Having a ball on Eclectic Avenue;Children's books

14th May 1999 at 01:00
DANCING IN THE STREET: a poetry party. Edited by Adrian Mitchell. Orchard pound;12.99. TWO BARKS. By Julie O'Callaghan. Bloodaxe pound;6.95. SOPHIE'S LOG: the poetry and notebooks of Sophie Large. pound;7 inc pamp;p from Sophie's Silver Lining Fund, 17 Silver Street, Chacombe, Banbury, Oxon OX17 2JR. More details from TheLarges@aol.com

Gillian Clarke steps out with a trio of teenager-friendly poetry books

Another anthology by that popular poet and lover of poetry, peace and disrespectability, Adrian Mitchell, is always welcome. This one is well-designed, good to read and illustrated in black and white by the excellent Tony Ross. It is an eclectic collection, setting blues and popular song lyrics side by side with Robert Herrick, Emily Dickinson, Shakespeare, and poets of our time.

The trouble is that Mitchell's introduction boasts that anyone who has read this anthology, his Orchard Book of Poems and The Rattle Bag (edited by Seamus Heaney and Ted Hughes, published by Faber) has "more or less seen the universe". The reviewer is therefore bound to quibble that this is not so.

Song lyrics sound wrong when read in a speaking voice and, however good to read while listening to the music, they rarely satisfy on the page. Though some poems are wonderful surprises - "A Mill" by William Allingham - for example, others, such as "The Dong with the Luminous Nose", are already over-anthologised. There are few surprises in the Love section, which contains all the old favourites. Marvell, Wyatt, Donne and Shakespeare lie beside U A Fanthorpe and a lovely poem by J M Synge. But, since so many familiar poems are here, where is everyone's favourite by Carol Ann Duffy, "Warming Her Pearls"? At a quick count, not including Anon, I find 81 poems by men to 16 by women. That's an odd universe.

Perhaps British teenagers will enjoy the fact that Julie O'Callaghan's collection, Two Barks, is written in American - "porch", "twister", "Band-aid", "chips", for veranda, tornado, Elastoplast and crisps. But what is an "elevated"? I don't think we have them. She writes as her young self, not as a middle-aged person looking down. Her rhyme is rare, but her wit is wise. Hers is the voice of natural speech, witty, observant, the humour lying in the recognisable ordinariness of her subjects, though she can be wildly imaginative, as in the space poems.

In "The Nasty Asteroid" she begins poetically, recharging a cliche with new meaning. "The sky tonight is powder blueas if sugar starswouldn't melt in its mouth", but ends with the almost Yeatsian warning: "As we change the Walkman batteriesit's on its way." Indeed, the space poems are among her best, including her very funny space disaster poem, "The Great Attractor".

Sophie's Log is an unusual book. Sophie Large was killed in a road accident when she was 19. Here are 27 poems, with notebook extracts, letters, journal entries and e-mails to friends, arranged chronologically. Most collected works gathered in memoriam by a family for a dead child or spouse make poor reading, but this book is as appealing as a diary. Although it is not a classic - such as The Diary of Anne Frank - it appeals for its ordinariness, for expressing the inner life of a typical, though brighter-than-average, girl, from the word-loving child to the ambitious would-be theatre director who fails to get into Oxford.

Sophie's ambition, breathless excitements, disappointments and despairs, the lists of her successes and reasons for happiness rehearsed in letters to parents and grandparents, recall the young Sylvia Plath. I read the childhood poems first, but soon turned to the end of the book to read backwards, to find out if she had become a real writer.

No, this is not a rare, precocious writing talent, but the book is more than readable, and proceeds will help fund music and drama training for young people. Anthologists who collect thematically for educational material should read Sophie's Log for extracts of prose or for poems, especially "Sunglasses", "On Being Alone at a Railway Station", and the childhood poem, "Swans on the Wing".

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