To be seen and heard

28th February 1997 at 00:00
Poetry anthologies not only advertise good work, they are a way for adolescents to air their views. Philip Gross reports.

The age of print might be coming to an end, we are told, but to judge by the box-full of school poetry anthologies sent in to The TES the medium is alive and thriving. Most writers who visit schools today do so to stimulate children's own work; to leave evidence in print still seems the natural completion of the process, a way of sharing with each other and the outside world. The excellent WH Smith Poets In Schools scheme includes a grant for producing an anthology.

An anthology advertises good work. One independent primary, Park School in Dartington, Devon, sent in a beautifully produced selection with a colour illustrated cover. Its introduction was aimed at parents or prospective ones: "Their (children's) shared perspective invites consideration, for it is strikingly different from ours." I cite this not in praise or blame; state schools too have to compete for parents' good opinion these days.

But this anthology marked one extreme. Most work with fewer resources. (Part of the exercise is to make students "aware of every part of the process", including that of breaking even on the costs. One primary school reported Pounds 100 profit; others reflected ruefully on the need for advertising. ) Though almost all now benefit from the typefaces and layouts that word-processing allows, many are still A4 and photocopied, more like bulletins than books.

Bulletins are what they are: records of a National Poetry Day event or a residential course. Most have been copy-edited (not always perfectly) - this should be second nature in creative writing teaching, part of the drafting process.

There is selection involved, but not in the sense that "real books" are, in the competitive world of publishing. It matters that everyone is represented. Quality is an issue, but the quality of the shared experience more than that of the best individual poems. To find a string of five-year-olds each contributing one-liners like "I have got a colourful leaf" is rather touching, a way of saying "I was there too".

Often you can see the classroom behind the poems, and spot the exercises, the stimuli, the autumn leaves. Sometimes the heart sinks at a spread of poems all titled "The Environment". But for anyone involved, and most primary anthologies are for the children and their parents, the value is in the variations on a theme explored together - the way most children find their individuality summed up in one anthology's title: "Look! This is my poem . . . And mine!" The secondary anthologies tend to move from sharing with each other to sending messages out - from publication for its own sake to communication with the outside world. Sometimes the message reflects their provenance - Tongues And Voices produced by Waltham Forest Multicultural Support Service, or Beyond The Colour from the Greenwich Anti-Racist Festival. Walthamstow School for Girls's Young Women, Young Lives shows signs of strong political direction, with titles like "One aspect of young women's lives which is never shown".

But themes are what work best in secondary school anthologies. Holly Lodge Comprehensive in Liverpool has produced a series of powerfully themed anthologies with titles like Generations in Unison. One anthology celebrates Liverpool with poems on the opening of the women's hospital and the city itself. For example: In my hospital of dreams there are Windows of love Walls of power Beds of warmth Wards of creativity Theatres of life Pillows of hope Mattresses of strength Tables of care Chairs of joy Doors of light.

Similar ideas echo through the booklet; it seems almost incidental that they reach their sharpest expression in one child's work rather than another. What comes through in all the best anthologies is a sense of a living poetry culture in a school, based on real enthusiasm among teachers. "Poetry anthologies form a natural part of school life", a way of recording events and concerns, plus a way of building links with the community.

How to begin? An outside stimulus helps. The first Holly Lodge anthology came from a Poets In Schools visit, but the school has built on it in its own way, using professional writers for in-service training rather than direct contact. "It's more cost-effective and reaches more children," Mary Kelso, Holly Lodge head of English, says.

Any class can produce an anthology, just by photocopying, but the more you consider communication with (or selling to) people outside, the more production standards matter. Most secondary schools have the resources somewhere. Collaboration between English, art and IT departments is not just an expedient; it is a way of pulling back together what the timetable puts asunder.

Why produce poetry anthologies? Primary schools can talk simply about "the joy of seeing your words in print". What is heartening - though no surprise to anyone who has seen the boomin youth-oriented performance poetry - is that adolescents too see poetry as a way of making their voices heard, and being in print as a way to be seen to be heard, a way that lasts and satisfies.

For details on the WH Smith Poets In Schools scheme, contact: Poetry Society Education Dept., 22 Betterton St, London WC2H 9BU. Tel: 0171 240 4810.

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