Chestnuts given a shine

8th November 1996 at 00:00
John Mole celebrates the instinct for putting the right poem in the right place.

THE POETRY BOOK: POEMS FOR CHILDREN Chosen by Fiona Waters, Illustrated by Caroline Crossland Orion Pounds 12.99

GLITTER WHEN YOU JUMP:POEMS CELEBRATING THE SEVEN AGES OF WOMAN Chosen by Fiona Waters, Illustrated by Amanda Harvey Macmillan Pounds 3.99 (pbk).

Every so often an anthology comes along which cries out to be read straight through from cover to cover, such is the originality of its contents and the enthusiasm of its compiler. Not that it isn't equally a delight to dip into, but fully to appreciate its organisation, and how the unfamiliar and unexpected provide a fresh and illuminating setting for old favourites, one needs to discover the rhythm by not skipping a beat.

The publisher of The Poetry Book refers to the "seemingly random" juxtapositions to be found in it, which is perhaps just another way of saying that Fiona Waters has the born anthologist's instinct for putting the right poem in the best place. With more than 200 poems, this weighty book earns its definitive title, yet it feels buoyant with a sense of shared discovery.

Particularly impressive is the confidence with which Fiona Waters extends the range of what can be regarded as accessible to children while including lots of reassuring fun. Sometimes she manages this with one poem. Her predilection for sophisticated brio not only admits that old favourite "The Jackdaw of Rheims" but pairs it with a far lesser (if at all) known bouncy little morality by Guy Wetmore Carryl, "The Sycophantic Fox and the Gullible Raven" which contains references to Adelina Patti, GotterdAmmerung and "The Jewel Song" from Faust. It takes a children's anthologist of determination and courage to do this.

Two poems later, an even more daring inclusion is perhaps Thomas Hardy's enigmatically macabre "In the Servants' Quarters". This dramatic tour de force of Hardyesque mannerisms may, like several of Fiona Waters' choices, appear at first sight on the page too "difficult" but, with its chilling denouement, it should prove a winner if read aloud (preferably by candlelight).

Although this kind of risk-taking is what makes it exceptional, The Poetry Book also deserves high praise for the inclusion of so many real poems by contemporary poets, such as Bernard O'Donoghue, Matt Simpson, Philip Gross - Fiona Waters is right up-to-date in choosing from his latest collection - and the fine, undervalued, Gerda Mayer. Even the familiar are often represented by lesser-known poems. The chestnuts are given a fresh shine, there are plenty of lollipops for the streetwise, and the selection from Trad and Anon is wonderfully various and international.

The discreetly marginal illustrations by Caroline Crossland are delicate and witty, often isolating one image which carries a poem's full charge, though in the case of "An Accommodating Lion" by Tudor Jenks she has either misread the situation on which the poem hinges or wilfully offered an alternative which is likely to confuse the reader.

There are also many original choices in each of the seven ages of Fiona Waters' lively celebration of woman, Glitter When You Jump. In the sixth age, for example, Jenny Joseph's best-loved "Warning" is inevitable, but Ruth Fainlight's "Handbag" is just the kind of poem anthologists should be looking for - far less familiar, and hauntingly exact in its 12 lines which reconstitute a life from scents and a few precious items.

It's good, too, given the anthology's subtitle, to find an unprogrammatic gender balance. The poems are what come first and last, whether a father's birthday greeting to his daughter, a teenage girl's running commentary on a party that gets out of hand (by the 14-year-old Rosie Bray), self-deprecating male irony in Steve Turner's "Burglars" ("'Women can be burglars too,' she said"), or Grace Nichols's celebration of a grandmother's patience: "But Granny you have all the time in the world and when you're finished you always turn my head and say 'Now who's a nice girl'." Like The Poetry Book, though far less compendious, Glitter When You Jump is a treasure.

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