In the run-up to next Thursday's National Poetry Day, John Mole celebrates a classic anthology.
In recent years Michael and Peter Benton have compiled some of the most innovative school anthologies. Outstanding among these has been their matching of poems and pictures in Double Vision (1990) where, as they stress in their introduction, students are encouraged to "dwell" on both and on the interplay between them, focusing on detail and exploring responses. "Both paintings and poems need time," they insist, and this has always been the great virtue of their approach.
The Touchstones series, with which they made their name and which has undergone various transformations since its first appearance in the less prescriptive 1960s, is exemplary in this respect. While it acknowledges the importance of analysis and the expectations of examiners, it demonstrates how giving pupils the opportunity "to experiment, to play with the words in the same way that they play with paints and materials in an art lesson" can lead naturally to, and through, the process of redrafting to a delight in the discipline of form.
What is warned against (and in my experience it remains an absolutely necessary warning) is "the dislike that is generated in pupils by teachers who insist on line-by-line analysis which, in most cases, leads to the imposition of the teacher's views and the neglect of the pupils' responses."
This, in turn, of course, comes often from the anxiety generated in the teacher by the need to get through the syllabus in five (or fewer) periods a week. Given the apparent lack of that needed time as the key stage requirements seem to become ever more authoritarian, and the question "Have I covered...?" keeps recurring with a depressed urgency, the Bentons' emphasis has never been more important.
The great strength of these two new teaching anthologies is that without losing any of the imaginative drive of the previous ones they arrange their material so that all those curriculum requirements ("other cultures","pre-20th century" etc, etc) are covered as part of a natural process of discovery.
Both volumes follow the same pattern. There are 10 units which introduce pupils to ways in which poetry "works", each focusing on a carefully chosen poem or small group. In "The Sonnet" (14-16), for example, Milton, Edwin Morgan, Shakespeare and Wilfred Owen make for striking comparison and contrast as well as offering an historical perspective. These are followed by 10 themes, well suited to the two different age ranges, each containing a larger number of poems and followed by a workshop. Then, prefaced in each case by a concise and informative biography,10 poets (from Chaucer to Liz Lochhead) are introduced - or, in several cases, reintroduced since individual poems have been featured earlier. This reinforces the experience of recognition and discovery.
A basic glossary of technical terms is provided at the back, and there are suggestions for further reading in the featured poets as well as tips for compiling a portfolio. Throughout both volumes, the all-important directive "Hear it read aloud" recurs, and, as one has come to expect from the Bentons, the choice of accompanying illustrations is imaginative and far less likely to "date" than is the case with so many classroom anthologies. Departments which already have volumes 1-5 of the previous Touchstones series may want to think twice before investing in sets of these new volumes since there is a considerable (and fully acknowledged) overlap, but no school should be without at least one copy.
However hard-pressed the teacher, there is enough here to encourage a creative diversion which will feed enjoyably into the mainstream, and with these books in use it is likely that the danger of poetry being "squeezed to the margins" of an overcrowded syllabus, feared by the Bentons and by many of us, will at least be delayed.
John Mole's 'Selected Poems' is published by Sinclair-Stevenson and his latest children's book, 'Hot Air', by Hodder amp; Stoughton