Jack Ousbey on recent poetry publications
If poetry is that which startles, delights and challenges the reader; which is sometimes wayward, often lucid and occasionally disturbing; which baffles and bewitches and begs to be said aloud, or sung, or whispered to oneself – then there’s a lot of it around this autumn. And I’m pleased to have got my hands on it early.
Take Walking the Bridge of your Nose (Kingfisher, 1 85697 290 9, £8.99), for instance, selected by Michael Rosen. This collection guarantees a lot of fun, not just in reading the poems but in trying to say them aloud, along with the rhymes, tongue-twisters and puzzles which pack this book. Michael’s rich store is enhanced by page after page of humorous, detailed illustrations by Chloë Cheese, which help the whole thing fit together in a most attractive way for 4-7 year-olds.
Then have a look at Tickle in Your Tummy (Macdonald, 0 7500 1602 1, £8.99; 0 7500 1602 7, £3.99 pbk), chosen by Judith Elkin and Carlton Duncan. It jingles and jangles so brightly it’s earned a little rhyming review of its own:
Festivals, colours, strange insects and grannies,
Humpty-Dumpties and monkeys and bright picaninnies;
Laughter and friendship, mummies and daddies.
Rasta Garges and rainbows and Rack-a-bye babies.
– a lovely, smiling look at the world of Black and Asian children, also for 4-7 year-olds.
Illustrated in a most imaginative and witty way, by Penny Dann, the pieces in Collins’ Treasury of Poetry (0 00 193046 7, £14.99) have been selected by Stephanie Nettell. There are more than 120 poems divided into sections like Fun and Fantasy, Sunshine and Showers, Very Special People, and Golden Days, Silver Nights. The mixture of old and new – de la Mare and Berlie Doherty, Masefield and McGough, Clare and Causley – with a sprinkling of traditional rhymes, works beautifully in this special collection for the very young.
For the same age-range there are two new titles in the Wayland Poems About series – Day and Night (0 7502 1125 3) and Growth (0 7502 1126 1) – at £8.99 each. Eclectic in their scope, the editors (Amanda Earl and Danielle Sensier) have chosen poems by Sansom, Frost, Rossetti and Farjeon, as well as poets currently writing for children. The colour illustrations by Frances Lloyd seem to me to work far better than the colour photographs. However, the books are sturdy and inviting, and I like the poems.
June Crebbin has written a flip-over book called Cows Moo, Cars Toot (Viking, 0 670 85511 1, £9.99). You start at one end, read to the middle, then reverse the process. One set of poems deals with town life and has titles like ‘City River’, ‘Neighbourhood Watch’, ‘A City Dog’s Dream’; the other half concentrates on country matters such as stream-dipping, conkers and frogs. The poems are jaunty, appealing and fun, stepping out neatly in a variety of forms. I didn’t like the cover but everything else about the book, including the black-and-white line drawings, is sure to appeal to 6-8 year-olds.
Pigeons and Other City Poems (Macmillan, 0 333 57214 9, £3.99), compiled and illustrated by Annie Owen is a real charmer of a book – a bobby-dazzler, an inner-city razzler. Many of the poems were new to me and some, like ‘Dancer Man’ and ‘Rhubarb Street’, I can’t wait to share with a young audience. When you mix together Kit Wright, Laurie Lee, Thomas Hardy and Gareth Owen, you’re bound to get something that sings a good tune. Not only has Annie Owen chosen well, she has provided a lovely collection of illustrations which appear above or below the poems, nudge into them when that seems appropriate, sometimes encircle or sit alongside them, and always shine on them with palpable pleasure. If I decide to part with this one, it’ll be to a 5-year-old, or a 6-year-old or a 7-year-old, or a grandpa like me who enjoys sharing books with children of that age.
Macmillan’s Sandwich Poet series is sure to go down well with top juniors and lower secondary pupils. Three poets each contribute around 20 poems to each collection, and a quick glance at the titles indicates that the tone is going to be light-hearted – ‘Dazzledance’, ‘Grotty Borlotti’, ‘Parent-free Zone’, ‘Big Aunt Flo’, ‘Teabag’ – and keen readers will recognise quite a few of the pieces. Rice, Pie and Moses (0 330 33874 9, £3.50) feature in one book; Matt, Wes and Pete (0 330 33875 7, £3.50) in the other. That’s John Rice, Pie Corbett, Brian Moses, Matt Simpson, Wes McGee and Peter Dixon respectively. Let your children practise, rehearse and present their favourites and hope that somebody has a stab at ‘The Chewy Toffee Poem’:
‘UH GLUG CHEWING GLOGGEE
GLEAT IG ALL THE GLINE’
There’s no mention of dragons chewing toffee in John Foster’s Dragon Poems (Oxford, 0 19 276108 0, £2.99), though these fanciful creatures seems to do almost everything else. They have birthdays, visit classrooms, become pets, warm the world awake, play recorders and guitars, and avoid being put into zoos. John has a network of poet-friends from whom he commissions new work, thus this new collection contains a big percentage of previously unpublished materials, all of it illustrated in Korky Paul’s inimitable, uproarious, exuberant way for dragon lovers from 7 upwards.
I have to say that Gerard Benson’s poems get better and better. His collection, Evidence of Elephants (Viking, 0 670 85960 5, £9.99), is simply a cracker. Hold your breath on the rock-face; feel the wind and rain eroding the cliff-sides; solve riddles, visit strange gardens and measure elephant bones; meet Elliot the cat, and the dog who sleeps in The Temple of Dendera, and laugh aloud like I did when I read ‘Goal!’. And then there’s:
The music teacher’s daughter
Had eyes like skies
And hands like water.
She wore a shirt
Of daffodil yellow
And we played duets
On her Pa’s piano.’
And I haven’t even mentioned the way ‘River Song’ sings its way straight into your mind. Ring up a friend and tell them to buy it for anyone in the 9-90 year-old range.
And then again, there’s nothing quite like the moment when you’re about to open a new book by a favourite author. The Fox on the Roundabout (Collins, 0 00 185607 3,£8.99) more than meets that expectation. Gareth Owen understands people and their concerns, as clearly as he knows about poetry and the way it functions, and he matches content (fame and fortune, first love and farms, pop-groups, soccer, tigers and travellers) so perfectly with form. The voice young people hear when they read his poems is one they know they can trust. That’s why Gareth Owen is so popular with teenage audiences. This is an essential title for all English departments.
So, too, is Otherworlds (Faber, 0 571 17216 4, £9.99), a collection of poems concerned with the numinous nature of things – darkness, trespasses; shadows and hauntings; moonlight and dreams; midnight and echoes – the kind of poems, in fact, that Judith Nicholls, the compiler, tells us ‘often, for reasons other than fear, create a shiver down the spine’. The book opens with a lovely poem by John Agard, ‘First Morning’, and closes with Grace Nichols’ ‘Back Home Contemplation’. In between we’re able to meet mysteries in many shapes, from Clare and Wordsworth, Causley and de la Mare, Hopkins, Herrick, Hughes and Blake; in old favourites like ‘Dover Beach’ and ‘La Belle Dame’; and in a number of interesting riddles. Pupils in Years 7, 8 and 9 will enjoy the variety and challenge of Otherworlds.
There’s variety in abundance in Rainbows (Oxford, 0 19 276124 2, £8.99), by Barrie Wade. Lullabies and haikus; poems with choruses that rhyme; new versions of old nursery rhymes; poems that don’t rhyme when you expect them to; poems that leave the reader to supply a rhyme; poems that march in time but don’t rhyme; poems that sing, or snore, or keep on repeating themselves – they’re all here in this jostling, bustling, ear-catching, gentle, rumbustious, golden pot of poetry. That’s what Rainbow is. Buy it for 12-14 year-olds, but don’t forget to sneak a look for yourself first.
I suppose I should have known that Diana Hendry would be an accomplished poet, but I didn’t. I read the proofs of Strange Goings On (Viking, 0 670 86219 3, £8.99), at one sitting on an inner-city train. I loved every bit of it. I’ve been reading poetry for as long as I can remember and only a handful of poets have made me nod and smile and return to the text as readily as Diana Hendry. Her poems are gentle, poignant, watchful pieces. To pinch a phrase from one of her own poems, she has:
‘an ear for sap, a way
of speaking in blossom.’
Older pupils should read these poems alongside two Faber publications: Fatso in the Red Suit (0 571 17519 8, £8.99) by Mathew Sweeney, and Scratch City (0 571 17535 X, £3.99) by Philip Gross. Both poets have distinctive, vigorous, compelling voices and both deal with disturbing, off-beat, sometimes frightening themes. Scratch City is a dangerous, decaying place, flaring with disco lights and dodgem stands where violent confrontations threaten in a world of joy-riders, beggars and dark short-cuts. Mathew Sweeney reconstructs his own childhood in Fatso – a time and place where there are mysterious puzzles and dilemmas to be faced. Teachers who like poetry know that good writers produce work which is challenging in its scope and unswerving in its truth. Sweeney and Gross both follow that route.
It’s good to be able to end a round-up of this kind with a collection which fairly hums along. Hearsay (Bodley Head, 0 370 31861 7, £8.99), compiled by Paul Beasley, has such a strong, earthy, knockabout feel to it you can almost hear the voices behind the print. It’s not surprising to find the book is inspired by the performance poets whose work is featured here. I would have had more to say about Hearsay, I dare say, (like buy a copy at once), but I’ve just noticed a few lines in the piece which completes the collection – Norman Silver’s ‘This Poem’:
‘May it never be the property
of anyone, may no-one ever
force a commentary upon it.’
O.K. I can take a hint, Norman!
Jack Ousbey has taught in primary and secondary schools, and a college of education. He was an inspector with the Nottinghamshire authority, before devoting his time to writing, reviewing and running in-service events.