First poetry books

28th January 2000 at 00:00
"In this worldeven among insects,some sing well, some don't," wrote Kobayashi Issa, the 18th-century Japanese poet: all the poets here can hum a good tune.

As a long-time admirer of Issa, I was delighted to find Cool Melons Turn to Frogs: the life and poems of Issa, written and translated by Matthew Gollub (Lee amp; Low, distributed by Turnaround, pound;9.99). Gollub tells Issa's life story interspersed with well-chosen haiku from the master and glorious illustrations by Kazuko Stone, who captures Issa's poetry evocatively in work influenced by Japanese art. This may have minority appeal, but haiku is a popular form and this is an exquisite book.

Ackee, Breadfruit, Callaloo (Bogle l'Ouverture in association with Macmillan Education, pound;10.95) is an attractive new picture book, perfect for early-years classrooms, with text by the talented Jamaican-British poet Valerie Bloom and illustrations by Kim Harley. Bloom has plenty of scope for her trademark sparkling humour in four-line verses for each letter of the alphabet, written in accessible Creole.

As well as celebrating Caribbean food and teaching young readers about it, Bloom emphasises rhyme, alliteration and repetition. She also provides a helpful glossary. Kim Harley's naturalistic paintings feature realistic families eating delicious food in gorgeous Caribbean locations.

Simon James, the author and illustrator of such successful picture books as Dear Greenpeace, has turned his hand to a poetry anthology in the delightfully illustrated Days Like This (Walker pound;10.99). He has selected an appealing variety of short poems by mostly American poets of an earlier generation (Eve Merriam, Charlotte Zolotow, Margery Fisher and Ogden Nash to name a few), plus the odd traditional rhyme. Though the emphasis is on activity and pleasure, Philip Larkin's reminder that "days are where we live" is always present. James truly values the moment, and young readers will value this book, which is as well designed as we have come to expect of Walker.

I consider the definitive Mother Goose picture-books to be Iona Opie's editions for Walker, so Sylvia Long had a hard act to follow with her own Mother Goose (Chronicle Books Rgged Bears pound;13.99), also full of animals in many shapes and guises. Long has described this book as the most ambitious project she has ever been involved in. It was worth the effort, as she brings freshness and originality to many of the rhymes.

Time for a Rhyme (Orion Children's Books pound;20), a bumper 250-pager for five to eight-year-olds, is up to the usual high standard of anthologist Fiona Waters and is amusingly illustrated in full colour by Ailie Busby. The range of poetry varies between old favourites and newer voices. It is good value at pound;20, but if the price puts off some buyers, Whizz Bang Orang-Utan (Oxford University Press), another large-format anthology from the prolific John Foster, is a snip at pound;7.99. It's full colour and has a stunning cover by Tony Ross, one of 12 artists who have contributed to the book.

Also from Oxford and for young readers is an anthology, Green Poems (pound;5.99), from the excellent hand of Jill Bennett, whose sure touch is very much in evidence. Oxford Poetry favours using a selection of artists in each book, some of whom are very talented. But while the mix offers variety, it can also lead to an uneven impression, with loss of focus and overall harmony. The delectable-looking and irresistible Puffin Book of Fantastic First Poems, edited effectively by June Crebbin, gives each artist a section to illustrate and the result is much more satisfying.

Young poetry lovers can grow into a new Irish anthology Rusty Nails and Astronauts (Wolfhound Press pound;16.99), edited by distinguished writer and critic Robert Dunbar and Gabriel FitzMaurice, and illustrated engagingly by Marie-Louise Fitzpatrick.

Here are singers who know the old tunes and the best tunes from Shelley and Stevenson to Norman Silver, Langston Hughes as well as Ted Hughes, but are unafraid to try out some new melodies, often with an Irish flavour. There are traditional rhymes translated by Gabriel Fitzmaurice, poems by Paul Muldoon, Brendan Mahon, Brendan Kennelly and others already well known in adult poetry circles, plus some ambitious choices from many parts of the world.

Morag Styles is reader in children's literature at Homerton College, Cambridge

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