Gnaw and grapple;Secondary;Reviews;English;Books

22nd January 1999 at 00:00
DEVELOPING POETRY SKILLS. Reading Poetry 11-14. By Geoff Barton Heinemann. pound;7.50.

By his metaphors you shall know the anthologist, and with the aid of a scaffolding of grids, columns and tabulated inserts you can be sure of covering the syllabus. Geoff Barton hopes all who work with his book will "sense the enthusiasm I have for this collection", and in his lively introduction he writes of the satisfaction to be gained by "gnawing away" at the distinctiveness of poems, of not wanting students who can merely "quack the appropriate technical term" but who will "grapple" with poems actively and accept the challenge at Year 7 of "untangling poems which I might have read with Year 12 students". Despite his obligatory, thoroughly informed nods in the direction of a bland course book-speak (enhanced response, varied needs and so on), this put me on his side at once, and my admiration grew as I read, often stopping to consider how I might go about following some of his imaginative suggestions for analysis, interpretation and related writing.

Developing Poetry Skills consists of nine units, a short section of poetry writing assignments, and a glossary of poetic terms (not for quacking). From the start, Geoff Barton's enthusiasm shows. Introducing Brian Jones's richly metaphorical "You Being Born", he catches the spirit of the poem, responding with metaphors of his own: "Nine months of learning and growing in a safe, watery den... then suddenly we were catapulted into the bright light of the world". This is just what is wanted in a textbook. Geoff Barton is there grappling, not remote at the teacher's desk, and any reservations about the book's colourful but rather packed, manual-style layout soon fall away.

The range of poems - care-fully chosen for sections on people, places, creatures, mystery, sound, image, narrative, lyric and (that essential GCSE warm-up) comparisons - is impressive. Some are, perhaps, over-familiar classroom war-horses, but these are offset by some fresh discoveries and by an excellent choice of accessible pre-20th-century poems in most of the sections.

I particularly like the way Geoff Barton encourages students to become "time detectives", examining older poems for the give-away clues of their vocabulary. This is just one example of several methods by which the imaginative study of a poem can produce work that will prove useful elsewhere when the time comes, as it always does, for ensuring all the language boxes have been ticked.

John Mole is former head of English at St Albans School, Hertfordshire

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