For better or verse

22nd September 2000 at 01:00
Sandy Brownjohn evaluates new poetry anthologies from naughty words to quality word work

If you like "tabloid" poetry, there is plenty of it around. You know the sort of thing - bogeys, burps, earwax - smelly, back-of-the-bike-shed words that children love so much.

Of course they laugh; so did I at that age, but it was funny because it was subversive. Bringing this kind of language into the classroom via the printed word removes the naughtiness from it and is a cheap way to get a laugh. What it is not, is poetry.

Spill the Beans by Paul Cookson and David Harmer (Macmillan pound;3.99) unfortunately descends to this level too often. This detracts from what is otherwise a collection of some energy and inventiveness, with clever ideas and wordplay. It offers teachers a lively route into performance poetry, although it does tend to weigh in heavier on the performance than the poetry.

Here Come the Heebie Jeebies, compiled by Tony Bradman (Hodder Wayland pound;9.99) is also of the tabloid school, with much less to recommend it. This exhibits the same old (mostly flawed) rhythms and rhymes, and not enough high-grade word-work.

The odd exception is Helen Dunmore's poem, "Little Horse in the Wardrobe", which seems out of place among rhymes swamped by intrusive, unsubtle illustrations.

Pet Poems, edited by John Foster (Oxford University Press pound;4.99), suffers from some of the same problems, the main one being the overwhelming pictures which cover virtually the whole of each page.

The words in its title are completely lost in what one can only interpret as a misguided attempt to lure children into reading the poems. This does no service to either poets or readers, and both deserve better.

Well, you pays your money and you takes your choice, and mine would be to spend limited resources on quality which shows integrity, craftsmanship, imagination and the magic of language. By far the best book on offer here is My First Oxford Book o Poems, also edited by John Foster for OUP. This is a beautifully produced collection that would enhance any library for juniors and lower secondary pupils.

Here are (mostly) real poets writing about the natural world, including weather and seasons, night and day, and creatures real and mythical. The full-colour illustrations complement the poems.

There is a mixture of the old, the new and the less well-known, with something to draw everyone in. At pound;12.99 this hardback gives good long-term value for money.

Two other anthologies worth a mention are The Works, edited by Paul Cookson, and Hello New!, edited by John Agard. The sheer length of the first (548 pages, and only pound;4.99 from Macmillan) means that it must contain some useful poems. It addresses virtually all types of poetry laid down in the National Literacy Strategy, and provides many examples for less confident teachers trying to fulfil the requirements.

Hello New! (Orchard Books pound;9.99) is billed as "new poems for a new century"; poets were invited to write a poem using the word "new". The result is an attractive book with black-and-white illustrations, aimed at key stages 2 and 3.

The quality of the poems varies considerably, with the best contributions coming from the likes of George Szirtes, Brian Patten and Gillian Clarke, but the recent tendency for editors to include several of their own poems (and often those of their friends) is evident in both this anthology and The Works. Such a departure from past practice is worrying, to say the least.

The "new" idea would have been better served by a wider range of well-known poets represented by one poem each, which would have been a fitting tribute from one millennium to the next.

October 5 is National Poetry Day: see for details.

Sandy Brownjohn is a writer and educational consultant. Her new collection of poems, In and Out the Shadows, is published by Oxford University Press

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