The heritage roll-call
Andrew Stibbs takes a literary journey from Agincourt to Dover Beach.
These books explicitly hitch on the bandwagon which the national curriculum rolls forward to the past, with its heritage roll-call and Order that key stage 3 and 4 pupils should read "poems of high quality by four major poets whose works were published before 1900".
All but six of the SCAA 28 are in Adrian Tissier's collection for key stage 4 and GCSE, a pocketable anthology which is good value at about 4p a poem. Its contents, arranged in themes like "Love" and "War", are the staple of a traditional journey through the English literary heritage from Agincourt to Dover Beach via Tintern. Exceptions are the newly rediscovered women: Christina Rossetti should have a good centenary. Old warhorses like "The Revenge" return from the knacker's, but most of Tissier's poets are indisputably "of high quality" and remain attractive. If you wanted "four major poets" for study, and if, but only if, you'd thrown out your old anthologies of canon-fodder before Kenneth Baker turned the clock back, you could use the four Shakespeares, seven Blakes, four Byrons or five Shelleys, and three Hardys here.
Tissier lets his poems speak for themselves more than does Sheila Hales, but he provides notes and Brief Lives and makes suggestions for approaches and follow-up work which are well matched to the different natures of the poems. However, some of the hints, prompts, instructions, and focussers are vague. "What is interesting about the structure of this poem?", or "Discuss the symbolism in Blake's poems . . .": these beg too many questions to give the inexperienced reader a way in to the text.
Sheila Hales has less predictable inclusions and themes than Tissier. She aims at key stage 3, with more (but unexciting) illustrations, a lot of narrative and a tendency to spoon out long poems in small doses. As an anthology for three years it may seem thin in its quality and quantity of poems, but there are poets from other countries, humour, work going back to ballads and Beowulf and, as the title makes clear - poems of "now" as well as "then". In fact the title is a little misleading and catchpenny: the newly prescribed oldies could be an excuse for re-running the voguish young Berrys, Causleys, Copes, and McGoughs. She credibly claims that the poems have all been tested in the field for students' enjoyment.
The book is more like a lively poetry teaching book than an anthology, and its strength lies in its ambitious but practical suggestions (including for Writing and Speaking and Listening). Most of the activities lead back into the poems which occasion them. Hales laudably sets exercises on groups of poems ("Write a 'Guide for Ghosts'"!), and uses comparisons (including of old with new poems on the same themes). Her suggestions for "Looking Closely", "Responding", and dramatising are helpfully detailed. She asks readers to pick out words, label parts, tabulate differences, allocate voices, or mark up a copy for reading aloud (but rarely just to read it today and return to it tomorrow and have another look next week). Her suggestions are convivial (group and pair work) and active (incentives to guess strange words rather than consult notes). The respective suggestions of Hales and Tissier about "Ozymandias" are symptomatic: Hales directs the reader to the text the words on the statue and why they might have been put there; Tissier asks what sort of person Ozymandias might have been.
Heritage literature might extend young readers' sense of the variety of possible lives and writing and estrange contemporary life and literature. Grouping poems from different periods can do this, as is done in these books and the late unlamented 1993 SCAA Anthology (although the national curriculum's separating Other Times from Other Countries encourages the simplicity of seeing heritage poems as just difficult modern-type poems in quaint language). So when Hales gets you to see that, in Clare's day, Maids snatching mizled clothes off orchard hedges were not arcadian icons, she is salutarily showing how signs had different meanings in the past. Just to give more original spellings would make the poems more strange and interesting: Tissier does this only for Herrick's inevitable daffs and Hales for some Gawain.