Children's books

28th September 2001 at 01:00
BECAUSE A FIRE WAS IN MY HEAD: 101 Poems to remember. Edited by Michael Morpurgo. Illustrated by Quentin Blake. Faber pound;12.99.

Michael Morpurgo offers this engaging anthology as, at least in part, a gesture of reparation and reconnection. In his brief introduction, he traces his relationship with poetry from an early love of rhythm and rhyme, through stages of fear and hatred induced by rote learning and by critical analysis at university ("in which I almost lost my fascination for words altogether") and back to an affair of the heart.

It's a familiar story, just as many of the poems he has collected here are the familiar survivors, those "so fine... that they never leave you". To these he has added more recent personal favourites, with the pleasing result that Because a Fire was in my Head (the title is a line from Yeats's "The Song of Wandering Aengus") establishes a continuity between the relatively ancient and the resolutely modern.

The anonymous "Dance to your Daddy" keeps buoyant company with Matthew Sweeney's "Smile", for example, while the turn of the page from Adrian Mitchell's chilling "Back in the Playground Blues" to Wilfred Owen's "Futility" is haunted by the refrain of Mitchell's poem: "I have never found Any place in my life worse than The Killing Ground."

Quentin Blake's illustrations are, as might be expected, a model of responsive (and responsible) enhancement of the poems' many moods, and overall this is a fine piece of book production at a reasonable cost. But its appearance cannot disguise some unfortunate errors. Two stanzas are left off the end of Charles Causley's marvellous "By St Thomas Water", a bizarre stroke of forgetfulness in a book of "poems to remember", and Harold Monroe ( the author of "Overheard on a Saltmarsh") has his name misspelt beneath the poem and in the index. Perhaps less unfortunate, as to become indispensably "anonymous" can be counted an honour, "Birds, Bags, Bears and Buns" (the poem that begins, "The common cormorant or shag") is not attributed to its author, Christopher Isherwood.

These are blemishes that might have been avoided and without which this impressive collection could have become an outstanding one.

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