A way with verse

18th June 2004 at 01:00
The Centre for Literacy in Primary Education's award for the best poetry book for young people was made this week. Judge Michael Rosen tells all

Once again, it has not been possible to give the Centre for Literacy in Primary Education's poetry award to a new collection of poems by a single author. The award, after all, is for a "book of poetry" which includes anthologies by several authors and the harvestings of published poetry by a single author - known in the business as "selected" or "collected".

It would seem that editors are finding it harder to publish poetry unless it's packaged or themed in some way. You know the sort of thing - "Poems About Your Bum", "Poems About The Best Goals Ever", "The Most Beautiful and Favourite Poems Ever Written". To give them credit, Macmillan, Puffin and Faber are still putting in the effort as publishers of poetry and we particularly liked Valerie Bloom's latest collection Whoop an' Shout! (Macmillan). Carol Ann Duffy's The Good Child's Guide to Rock and Roll (Faber, see Sian Hughes's review below) is a firework of a book - varied, exciting and explosive, but sadly let down by dull production.

Runner-up this year was another collection produced by Carol Ann Duffy - Overheard On A Saltmarsh, Poets' Favourite Poems (Young PicadorMacmillan Children's Books pound;7.99) - in this case "edited" by her. It's an old ruse - ask poets to offer a poem of their own and to choose a favourite poem. The anthology then, is a set of pairings: Andrew Motion and Robert Graves; Matthew Sweeney and Walter de la Mare; Roger McGough and Edna St Vincent Millay. The poets doing the choosing are many of those who headline readings around the country: Sophie Hannah, Wendy Cope, Kate Clanchy, Grace Nichols, John Hegley, as well as two "lates" - Vernon Scannell and Ken Smith. This gives the collection an adult feel, but tuned-in upper primary children would get a lot from it, too. I saw it as finding a perfect home in the hands of an enthusiastic lower-secondary teacher conjuring up open-ended questions about why, say, Adrian Mitchell, who has written a poem about bullying and persecution, would choose Edward Lear's "Jumblies".

Then I remembered that kind of discursive approach to poetry is an endangered species in many secondary schools. My favourite here was Ian McMillan's "Robinson Crusoe's Wise Sayings": "You can never have too many turtle eggsI'm the most interesting person in this roomA beard is as long as I want it to be..." and it finishes with "Footprints make me happy, unless they're my own."

Our winner, however, is a "selected" - a collection of poems by a single author that publisher and poet have chosen from that poet's published work.

It is All the Best: The Selected Poems of Roger McGough, illustrated by Lydia Monks (Puffin pound;6.99). Lydia Monks's black and white drawings are odd, absurd and witty - a perfect accompaniment. Next to a poem about cabbages being an ideal rain-hat we see a person with The Wizard of Oz scarecrow-like features, cabbage on hisher head and above it a childish-looking cloud raining on said cabbage. The cover, in colour, is a strange celebratory party (to go with the title), where a mix of odd-bods and animals raise their glasses and suck straws. All this makes it a book you want to hold, open and look at. What more could a poet want?

The poems will be familiar to many; they come from Roger McGough's collections for children going back to You Tell Me, published in 1981. I was slightly disappointed to see that Puffin chose to dispense with the convention of telling us which collections the poems came from and the years they were published, but no matter, here's the "First Day At School", which begins with "A millionbillionwillion miles from home..." through to "Pantomime Poem", where the children watch the monster "fastening its teeth into his neck" (whose neck? We never know!) and as the letters get bigger and bigger, the children shout for more and more.

Roger McGough has suffered the praise of being "light", "popular" and "Liverpool", as well as being dubbed trivial and showbiz. This collection shows us a poet who uses language to break our habits. We think we know what a word or an idiom or an expression means, but Roger McGough doesn't let us stick with what we think we know. Sometimes this takes us into the absurd, sometimes the odd, sometimes the painful. After all, as he says:

"I'm a grown man now,Don't easily scare(if you don't believe meask my teddy bear)."

We've been lucky to have had Roger McGough and it's great that Puffin have given him his due with this lovely book.

* www.clpe.co.ukpoetry

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