From the canvas to the page

19th September 1997 at 01:00
PICTURE POEMS. By Michael and Peter Benton. Hodder Stoughton Pounds 8.99

Teachers familiar with Painting with Words and Double Vision will not be disappointed with this publication aimed at seven to 14-year-olds. The poems, specially commissioned and presented alongside full colour reproductions, encourage a way of looking which is focused but never myopic, objective but never dispassionate.

Phoebe Hesketh's opening lines: "But words on the pageas paint on canvasare fixedIt's in the spaces betweenthe poem is quickened" are an invitation to explore those spaces in which our own imaginations may quicken the paint on the canvas.

Happily, some poets have chosen the same subject. For instance, Gillian Clarke and Peggy Poole's poems about Antony Gormley's 35,000 tiny clay figures, "European Field", encourage the speculation and individual response that separate their work.

A transcript of children talking is further impetus to our own reflection, as are the intriguing nuggets of information that distinguish the Benton editorship. Here, for instance, we learn that the gallery staff believe the figures move at night. Elsewhere we discover that one of Tenniel's Alices was a deliberate copy of a Millais portrait. And this is not gratuitous information. The first is a lighthearted example of the dynamic nature of all art, the second an instance of the creative imitation that underpins originality. Both inform the drama, talk, and writing suggestions in the "Making Connections" section.

This book's intentions are profound. When, for instance, Gareth Owen responds to Brueghel's "Fall of Icarus" with his Icarus sending his SOS from a mobile phone, ancient mythology is renewed within our own generation.

Similarly, when Dannie Abse's Icarus drowns, his plight unheeded by "the jackass of an artist" absorbed in "the aesthetics of disaster", this cruel objectivity is both a mark of our time and the condition upon which the painting depends.

But perhaps U A Fanthorpe's poem about Degas's "Woman Ironing" touches the keenest nerve. She traces the thought stream of the sitter whose dream of glamour conflicts with the painter's quest for reality. "I'll show youThe way you look when no-one's watching," threatens each one of us.

This serious book makes galleries a common ground and poetry a common currency and is certainly much better value for money than so many national curriculum course books that peddle bland generalities in multi-genre breadth and shallowness. It will be a pity if the price prevents schools buying class sets. English teachers must make an act of faith.

Jill Pirrie was formerly language co-ordinator at Halesworth Middle School, Suffolk

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