Given our ‘narrow and technique-obsessed curriculum’ and the prescriptions of the Literacy hour, does poetry continues to flourish? Peter Hollindale assesses new titles.
Children’s poetry is a small world, and the Literacy Hour has made it smaller. Henry Reed once famously wrote, ‘Japonica / Glistens like coral in all of the neighbouring gardens / And today we have naming of parts.’ Many voices have denounced the infamous ‘naming of parts’ that afflicts the Literacy Hour. They are right, but the Philistines are still in charge. So in this trawl of poetry published for children over the last year or so, I shall be looking unashamedly for signs of glistening japonica.
Can the anthologists help? Their power is immense. As collaborators or as rebels, they determine what is freshly available to the narrow and technique-obsessed curriculum in schools. Well, the usual suspects have been busy again. However accomplished they are, it cannot be healthy for children’s poetry that the same names – John Foster, Fiona Waters, Tony Bradman, Roger McGough, Brian Moses, and a very few others – account year after year for the ‘core curriculum’ of published collections.
The dominance of a few means that the same favoured names from past and present provide the poems that children read. If these were the old days of labour relations, we’d be talking about union membership, and the National Union of Children’s Poets is not very big. The same poets, and often the same poems. Robert Frost stops so often by woods on a snowy evening that his little horse must think he is raving mad. (Sometimes a poem’s union card is just as unaccountably withdrawn: young Timothy Winters seems to have said ‘Amen’ once or a dozen times too often.)
Worse than individual power, however, is the insidious corporate policy. Union rules decree that certain members’ interests must have their place. Comic poems. Word play. Puns. Lists. Lines of flaccid preparations to set up a final-line surprise. Onomatopoeia. Shape poems. Typographical tricks.
And lots of verse that
Yes, really is,
Looking for a theme
Every anthology must have a theme, or at any rate a reason for existing. ‘What can I but enumerate old themes?’ asked Yeats, and desperate anthologists echo him. So here we have a variety of excuses for another new book. Undoubtedly the silliest is Hello New!, edited by John Agard, first published in hardback in 2000, crazily cheerful about the new century’s arrival, and already looking dated as a paperback two years later, the new century having quickly staked its claim to being even uglier than the old one. Every poem commissioned for this book had to contain the word ‘new’, and my favourites among its contents are Roger McGough’s two rude gestures at the whole idea.
McGough’s own latest collection, 100 Best Poems for Children, is gathered from nominations by teachers and children themselves in 135 schools which answered a questionnaire. Not surprisingly, a lot of card-carrying old union members are duly present, including Mr Frost and his horse. But there are lots of good poems. The most interesting thing about this rather predictable anthology is the list of contributing schools, a disproportionately high number of which are either Irish schools or Church schools or both. There seems to be some life and delight here which Estelle Morris and her pale battalions haven’t reached. Long may it last.
John Foster has two little collections, one of ‘creepy poems’, Watch Out, There’s a Ghost About!, which is feeble and second-rate, and Why Do We Have to Go to School? which is better, not least for the presence of John Coldwell’s ‘Face the Front’ and Gareth Owen’s ‘School Outing’. The year’s big Foster offering, though, is 10l Favourite Poems. The new angle here is to ask 101 poets to choose a favourite from their own work. About half the book supplies proof that modesty and self-criticism are in short supply, but the other half is both entertaining and revealing, not least because so many writers, forced to choose, choose something serious. Japonica glistens quite often. There is Patrick Lewis’s ‘Stories’ (Robert Frost made new), and Michaela Morgan’s ‘Blake’s Tyger – revisited’ (Ted Hughes made new), and Ian Whybrow’s ‘The Last Steam Train to Margate’ (Auden’s ‘Night Mail’ made new). And I don’t mean derivative, I mean fresh and equal in imaginative alliance. And there is Matt Simpson’s ‘One Spring Day’, a model of how to write a comic poem for children. And Russell Hoban’s ‘The Ghost Horse of Chingis Khan’, which he says gives him goose pimples, and does the same to me.
The Works 2, edited by Brian Moses and Pie Corbett, is a fat anthology of ‘poems on every primary-school subject’, and does its openly utilitarian job quite skilfully, while giving the bulk of the jobs to the union membership. It has many good poems, and is assiduously educational in the approved ways. Enough said.
The ever-industrious Fiona Waters has compiled If the sea was in the sky … Poetry collection 5. This is a pleasant, inconsequential, attractively produced collection for younger primary children, but it suffers very badly from list disease. Far too many of the poems consist essentially of lists, endorsed by various degrees of ingenuity and check. Lists are a very handy labour-saving device for producing pseudo-poems: they supply easy rhymes, easy contrasts, easy jokes, easy everything. Too many editors fall for them. Waters has done much better with her attractive little anthology for older readers (and adults), Love, which has happy, unexpected choices in a very neat pocket format.
Tony Bradman’s ‘green’ anthology Wild and Wonderful: poems about the natural world, published in association with WWF-UK, is a handsome and admirable book, with a ‘list poem’ at its best and most purposeful, Linda Newbery’s ‘More, MORE, MORE!’, and a marvellous ‘shape poem’, Jane Clarke’s ‘Web of Life’. Only 21 poems but scarcely any duds, and beautifully illustrated by Susan Wintringham.
Adventurous and surprising
The pick of all these anthologies, however, are two compiled by moonlighters from the Union of Children’s Novelists, Michael Morpurgo’s Because a Fire Was in My Head and Anne Fine’s A Shame to Miss (in three volumes, one for ‘young readers’ which is good, one for ‘middle readers’ which is excellent, and one for ‘young adults’ which should be mandatory stock for every secondary school). They have nearly 20 poems in common (guess who they’ve both found lurking by the snowy woods), but these include pieces from Shakespeare and Ecclesiastes. There is a big gap in quality. Morpurgo is disappointingly predictable in many of his choices. (If Charles Causley is to have four poems, pick the four most well-known and reprinted, and here they are. Out of all this poet’s riches!) Fine, with over twice as many poems altogether, is much more adventurous and surprising.
But what they have in common is a philosophy, also shot through their work as novelists. For the Union anthologists, kids are kids, and the aim is to make them laugh, enjoy word play, and jump early emotional hurdles, which is honourable enough as a calling. For Fine and Morpurgo children are certainly different from us adults but fast becoming adult themselves. That after all is what childhood is for. So where poetry is concerned the young can be trusted to play with the grown-ups. The great majority of poems in both anthologies are not by ‘children’s poets’, and the ones who make it are the very best, from Lewis Carroll and Eleanor Farjeon to Causley, Russell Hoban and Kit Wright.
Fine is forever extending the over-familiar canon. To my surprise I found a splendid end-of-war poem, ‘Armistice’, by John Buxton Hilton, known to me only for the brilliant, underrated detective stories set in Derbyshire that he wrote in retirement. ‘Armistice’, written in 1945, is unheard-of, simple, and utterly definitive.
This should become a classic anthology. So one small complaint. Fine reprints Hilaire Belloc’s ‘The Yak’. The third stanza should start ‘Then tell your papa where the Yak can be got’. In Fine’s version this has become ‘Then tell your parents where the Yak can be got’, which mucks up both tone and scansion. On whose say-so? Not Fine’s, I bet, since any child capable of reading her anthology knows what ‘papa’ means. This little piece of needless vandalism is no doubt the work of closet gender policing at Corgi. A shame to find it in A Shame to Miss.
Nose-picking and football poems
The speaker in one of Anne Fine’s choices, Susan Hamlyn’s ‘I Hate Poems’, denounces poems about (among other things) ‘putting your finger up your nose’. Fine observes, ‘You’ll know exactly the sort of poems she means’, and we do. I call them ‘snot and nose-picking poems’, and her anthology, like Morpurgo’s, is blessedly free of them. There are plenty around elsewhere. Their adolescent equivalent is Poems With Attitude, by Andrew Fusek Peters and Polly Peters, now in paperback, and its successor, Poems With Attitude Uncensored. You either admire these collections for addressing the raw truth of teenage preoccupations (genitalia, drugs, booze, sexual competition and vulnerability) and their responsible warnings (Don’t smoke. Don’t have unprotected sex. Don’t be cruel ‘for a laugh’.) or you dislike them for their shameless teenage populism and serious errors of taste. I dislike them. (An evening’s cinema snogging should not be depicted as war in the trenches, even for fun.) But the second book, despite its jokily seductive top-shelf title, is an improvement on the first.
Another obsession across a much broader age-group (and not only for boys, of course) is football. Football poems are scattered everywhere, but there are two single-author collections devoted to life in Beckhamland. Nick Toczek’s Kick It! is verbally clever and entertaining but clearly written for the market, and more about wordplay than the game itself. Allan Ahlberg’s Friendly Matches, on the other hand, is a small masterpiece. It is nostalgic, funny, observant, quirky, varied, and full of knowledgeable love for the people’s game. If John Betjeman had written a sequence about children and football, this would be it. An accomplished, hugely enjoyable book.
Anglo-Caribbean voices continue to enrich children’s poetry far beyond their numbers, but perhaps the time has come to avoid treating them as some kind of cultural collective, and recognize that their individual qualities (and quality) are very varied. Two new collections illustrate this. James Berry’s A Nest Full of Stars is frankly poor, and a thin self-imitation of what he did some years ago in When I Dance. Banality, contrivance, stretched and strained language, forced ideas are everywhere. Compare this book with Valerie Bloom’s Hot Like Fire, and the difference is vast. Hot Like Fire is sheer pleasure. A rich sense of humour, acute social observation, variety of tones and moods, sensitive rendering of the natural world, seemingly effortless wit and wordplay, and remarkable technical skill, all make this book outstanding.
Other recent single-author collections are measured by your personal sense of humour, and for my part the harder they try, the harder they fall. So the works of two poet-comedians, Ian McMillan’s The Invisible Villain and John Hegley’s My Dog is a Carrot, are not so much poems as zany quips and anecdotes on paper: throwaway writing for throwaway reading. Much funnier than these is a book from Wales for the youngest readers, Ruth Morgan’s Jumping the Waves, an affectionate, dreamily light-hearted poem-portrait of a seaside holiday. Much funnier too is Gervase Phinn’s The Day Our Teacher Went Batty, a set of wry, shrewd, witty episodes from a Yorkshire school inspector’s life. But one collection is exceptional: Gerard Benson’s To Catch an Elephant. This attractive book, delightfully illustrated by his wife Cathy, collects together the best of his earlier work – funny and sad, witty and sinister, all of it good.
I have kept the best till last. There are three books in this year’s batch that hover somewhere on the boundaries of children’s poetry, because all are partly journals, partly dramatic monologues, not too far from being novels – short poems that make a composite story. The Journal of Danny Chaucer (Poet), by Roger Stevens, is the story of one school year in Danny’s life – poems, song lyrics, notebook jottings, all wittily recording Danny’s efforts to acquire three successive girlfriends and a band called ‘Cast No Shadow’. It is very good indeed.
Even better is Sharon Creech’s Love That Dog, the story of one small boy’s school year. Jack is much younger than Danny, and his task as we gradually discover is to come to terms with the violent death of his dog. As he does so, we see him discover poetry, gain confidence as a writer and a person, connect poems with people, and gradually internalise experience. (Among the poems he discovers is one about a Mr Frost in snowy woods, and Jack has pertinent questions to ask about him.) This is a lovely book, totally original, profound and ambitious in scope, funny and moving, yet simple enough for Jack’s contemporaries to read and enjoy: a masterpiece.
And masterpiece is also the word for Jinx, by the Australian writer Margaret Wild. Strictly for teenagers, this is a story of adolescent crisis. Except that it is told entirely through poems (mostly monologues), it reminds me of Melvin Burgess’s Junk. It is a poetic drama in several voices, beautifully written, with extraordinary psychological insight. I cannot recommend it too highly.
Three books, all distinguished individually, that together add something original and important to the repertoire of children’s poetry.
Peter Hollindale, formerly at the University of York, is now a freelance writer and teacher.
Hello New!, edited by John Agard, ill. Lydia Monks, Orchard, 1 84362 094 4, £7.99 pbk
100 Best Poems for Children, edited by Roger McGough, ill. Sheila Moxley, Viking, 0 670 89490 7, £12.99 hbk
Watch Out, There’s a Ghost About!, collected by John Foster, ill. Chris Mould, Oxford, 0 19 276278 8, £4.99 pbk
Why Do We Have to Go to School?, collected by John Foster, ill. Ellis Nadler, Oxford, 0 19 276282 6, £4.99 pbk
10l Favourite Poems, compiled by John Foster, ill. Clare Mackie and Tim Stevens, Collins, 0 00 713975 6, £12.99 hbk
The Works 2, chosen by Brian Moses and Pie Corbett, Macmillan, 0 330 39902 0, £5.99 pbk
If the sea was in the sky … Poetry collection 5, compiled by Fiona Waters, ill. Tracy Fennell, Evans, 0 237 52126 1, £10.99 hbk
Love, chosen by Fiona Waters, Macmillan, 0 333 90348 X, £7.99 hbk
Wild and Wonderful: poems about the natural world, selected by Tony Bradman, ill. Susan Wintringham, Hodder Wayland with WWF-UK, 0 7502 3928 X, £10.99 hbk
Because a Fire Was in My Head, edited by Michael Morpurgo, ill. Quentin Blake, Faber, 0 571 20583 6, £12.99 hbk
A Shame to Miss 1: Perfect poems for young readers, 0 552 54867 7
A Shame to Miss 2: Ideal poems for middle readers, 0 552 54868 5
A Shame to Miss 3: Irresistible poetry for young adults, 0 552 54869 3
Selected by Anne Fine, Corgi, £5.99 each pbk
Poems With Attitude, Andrew Fusek Peters and Polly Peters, Hodder Wayland, 0 7502 4189 6, £4.99 pbk
Poems With Attitude Uncensored, Andrew Fusek Peters and Polly Peters, Hodder Wayland, 0 7502 4116 0, £9.99 hbk
Kick It!, Nick Toczek, ill. Alan Rowe, Macmillan, 0 330 39920 9, £3.99 pbk
Friendly Matches, Allan Ahlberg, ill. Fritz Wegner, Puffin, 0 14 130749 8, £4.99 pbk
A Nest Full of Stars, James Berry, ill. Rachel Merriman, Macmillan, 0 333 96051 3, £9.99 hbk
Hot Like Fire, Valerie Bloom, ill. Debbie Lush, Bloomsbury, 0 7475 5647 4, £3.99 pbk
The Invisible Villain, Ian McMillan, ill. Alan Rowe, Macmillan, 0 330 39845 8, £3.99 pbk
My Dog is a Carrot, John Hegley, Walker, 0 7445 8633 X, £5.99 pbk
Jumping the Waves, Ruth Morgan, ill. Suzanne Carpenter, Pont, 1 84323 106 9, £4.95 pbk (1 84323 155 7, £12.95 big book)
The Day Our Teacher Went Batty, Gervase Phinn, ill. Chris Mould, Puffin, 0 14 131445 1, £4.99 pbk
To Catch an Elephant, Gerard Benson, ill. Cathy Benson, Smith/Doorstop, 1 902382 40 4, £6.00 pbk
The Journal of Danny Chaucer (Poet), Roger Stevens, Dolphin, 1 84255 058 6, £4.99 pbk
Love That Dog, Sharon Creech, Bloomsbury, 0 7475 5749 7, £4.99 pbk
Jinx, Margaret Wild, Allen & Unwin, 1 86508 264 3, £5.99 pbk