Morag Styles assesses recent collections and anthologies
My first reaction on looking at the box of goodies from Books for Keeps was to exclaim with delight at some glorious illustrating. As I dived into the anthologies I realised I was enjoying the kind of pleasure I get from picture books rather than immersing myself in the poetry. One reason for this could have been that the amount of good poetry about was rather thin; alternatively, perhaps the art of illustration had reached a stunning peak. I looked more closely. There were some exciting new collections, especially when Jackie Kay, Philip Gross, John Mole and others appeared by the second post. But there was also a fair amount of lacklustre poetry and some listless anthologising. Isn’t it time that publishers thought again about what they commission for children? Presumably poetry is selling well; the market has been inundated for some time with new volumes of verse, but there isn’t much that’s memorable. I believe more quality-control is required.
Let’s start with the good news. Two’s Company by Jackie Kay (ill. Shirley Tourret, Blackie, 0 216 93317 X, £5.99 pbk) is a brilliant debut in writing for children. It’s a spunky book by a black Scottish poet dealing with everything from divorce to a Burns Supper, sheep shearing in Skye to travels in Greece. Occasionally Kay writes in dialect:
So I locked myself in the cludgie
and cried, so I did, so I did,
pulling the long roll of paper
onto the floor. Like that dug Andrex.
Most of the poems are in standard English; but whichever tongue Kay chooses to write in, she captures the real voices of ordinary folk. There is plenty of fun, pain too, lyrical moments, compassion, but absolutely no sentimentality (the great fault of so many who attempt to write for the young). I was particularly captivated by the Carla persona who crops up in a number of the poems, a girl whose parents have separated, going about her double life with sadness yet grit:
My friend Shola said to me that she said to her mum:
‘It’s not fair, Carla (that’s me) has two of everything:
Carla has two bedrooms,
two sets of toys, two telephones,
two wardrobes, two door mats
two mummies, two cats
two water purifiers, two kitchens,
two environmentally friendly squeezies.’
My friend Shola said to me that she said to her mum:
‘Why can’t you and Dad get divorced?’
But the thing Shola doesn’t even realise yet,
is that there are two of me.
The Magnificent Callisto (ill. Cathy Benson, Blackie, 0 216 93267 X, £5.99 pbk) is Gerard Benson’s first collection for children, although he has already won the Signal Award for his anthology, This Poem Doesn’t Rhyme. The poetry is well-crafted(a nice mixture of rhyme and free verse) and thought-provoking with a lyrical quality:
And still the waters reflecting the hillside
Green until all the summers have gone away
While the butterflies like little strobes
Rifle the blossom and then lurch away.
I like his nature poetry best. Benson, like so many other poets, writes wonderfully about cats:
The white cat dreams of snow fields,
The small musical pipes of birds,
Licking his lips in sleep.
I have two small reservations. One is a slight feelingof deja vu when reading about a dancing bear and a shape-poem mouse. In the first I could not help comparing him with Causley. In the second Benson seemed to be writing somewhere between ee cummings and Keith Bosley. The poems are good, but will they appeal to the young? We’ll see.
The Magnificent Callisto and Two’s Company (both for older juniors upwards) are Blackie Poetry Originals, a new series edited by Anne Harvey.
Philip Gross’s All-Nite Cafe (Faber, 0 571 16753 5, £4.99 pbk) is worth reading in one sitting (and short enough to do so). It has a slightly Chandleresque feel to it: a pitch black night with a few seedy houses and a cafe, not far from the seashore, someone is scribbling away; at another table a storytelling session has begun – some of the listeners look uneasy…
Gross is a talented poet with an impressive range. When he’s amusing there is real wit:
So come all you saucy sailors, any Tom, or Dick or Gerry,
on your tanker or container ship or roll-on-roll-off ferry.
You’ll see us in your dreams as you’re lying in your bunk.
Hope it makes you seasick. We’re Lady Di Oxin,
and Jenny the Junk.
Stuff your pretty little ditties. We’re singing punk!
When he makes you think, he packs quite a punch…
they want to scratch. You are the itch.
A thousand years stand by, hissing Witch! Nigger! Yid!
All you hear is silence lumbered
shut around you. And the ten or hundred looking on
look on. They are learning not to see.
The bell rings, too late. Already this is history.
This is a substantial book of poetry for fluent readers of ten and more. A grumble: surely Faber could have done better than produce a book with five blank pages at the end and why use such tiny print?
Look out for Norman Silver’s The Comic Shop (0 571 16750 0, £4.99 pbk) also from Faber. It’s a gutsy and provocative read for teenagers. Silver uses a tough-guy tone for some of the poems, including a final sequence which is a sort of comic-strip extravaganza. The cover is zappy and readers may be surprised to find that many poems use conventional forms and tackle uncomfortable issues like suicide, death and harassment. He’s not afraid to make explicit sexual references or use violence in his poems. Most of his work will be approachable to young people, though I think he’s more likely to appeal to males as he uses a lot of macho images. The term `tarts’ occurs several times (admittedly, where the speech is vernacular and the style mocking), though in other poems he shows sensitivity to women. I think Silver is sometimes guilty of bad taste which made me wince, but there are good things here and it’s admirable to see someone trying to break the mould of poetry for this age group.
The Conjuror’s Rabbit by John Mole (Blackie, 0 216 93272 6, £7.99) is his third collection for children. The book has attractive black-and-white line drawings by Mary Norman. Mole has an assured place in the children’s canon, combining well-observed ‘snapshots’ of people and animals with a nice sense of humour. He uses form inventively: there’s a triolet, a villanelle, riddles, of course, and a new version of a nursery rhyme. Here’s an extract from one of the best poems:
Millions of mothers crouching there,
Millions of children eating air.
I couldn’t go, I had to stay.
It’s only dreams that go away
And this was not a dream, I knew.
The day had come, the night was through
And everyone was asking why,
And so was I. And so was I.
A collection for thoughtful readers of about nine and older.
I mentioned earlier that the art of illustrating poetry books had reached a new peak. My next choices are a couple of the books that persuaded me. For younger readers there’s a beautiful double-act between the artist Sarah Fox-Davies and poet Richard Edwards in Moon Frog (Walker, 0 7445 2157 2, £9.99). Most of the poems are slightly fantastic and playful: there’s the Cloud-sheep:
leaving wisps of wool behind,
Like flakes of fallen snow
a celebration of the mammoth:
Once I waved my wild tusks high,
Once I was colossal,
Now I never see the sky,
Now I’m just a fossil.
a fox who outsmarts the hunters:
How did we lose it, how?
It’s run to the top of the rainbow,
And no one can catch it now.
And much, much more. The full-colour illustrations are gorgeous. Sarah Fox-Davies is superb at realistic portrayal of animals, is a dab-hand at lush vegetation, has a lovely sense of fun and matches the delicacy of Edwards’ writing. This is a delicious book for under-eights. There’s nothing else quite like it on the market.
For little ones Clicketty-Clack, Something to Pack (Orchard, 1 85213 333 3, £7.99) is an enchanting picture book variation of the old game ‘I packed my bag to London and into it I put…’ Antony Lishak provides the couplets:
five climbing kites that soar high in the sky
a spiralling box and some beetles that fly
which build up to a surprise on the final spread. Ian Penney’s exquisitely detailed paintings can be enjoyed by under-fives again and again. His toys are not the plastic horrors currently beloved by children – there’s a real taste of nostalgia in the images which Penney conjures up. A true winner.
Now to some anthologies worthy of mention.
I usually take issue with Oxford over their garish illustrations of poetry supplied by a medley of illustrators. However, The Oxford Book of Animal Poems (0 19 276105 6, £9.95) which is brightly ‘coloured and has more than twelve artists, is an exception. This is a ‘luscious book from the cover to the endpapers, and the quality of the artwork is superb. The poetry is rich and various as you would expect from the well-tried team of Michael Harrison and Christopher Stuart-Clark. The book is not broken up into themes, but the organisation is suggested by the contents pages which feature different parts of the globe – an unobtrusive, yet useful, device. This is excellent value and you cannot fail to be moved, excited and inspired.
Poems for the Young (Stewart, Tabori and Chang, 1 55670 262 0, £9.99)) edited by Neil Philip, is evocatively illustrated by John Lawrence who’s rapidly becoming the Ardizzone of the present age. Lawrence is equally appealing in both black-and-white line drawings and full colour illustrations: he’s an artist who is truly sympathetic to the poems, helping to open them up to the young reader. The selection of poetry is delightful (as you’d expect from Philip) and quite traditional: no Rosen or Wright, but Pope is there along with Jane Taylor, James Hogg and William Allingham. Here we have an anthology where the editor knows his poetry and his own mind, so the overall effect is convincing.
Finally, for older readers, Free My Mind is an anthology of Black and Asian poetry edited by Judith Elkin and Carlton Duncan (Hamish Hamilton, 0 241 12830 7, £8.50). They have come up with nearly a hundred poems ranging from well-known writers like John Agard, Valerie Bloom, Louise Bennett, Rabindranath Tagore, to those who are lesser known in Britain, but deserve a wider audience. The editors hardly put a foot wrong: the poems are powerful and profound, dealing with compelling issues of our times with compassion and irony. As Devendranath Capildeo says:
To eat, to drink, to breathe, to sing –
it’s joy to bring yourself to think of people,
careful and kind,
who restore that precious jewel –
your peace of mind.
Despite publications like this last one, the fact that the poetry syllabus for Key Stages 3 and 4 hardly contains any women poets or black poets or that the selection is narrow, academic and dated comes as no surprise, alas. We must continue to resist crude, limiting, backward-looking encroachments on children and their reading. Many of the books of poetry mentioned above offer young readers vigorous and challenging ideas and language to free imaginations, bring new perspectives, open alternative worlds, console and entertain. That is the job of poetry, of all literature. I remain optimistic. As the Czech poet, Miroslav Holub, puts it in a poem about freedom:
There is much promise
in the circumstance
that so many people have heads.
Morag Styles is a Senior Lecturer at Homerton College, Cambridge. She has written several books about children and poetry and is a highly respected anthologist.