THE REASO THERE is no review of Ted Hughes's Birthday Letters in this issue of Literary Review, or in the last one, is that there was an embargo on it. Publishers who think they have

Too ManyThunderbolts from the Blue

By far the best thing this Government has yet proposed is to give 4,500 schools in the land a complete 250-volume set of the Everyman's Library of literary classics. They cost £2,500 a set. The a bestseller on their hands fear a piratical review will spoil their chances of serialising it . This would not matter with books which attract little attention, but there is nothing useful to be said about a book a month after The Times has shrieked: 'The greatest book by our · greatest living writer', a claim backed by Andrew Motion's considered opinion: 'A thunderbolt from the blue: this book will live for ever.'

Whether our reviewer would have agreed with these exalted opinions or not, the time to produce them was while the frenzy was still on us - not a month later, when everyone has forgotten about Birthday Letters and literary editors on our 'quality' newspapers are looking for something new to be excited about. Birthday Letters could be hyped up into a nine days' wonder, but scarcely for longer than that.

The same considerations did not apply to Hughes's translation from Ovid, published last year, which has now been awarded the Whitbread Prize - pos ibly on the back of all the excitement generated by Birthday Letters . We decided to ignore it for different reasons. There are many translators from Ovid with whom Hughes might be compared, starting with William Caxton, followed by Marlowe, Dryden, Pope, Congreve... but by any normal standard of good manners , it would be polite not to compare Hughes with any of these. Ovid was a master of metrical form. Hughes, to put it mildly, is not. Where Ovid skipped and played in his own beautiful landscape, Hughes stumbles around in the mud. Yet Hughes, we are told, is our greatest living writer presumably The Times meant our greatest living poet, since nobody can quite say the grandeur has gone out of the world ofletters while a giant of VS Naipaul's stature is in our midst.

But we cannot deny that poetry is in a very bad state indeed. There is nobody writing serious poetry which is any good, although it is a bit unfair on Ted Hughes i f such comments are always hung on his peg. One has no desire to hurt his feelings. It is not his fault he is a rotten poet, and much of the blame must surely attach to the insecure, fashion-conscious literary establishment which encourages him to write such pretentious drivel. Among these people it has always been thought necessary to sneer at this magazine's efforts to keep the candle of formal verse burning, and I must admit that entries in our back-page competition are not always of a standard to inspire confidence that the battle has been won. But at least it is an attempt, and the modernists have nothing to show of any value, however desperately they acclaim their thunderbolts from the blue.

Millennium Commission has set aside £4 million towards it; David Campbell, of Everyman's, is producing another £4 million, and the balance of £3,250,000 will presumably come either from the Department for Education and Employment or from the county councils . We already hear threats from the county councils that they will have to close down libraries i f they are required to contribute any money at all to this scheme for rescuing the nation 's youth. Of course, they would love to close down their libraries in any case. Our only remedy is to send them to prison if they do. Similarly, there is no shortage of smart alecks anxious to point out omissions from the Everyman's Library, with the implied suggestion that they - or people like them - should choose the titles .

It goes without saying that there are quirky inclusions and quirky omissions, especially in the poetry collections. Generally, they err on the right side. Keats is there but not Shelley; Yeats but not Eliot or Auden; Coleridge but not Wordsworth. For my own part, I miss Tennyson and Pope, and agree with Philip Howard that it is odd to include the Old Testament but not the New. But nothing must detract from the fact that it is a magnificent library, including most of what we could all profit from reading - Homer, Sophocles, Plato and Virgil, as well as Dante, Shakespeare, George Herbert, Milton, Blake...More's Utopia, Mill on Liberty, Austen, the Brontes, down through Trollope, Tolstoy, Turgenev, Wilde and, yes, Waugh.

There were times when civilisation's survival seemed to depend on all its young men dressing up in khaki and marching off to be shot at by foreigners. Nowadays, all we have to do is to make sure that neither the sneering smart alecks on the literary fringes nor the crooked philistines in local government manage to frustrate Chris Smith and David Campbell in their plan. Let us all clap and cheer Chris whenever we see him. Many will be furious that they have not been consulted about the books to be included. Among them, it would appear, are the entire editorial staff of The Times and the National Association for the Teaching of English. For two pins Tony Blair will do a U-turn and set up a consultative task force to explore the possibilities. That will be the end of it. No doubt the Oxford World's Classics would be as good. Arguments for choosing the Everyman's Library are that it exists, it is excellent, and it is on offer. If Mr Blair loses it in response to the Sun's hatred of money spent on culture, or The Times'~ babyish one-upmanship, he will have deserved the curses of the civilised world.