Judith Nicholls assesses newly available verse for youngsters
What is poetry – and how should it be presented? Faced with several piles of books sent to me in the name of ‘poetry’ I’m uncomfortably aware that judgements on both these issues – inevitably personal – are involved.
Whilst I like the idea of attracting as many young readers as possible to poetry, I have mixed feelings about some of the rather brash covers and funny-ha-ha titles which seem increasingly evident in a fast-growing marketplace. As in other areas, the ‘shop window’ sometimes disguises what turns out to be, at best, mediocre content. It’s interesting to see that even an established and well-regarded poet like Gareth Owen has gone from Salford Road and Song of the City to My Granny is a Sumo Wrestler! (Young Lions, 0 00 674883 X, £3.50 pbk). This latest collection is in fact varied and thoughtful; maybe a title which draws more unlikely readers to some interesting poetry is justified for its ends, however representative or otherwise of the overall mood of the book?
It’s impossible to turn up too many books before coming across the name of John Foster who’s done so much to enliven school poetry libraries and bring new names to their shelves. All the poems in the four Poetry Paintbox books from Oxford (Red, 0 19 916717 6, 0 19 916676 5 pbk, Yellow, 0 19 916718 4, 0 19 016677 3 pbk, Green, 0 19 916719 2, 0 19 916678 1 pbk, Blue, 0 19 916720 6, 0 19 916679 X pbk, each £6.99 hbk, £3.50 pbk) have been well tested in schools for they started life as a series in the ‘Oxford Reading Tree’. The variety of artists in each anthology works well; the layout is clear and the text uncluttered.
Other recommendations for young readers are Charles Causley’s All Day Saturday (ill. Anthony Lewis, Macmillan, 0 333 60486 5, £7.99); John Agard gives us some wonderful rhythms in Grandfather’s Old Bruk-a-Down Car (ill. Kevin Dean, Bodley Head, 0 370 31888 9, £7.99) spiced by the odd shiver of fear and, if you haven’t yet come across it, look at Michael Rosen’s excellent, large-format compilation Poems for the Very Young (ill. Bob Graham, Kingfisher, 1 85697 116 3, £8.99) with its wake-up mix of joke-poems, bouncing rhythms, traditional chants and unexpected tiny, thought-provoking images.
Moving up the age-range slightly, Wayland, in their ‘Poems About’ series, have opted firmly for the no-nonsense, utilitarian approach to titles with Animals (0 7502 1034 6), Feelings (0 7502 0972 0), Journeys (0 7502 1036 2), and Weather (0 7502 1035 4) costing £8.50 each. The books are beautifully produced in relatively large format. Possibly Wayland preferred to build a series identity (there are four more to come) rather than be seduced by disparate or gimmicky individual titles. Each book contains only about 20 poems, compiled by Amanda Earl and Danielle Sensier, of varying mood and nationality, accompanied by superb full-colour photographs and added illustrations by Frances Lloyd.
However, some grouses! The same ‘How to use this book’ page (a few brief but sensible suggestions) is included in each book – something of a shame when there are only 32 pages to start with. I was particular amused by ‘It is inevitable that, at some point, children will want to write poems themselves’. Shock, horror! It makes it all sound rather like resignation in the face of impending measles rather than the joy of making. My worst grouse, though, concerns the level of error/inconsistency. In the four books I saw (and I wasn’t trying to proof-read, remember) I came across inaccuracies in the nationalities given for at least two poets; mis-spellings of at least two other poets’ names (though the same names were correctly spelt elsewhere); incorrect punctuation in a Christina Rosetti poem; ‘am’ misprinted for ‘and’ in a Kit Wright poem – twice. Not all the poets’ nationalities were given (annoying if the one you want isn’t listed) and one was given as ‘Asian’. In a 32-page/£8.50 poetry book, we should be able to expect rather greater accuracy than this, surely?
The Thirteen Secrets of Poetry (0 7500 1380 X, £3.99) published by Simon & Schuster quickly removed my irritation. Full marks first on presentation. Like any self-respecting primary school child I’m a sucker for secrets, so Adrian Mitchell’s title was particularly well-chosen and Valerie Littlewood’s charming cover added to the temptation – here was a book I must open at once. The actual ‘secrets’ come in short rhymes, boxed at the beginning of each double-page spread. They are elaborated upon briefly at the bottom of the page and a sample poem given on the right. The examples are well-chosen: John Agard’s ‘Spell to banish a pimple’ (writing for a real reason); Tennyson’s ‘Owl’ (be happy to copy); John Clare (they don’t all have to rhyme). ‘Secret Eleven’ (Pile up your feelings / On a poetry plate – / Write about something / You really hate) could have been an invitation to children to bring in full-colour Hammer Horror responses, but Adrian Mitchell wisely chose Sara Teasdale’s ‘There will come soft rains’ to show that a gentle, understated poem is likely to move more. The Thirteen Secrets of Poetry is like the best poems – many ideas have gone into it but the text itself is relatively short, clear and condensed – many ideas will come out of it.
When is a poem not a poem? I picked up Picture a Poem – A Book of Shape Poems (Hutchinson, 0 09 176540 4, £8.99) with some apprehension. Happily, Gina Douthwaite is an experienced writer well aware of the ‘nuts and bolts’ of poetry. Here are wit, rhythm and rhyme as well as word-games and the poems use shape to give visual impact to meaning – the way it should be. The memorable ‘Not wearing knickers, not navy, no more’ is included and a football acrostic which is way above the standard of many acrostics in print:
A PPA ING Y
L L L L L
Jackie Kay was a well-praised Signal Award winner for Two’s Company last year [the paperback is reviewed in this issue on page]. Three Has Gone (Blackie, 0 216 94079 6, £8.99) an affectionate, unexpected look-back at childhood, confirms that talent. A spirited child with a lively imagination she must have been, and that spirit pervades her work. Whether she writes of the father sitting by his new answerphone waiting for it to ring, the Gaelic dog who refuses to speak English or that age-old problem of cracks on pavements, she manages to weave apparently casual conversation lines into poetry:
Remember the coal bunker in winter?
Naw? You wouldn’t want to, either.
Stooping at the grate gathering auld ash.
Always leaving a wee bed of ash
for the next fire’s blazing dreams.
Heeking a’ that heavy coal from the bunker.
The big black jewels in the steel bucket.
Toast from the naked flame was a treat,
or burning pink and white marshmallows
till they caved in and surrendered…
Here she faces some of the major issues of childhood: guilt, betrayal, bullying, provocation and attention-seeking – as well as the fears and joys of family life.
Norman Silver’s The Walkmen Have Landed (Faber, 0 571 17189 3, £3.99 pbk) quickly appealed with the increasingly frenetic desperation of ‘I want trainers’. By the time I reached the outrageous scenario of ‘18 Certificate’ I was laughing out loud. It’s not all humour: there’s chilling metaphor in ‘Life is a Ball’ and a copy of ‘Why Mrs Parry Gave up Teaching’ (too long to quote here) should be sent immediately to Gillian Shephard! Silver is an ideal poet to win over readers of either sex who have any suspicion at all that poetry might be a touch ‘sissy’.
He crops up again on the more serious side of John Foster’s excellent new anthology All In the Family (Oxford, 0 19 276119 6, £4.99 pbk), describing a separating father standing ‘with a tormented suitcase’ waiting for a train… and his child’s response:
in an attic room
bustling with departures
and people hugging each other
through jolting windows.
A solitary pigeon
perched on a high ledge
as the train pulled out.
This anthology has a relatively low-key cover with its sketchy snapshots and clear cream title letters. Inside John Foster has been served well by his illustrator, Michael Charlton, whose grey washes complement the text perfectly without overpowering it. The balance of mood is particularly effective in this collection and it would be a pity to box it up for a narrow age group: primary yes, but the likes of James Berry, Seamus Heaney, Wendy Cope and other contributions give wider possibilities, too.
As a fellow-compiler I both cheered and groaned when Gerard Benson produced his award-winning This Poem Doesn’t Rhyme: why didn’t I think of that! Does W Trouble You? (Viking, ill. Alison Forsythe, 0 670 85082 9, £8.99) is a natural sequel, focusing on rhyme and the myriad possible ways of using it beyond the ubiquitous ABAB quatrains emulated by many young rhymsters. The first section opens with examples of couplets, tercets, and the three syllable rhyme on to what Gerard Benson describes as ‘desperation’ tactics (8-year-old Marjorie Fleming writing in 1811 even changes facts to get her rhyme!).
The central sections give a variety of rhyming poems from traditional Anon to sonnets by Wordsworth and Shelley; one discovery for me was A P Herbert’s eulogy on ‘Sausage and Mash’, but I suspect that poets H Cholmondeley Pennell and Aunt Effie, amongst others, will also be new to many. His final section deals with ‘Poetry obeying the rules’: distychs, heroic couplets, triolets, a pantoum, limericks and his own brief, pithy ending. These are foremost poems to enjoy as poems. Beyond that they certainly offer a model and an encouragement for readers to experiment with their personal poetry-writing.
Gerard Benson, together with Judith Chernaik and Cicely Herbert, has also edited my final choice: the new, extended edition of Poems on the Underground (Cassell, 0 304 34339 0, £5.99 pbk). For me this has all the elements of a good anthology: a varied, intensely memorable choice of poems which weaves together the familiar, the forgotten or neglected, the obscure. Presentation is classic and simple: one poem per page and a small number of black-and-white complementary illustrations including snatches of manuscripts or earlier illustrations for relevant poems. This one stays on my shelves, but I’d buy it for any teenage or adult poetry-lover. The fourth edition, to include all the poems featured on the underground in 1994, is due out later this year. Long may it thrive!
Judith Nicholls has written or compiled over 30 books and run many talks, readings and workshops with pupils and teachers. Published this month is the paperback of A Trunkful of Elephants which she’s edited for Mammoth (0 7497 1753 X, £2.99) illustrated by Chris Riddell. In October comes her new collection Storm’s Eye (Oxford, 0 19 276127 7, £8.99; 0 19 276138 2, £4.99 pbk) with illustrations by Shirley Felts.