Getting the rhythm right

27th September 1996 at 01:00
TEACHING THE PARROT By Richard Edwards Illustrated by John Lawrence Faber Pounds 8.99. COCKCROW TO STARLIGHT Poems chosen and introduced by Rumer Godden Illustrated by Maggie Kneen Macmillan Pounds 9.99.

THE WEATHER'S GETTING VERSE: THE STOMPING AND STORMING POEMS OF ANDREW PETERS Illustrated by Alan Larkins Sherbourne Publications Pounds 6.99.

These books caught the eye of a 10-year-old surfacing from two days' chain-reading Roald Dahl. Richard Edwards' Teaching the Parrot is his favourite by far. Fittingly illustrated and packed with poems that sing and resonate as poems should, it is funny, but never slick; musical, but never jingle-like; warm, but never sentimental.

Few poets writing for children manage the difficult trick of making real poetry without resorting to silliness or compromising the language. Few find a tone that suggests the poet is writing for art's sake, not for the children's book market.

Here, it seems, is a poet writing for himself and the love of language, and the book will give as much pleasure to the adult as the child reader. The mind purrs in recognition at the moon in "the chains of gravity", and the tinsmith hanging his bits of tin "on the branches of the dark".

Cadences linger long after the books is closed: "Wet's my country Here I stand I am the Witch of the Waterland", and, as two caribou lock horns, "And who will win? 'Ah, we will win' Whisper the grey wolves Closing in. "

His politics are poetic, not correct: "Roads, build me roads, build me roads" ("The Minister of Transport"). In "One Dark Night", a subversion of "Little Red Riding Hood", the wicked wolf is defeated by the sweet old lady in deliciously funny seven-beat lines of impeccable rhyme and rhythm. It is a joy to read aloud, and the 10-year-old and I are quarrelling to possess it.

Of Cockcrow to Starlight, he said, "Some of the poems are good but the bits in between are boring." I imagine a more bookish child might enjoy the bits in between, but are the thoughtful remarks of Rumer Godden introducing each poem appropriate or necessary?

A real, live conversation with this great children's writer would be a privilege for a child. In print her remarks have the tone of a great-aunt describing a world she used to know. The milk-float has replaced the cockerel as the first sound of the day, and the rhythm of the train used by Auden in "Night Mail" is a drum no modern child has heard. Since the introduction of continuously welded track, the trains beat the rhythm no more. Still, it is a lovely selection in the best old-fashioned way, and the poems would be a delight to read aloud with a child, and kept on the shelf beside her wonderful stories.

I have misgivings about The Weather's Getting Verse. "After Word Whys, people all over the country have been asking when the new collection would come out," Andrew Peters writes in his introduction. "Many of these poems resulted from workshops in schools and festivals."

This, and the accompanying blurb, hints at a lively performer, and the book's boisterous air suggests Andrew Peters might be good fun in the classroom.

The book is well produced and strongly illustrated, but on the page Peters' puns were largely lost on the 10-year-old tester, and "serious" poems like "The Troubles" are sentimental and cryptic.

There are 15 pages of notes aimed at the child, but conscious of the teacher. "This poem," he writes, without a shade of self-doubt, "has virtually no rhyme. But ... it reads well." Here are the first three lines of "Where Were the Experts When it Came to Kissing?", line-endings removed: "Her boyfriend had broken his leg. Time to get rid of him. She asked if I would be the one for her. I lied about my age. She believed me."

Consider this example of his prose: "One of the first things about writing a poem is to use description." Or this: "The use of simile can bring your ideas to life eg the sea." Or the following advice: "One thing to always think about is how to finish your poems with a strong, concluding point." A "concluding point" is the very thing a good poet avoids.

Such prose might pass as spoken English, but as a text it needs stern editing. In times when creativity and imagination in the classroom are so undervalued, it is crucial not to discredit the teaching of poetry by offering children less than the best.

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