From here to eternity
John Mole samples some new collections of poetry for use in the classroom.
When it comes to poetry, anyone attempting a teaching anthology would do well to take careful note of Elma Mitchell's warning: "If you come across An unattended, unidentified poem In a public place, do not attempt to tackle it Yourself. Send it (preferably, in a sealed container) To the nearest centre of learning, where it will be rendered Harmless by experts."
The sealed container of a bad anthology, each page of which packs the poems in with the polystyrene of well-intentioned but exhaustive questions and "suggestions for your own writing", hardly needs the assistance of experts to render the poems themselves harmless. Intent upon meeting the requirements of a syllabus, it expects every poem to do its duty and sets up a joyless machinery to ensure that it does.
Very often a hallmark of such anthologies is that the same poems keep recurring, and there is little evidence of the compilers having read widely enough to come across new work in unlikely places or unfamiliar work by the household names.
Jo Phillips' selection in Poems Deep and Dangerous, from which that Elma Mitchell poem is taken, is the model of a good teaching anthology. Within its five sections (Strictly Personal, Media Media, Bone and Stone, One Another and Life and Death) there is a rich variety of styles and moods which match and complement each other, and there are plenty of discoveries made through the reading of current poetry magazines.
In the informative, alphabetical listing of poets at the back of the book Geoffrey Chaucer sits comfortably between the Guyanan Martin Carter and Frank Chipasula, a political exile from Malawi, while a typically well-designed page offers the pairing of love poems by Simon Armitage and Peter Dale - the latter immediately recognisable as a sonnet, the former taking, perhaps, a little longer to reveal its craft.
In her detailed but refreshingly conversational notes, also kept at the back and introducing (with examples) the main terms of prosody, Jo Phillips offers plenty of good advice, underpinned by the conviction that one should learn always to be conscious while reading "of the way poems have been crafted" and that when answering the inevitable exam questions the best approach is to "show that you are exploring the poem and are open-minded".
Good for her, though I rather wish she had not ended her notes with the statement: "There is nothing sacred about poetry." The emphasis is hers, and while I sympathise with her wish to demystify, there is always the danger of throwing out the magic with the mystification. Besides, too many poems in her excellent anthology call such a remark into question.
The 90-odd pages of Christopher Martin's Classic Poems are certainly packed. Based on the national curriculum, they have to be if they are going to get in a substantial representation of all the set pre-20th century poets except Chaucer - with four 20th-century poets (D H Lawrence, Edward Thomas, Wilfred Owen and W B Yeats) for additional measure.
Such, though, is Martin's enthusiasm, knowledge and gift for the telling, often amusing anecdote which illuminates each poet's life and background without ever trivialising, that each section - with headings like "Andrew Marvell (1621-l678): Girls and Gardens" or "Christina Rossetti (1830-1894): Heart-broken for a little love" - triumphs over its unattractive, double-columned presentation.
Everything works: the poems are excellently chosen and by no means always the obvious ones; the questions which follow them are genuinely suggestive, and there are some marvellously apt pictures and manuscript facsimiles. It's just that the whole book looks like a sealed container but isn't.
In this case, enlightened centres of learning - and each and every one of them should have as many copies as they can afford - will have little difficulty bringing the pages to life once the initial weight of the appearance of all that material has been lifted.
John Foster's Hot Heads, Warm Hearts, Cold Streets is aimed at key stage 3 reluctant readers, special schools and adult education. It consists mainly of new poems commissioned from poets known for their work in education, though a few (including those by John Agard, Roger McGough and Adrian Henri) have been published previously.
All are accessible and are left to speak for themselves without editorial intervention. This they do, sometimes (it has to be said) rather patronisingly, but there's plenty to provoke thought and to raise a fleeting laugh, and Jennifer Tweedie's shape poem "No Job?" is grimly apt.
John Mole's new collection of poetry for young readers, Hot Air, is published by Hodder and Stoughton