Among the song-makers

11th November 1994 at 00:00
Grandfather's Old Bruk-a-Down Car By John Agard. Bodley Head Pounds 6. 99 0 370 31888 9. Three Has Gone. By Jackie Kay Blackie Pounds 8.99.0 216 94079 6. The Utter Nutters By Brian Pattern. 0 670 85509 X Great Snakes! By Kit Wright 0 670 83093 3 Talking Turkeys By Benjamin Zephaniah 0 670 84786 0.Viking Pounds 8.99 each

Gillian Clarke recommends poetry collections to be enjoyed in company and alone. Here is a parcel of five hardback collections of poetry, illustrated in black and white, with bright covers. Each is firm and good to hold, the right size to read in bed.

Grandfather's Old Bruk-a-Down Car is a playful collection of rhymes, raps and riddles, with pleasing, grey-wash illustrations. John Agard's metaphors are simple: a stamp is a window, your eyes are curtains. His rhymes chime as he likes, following no rules. In voices of Guyana and Britain, he uses rhythms which often tap out an extra beat, or stressed syllables that once seemed strange to the Celt and Anglo-Saxon. Neither a poet nor a child can have too many words or too much rhythm, and John Agard is one of a number of writers who have opened our ears, extending our own and our children's use and experience of language.

In Three Has Gone, Jackie Kay writes for a child old enough for friendship, old enough to get hurt. She uses her own experience of childhood in a singing Scottish rhythm. Her poems share childhood burdens of fear and fantasy, of guilt about relationships, of betraying and being betrayed, bullying and being bullied, and saying sorry. She is good at making poetry out of commonplace things. Here she describes the "Car Wash": "the big dancers begin their ballroomspins. Done up to the nines,in fancy red and yellow skirts."

The Utter Nutters is a book for dipping into, for rummaging. The illustrations are as important as the text, and it looks like a comic book, with a pantomime of typography. The fact that I found it difficult to look at, to get into and to read may mean that it would have exactly the opposite effect on a child. Once in, I heard the songs, for Brian Pattern certainly is one of the song-makers. I suspect this one is not for adults. Let the children explore it on their own. They'll love it.

Kit Wright's Great Snakes is another matter. The adult will want to share this book for its language, for its music, and for Posy Simmonds' wicked illustrations. Among children's writers he has perhaps the finest ear for poetry's rhythms and cadences. "In Cold Blood" begins, "Some snakes are secretsand issue themselves from shadows". He calls them "jewel-ropes", and ends, "They have their sorrowsand die if they ever eat anythingtoo cold. ..". As a child I would have treasured and worried about that image of cold blood. Kit Wright relishes words' sounds and meanings, playing with language as only one who knows his craft can. He exploits its ambiguity and its exactness, satisfying poetry lovers of all ages.

The Index of First Lines at the end of Talking Turkey has no connection with the poems in the book. It is just one of Benjamin Zephaniah's 95 pages of poem-jokes. The collection depends for its effect on the typographical design and illustration, which attempts the supporting role on the page that Zephaniah's dazzling live performance achieves. I miss that performance.

This book is too strange, clever and sophisticated for a child to enjoy alone. It is a book to carry away after listening to the poet himself. Second best would be an attempt by an adult to speak the poems aloud. But then, all poetry demands the human voice. A poem is a song, not a picture.

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