All-in wrestlers of verse

8th November 1996 at 00:00
As Oxford's latest anthology hits the shelves, Brian Alderson lines it up with its predecessors and opens an appraisal of the anthologist's art.

THE NEW OXFORD BOOK OF CHILDREN'S VERSE Edited by Neil Philip Oxford University Press. Pounds 17.99.

The learned editors at the Oxford University Press have devised two ways of constructing anthologies for the tribal lays of childhood. The first, I think, began with Edward Blishen's Oxford Book of Poetry for Children in 1963 and has been continued in such works as Michael Harrison's Oxford books of Story Poems and Animal Poems. These are for children to read for themselves and have colourful pictures to disguise the unfortunate fact that poetry is made up only from words.

The second way has no truck with such distractions, for it is primarily intended for adult readers. It draws children's verse into the Oxford anthology tradition established by "Q" and his Book of English Verse (1900) where the aim was to present the classics of the genre. That was the purpose behind Iona and Peter Opie's authoritative Oxford Book of Children's Verse of 1973 and later behind Donald Hall's Oxford Book of Children's Verse in America (1985).

The editors had slightly different criteria for selection: the Opies concentrated on work written for children, Hall also included work such as "The Wreck of the Hesperus" which found its way almost instantaneously to a child audience. But, between them, they established as sound an account of the historic canon as could be found in what the Opies called "a small satchelful of verse", and their selections were buttressed by thoughtful introductions and brief but helpful notes on authors and sources at the end.

Why, then, should Neil Philip have been commissioned to edit a "new" contribution to the series? What has happened in the past 20 years to warrant a refurbishing of the OpieHall canon?

The obvious answer lies in what might be called front-end pressure. Philip's anthology preserves the historic order of its predecessors, but it cedes the past to the near-present. In the pages up to Kipling, the Opies had 298 poems from 115 sources, including Anon., while Philip has only a hundred from 57 (37 poems tally with the Opies' selection).

But from Kipling onwards the balance is transformed. Iona and Peter Opie decided to exclude from their selection poems by living writers (ghoulishly, the Oxford editors pondered whether Robert Graves or James Reeves would cash in their chips before galley-proof stage). This left the 20th-century section of the 1973 volume with only 33 poems by nine poets - plus an anonymous jingle called "Greedy Jane". Philip, on the other hand, noting "a seismic shift" that has taken place in recent times, includes no fewer than 254 poems from 152 writers - and his variety of Anons. carry English, American and African American labels.

Along with this dramatic change in historical emphasis comes also a change in editorial stance. Neil Philip praises the exemplary work of the Opies and Donald Hall: "They have been constantly at my side (and) my admiration for both books has, if possible, grown in the process". He has, though, left to them the business of charting the phases of children's verse and has determined to show here how that verse embodies qualities central to all poetry. His ambition for the whole book is that nothing should be seen as "dead and done with", and that, with luck, much of it will be, in the words of Hugh MacDiarmid, "alive as a bout of all-in wrestling".

Anyone familiar with Neil Philip's superb anthology A New Treasury of Poetry, published by Blackie in 1990, will know how good his credentials are for that approach. The arguments in his introduction to the new book make persuasive claims for the distinctive features of children's poetry: its "tradition of immediate apprehension . . . a sense of the world being seen for the first time, and of language being plucked from the air to describe it", and he is pre-eminently a reader of energy and discrimination. (Since the Opies relieved him of the burden of including twaddle like "My Mother" and "Mary's Lamb" he is able to give equivalent positioning to Ann Taylor's four poems on the elements and to "Higgelty Piggelty Pop!", which, oddly, neither the Opies nor Hall had found room for.) Such reappraisals of the canon, however, do not amount to much more than tinkering at the edges of Opie. (You don't, for instance, get a purer "poetic" account of Lewis Carroll by halving his representation and deleting "The Walrus and the Carpenter".) But the big change, which does raise questions about poetic substance, comes with the massive expansion of hospitality to modern verse.

With no self-denying ordinances over living or dead poets, Philip has roamed widely to collect his 254 examples. His most generous allowance for post-Opie entrants goes to Carl Sandburg (five), Robert Graves (five), Langston Hughes (six), James Reeves (five), Charles Causley (six) and Ted Hughes (six), while Mick Gower gets more space than most of them for his one poem "Rat Trap", that marvellous rewrite of Browning's "Pied Piper" (which comes earlier in the book).

Such selections are unexceptionable, but beyond them lies the extraordinary spattering of one or two-poem contenders where editorial authority moves towards arbitrariness.

Some poets, who would never have seen themselves as writers for children (for example, Ezra Pound, Frances Cornford and Wilfred Owen) are present through the - entirely forgivable - self-indulgence of the editor; many more, though, seem to have been entered with a token poem merely to register their existence.

Philip writes truly in his introduction of the "explosion of children's poetry" that has been detonated in the past 20 years or so, and he also notes that much of it has been "facile or superficial". Even so, as one plods through the smart or truculent demotics of today's all-in wrestlers one comes increasingly to admire the smoother techniques of Bully Kipling and Basher Belloc. Perhaps if more winnowing had taken place we could have seen such influential moderns as Michael Rosen and Brian Patten in a clearer perspective. Or perhaps the OUP should have abandoned the idea of double-heading Opie and Philip and given Philip free rein on an Oxford Book of Twentieth-Century Children's Verse.

If that had happened, it would have given this most sensitive anthologist a chance to bring depth and balance to a job impossible on the present terms. He could have looked more closely at the attractive events of the Twenties and Thirties (where, oh where, can we find here the calling cuckoos of E.V. Rieu?); he could have parcelled out more generous space to the major figures; and - with the provision of notes, which are sorely missed in the present volume - he could have given us an analytic commentary on the ephemeral fashions of our busy times. He might even have found room for writers like Kit Wright, Shel Silverstein, and (dare one say?) Roald Dahl.

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