Heart of the matter
WE COULDN'T PROVIDE FISH THUMBS Poems by James Berry, Judith Nicholls, Grace Nichols, Vernon Scannell and Matthew Sweeney Macmillan Pounds 8.99.
Of these three pleasing collections, one is strict-ly for the children, the other two for the young of any age. Roger McGough's selection of poems about love is in the latter category. lt is packed with 133 poets whose works reflect, enhance or console every mood, illuminate every face, every sidelong glance of love. It is the Auden to Zephaniah of love poetry.
McGough has cast widely among many nations and cultures for his selection, and has included the solemn, the sentimental, the silly and the sad - true poetry and nonsense side by side. Nothing is more central to human life than the relationships we call love, whether love of a country or a people, love of place, of nature, family ties, desire, romantic inclinations or the affections of friendship. The range and wide interpretation of the word "love" is indicated by the eight section headings, for example, "Love Comes Quietly", "This Land is Me", "Everything Touches".
The book is big and handsome, spaciously printed, illustrated in black and white, with index lists of poets, titles and first lines. It is elegantly designed and, although it does not look at all educational, it would be invaluable in the primary and secondary school library. Not just an entertaining and delightful book but an important one, and no more expensive than an extravagant Valentine or modest love token.
Elizabeth Jennings is a fine poet and she brings her whole talent, her ear for a cadence, her observant eye, her scholarly vocabulary and syntax and her always surprising imagination to her collection for children. In the opening poem, "A Classroom", she sets the tone. She remembers how, at 13, she heard a battle poem in school.
"That day was wide and that whole room was wide, The sun slanting across desks, the dust Of chalk rising. I was listening As if for the first time, As if I'd never heard our tongue before."
How wonderfully that captures an early experience of falling in love with poetry. Most young children have known such moments, and some adults remember how such magic can change your life: "Language a spell over the hungry dreams," as Jennings says. This is a rich book of real poetry, a book to come after and take the place of the jokes, puns and jolly rhymes which entertain the primary child, a book to nourish a burgeoning love of the solemn, difficult beauty of Yeats, Donne, Shakespeare and the rest.
The title tells us that We Couldn't Provide Fish Thumbs (it's a fish finger joke) is the one for the kids, the one with the jingles and japes to get them into poetry. But these are five excellent writers, well known to the grown-up poetry lover, and most of the poems are real ones, from the richness of James Berry to the extravagant imagination of Matthew Sweeney.
Although the editorial tone is occasionally a little avuncular and self-consciously eager to please, particularly in the biographical notes, I doubt if the children will complain. If they liked Macmillan's earlier book, Another Day on Your Foot and I Would Have Died, they will like this one, the third in the series. The titles are a bit of a mouthful and not easy to recall at the bookshop counter.
Also, the poet's first name appears handwritten below each poem. Is this a good idea? It is important for readers to register a writer's whole name, and a forename alone rings trendily of "Hello! I'm Mandy. How may I help you?" I'm not sure about this one, editor.