle Bag of more than 20 years ago. By limiting themselves to only one contribution from any author, Hughes and Heaney have ensured they steer clear of the usual anthology stand-bys of Keats odes, Shakespeare sonnets, latest Yeats masterpieces and the like. Instead, they force themselves to do what they clearly want to do anyway - include an enormous variety of material from the oddest of sources: Gaelic, medieval Welsh, Old English, all in modern translations, and plenty from 20th century America to boot. Nor is there any attempt at chronological order, so the effect is like rummaging through a treasure chest accidentally stumbled on. But items are juxtaposed with an eye to possible comparisons. Thus there is a 20-page chunk of Whitman's Leaves of Grass followed by Allen Ginsberg's A Supermarket in California with its 'I saw you, Walt Whitman, childless, lonely old grubber, poking among the meats in the refrigerator . . .' But above all this book is characterised by Hughes and Heaney's love of wild nature. There are few urban poems here, and instead we have Wordsworth stumbling across a lonely moor, Keats by the lake where no birds sang, Larkin's high wind on a wedding night (a little-known early piece), and Sir Gawain riding determinedly through rural Cheshire. The inclusion of so much Irish, Scottish and Welsh material only serves to increase this emphasis on the wild and the remote. It is as if the compilers are saying that this is where the true spirit of Britain resides. This anthology is wonderful at least in part because it does not talk down to its readers. It assumes that, almost against the odds, quite large numbers of people are both able and eager to tackle fairly difficult material, and tempts them towards this material by placing it side by side with the simple and the charming, items like Julia Ward Howe's Battle-Hymn of the Republic. The book is full of the most admirable choices, from the last 300 lines of Marlowe's Dr Faustus and D H Lawrence's Bavarian Gentians to many that are more conventional. Quality is everywhere the criterion in the selection, quality in the sense wrestled with in Persig's Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, something which computers cannot sense and never will be able to. There is no 'rap' in this book, no pandering to the modish, no predigested pap masquerading as giving the young what they will readily accept. As you would expect from two writers as tough and uncompromising as these, the collection takes a stand, and defends its position with vigorous but strong-minded good humour. All in all, this book is set to be the most attractive anthology of poetry in English on the market. Lucky the child, or the adult, into whose hands it falls.