Animal magic in a strange universe

1st March 1996 at 00:00
THE OXFORD BOOK OF ANIMAL POEMS. Edited by Michael Harrison and Christopher Stuart-Clark Oxford Children's Books. Pounds 5.99. MUCK AND MAGIC: STORIES FROM THE COUNTRYSIDE Edited by Michael Morpurgo. Heinemann. Pounds 12.99

Around the world in 129 poems: this is the dizzying achievement of Oxford's handsome and beautifully-structured Book of Animal Poems, newly available in a large format and durable paperback edition. The contents pages reveal the global structure in three unusually generous double-page spreads. Each of the five continents has a page to itself, with its map-shape and the poems of its chosen fauna listed side by side.

The first page of the six is for Ocean, and from its waves a running pictorial header begins that gives glimpses of the landscapes of each continent. The indexing, though absolutely plain visually, is exemplary in its clarity and comprehensiveness ideal for project-doers and project-setters alike.

And so to the poems. The late Gavin Ewart's plaintive "Gondwanaland", harking back to the Earth's single Ur-continent "before the Terrible Split" which created the five we now have, is a brilliant choice to launch the book into the Ocean, and diversity. The closing poem, Alan Brownjohn's "In Daylight Strange", teasingly does what the anthologists have studiously avoided in the rest of their selection it brings the exotic into the wholly alien habitat of a school playground, a sort of "Thought-Lion". All the other animals in this anthology are firmly in their own habitats, within their own lands. This is its great idea, and a very useful and thought-provoking one it is.

Good animal poems are above all attentive to their subjects. There is a rapt seriousness about the poets in this anthology which doesn't at all preclude playfulness or wit. A particular strength is poems that assume the persona and voice of their animal: I was delighted to discover the poetry of Carmen Bernos de Gasztold, translated by Rumer Godden, and translations of oral poetry of the Khoikhoi and the Igbo, alongside the work of more familiar names, from John Clare to Judith Nicholls.

Anthologies work best for me, whether as reader or as writing teacher, when one poem sparks off another by magical juxtaposition. The most exciting rubbings of shoulders in this book are between poets writing about the same animal. I would have liked more such inspired pairings as Edwin Morgan and a Yoruba poet on the "Hyena", or Irene McLeod's "Lone Dog" and Gareth Owen's wolf poem "The World the First Time". There is much to inspire young poets here, and to give them, into the bargain, an anthology of illustration styles to encourage experiments in presentation of their work. My only quibble is with the over-richness of choice in both poetry and illustration. I returned to my copy of Ted Hughes' Under the North Star, from which several striking poems are chosen, and welcomed the cleaner, more spacious type, and its appearance from Leonard Baskin's luminous watercolours.

Muck and Magic is a collection of newly-commissioned short stories by some of our best children's writers - an inspired idea by Beefeater Children's Novel author and farmer Michael Morpurgo to raise both the profile and funds of his charity Farms for City Children. The book itself will entertain young readers from city or country, with distinctive stories from storytellers such as Berlie Doherty, Ted Hughes and Dick King-Smith. My own favourite was "Derek Dungbeetle and the Lost Lover" by Alick Rowe.

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