Lending an ear to verse

22nd September 1995 at 01:00
POEMS IN MY EARPHONE. Collected by John Agard. Longman Pounds 3.99. - 0582 22578.

POEMS 1: POETRY FOR KEY STAGE 3. Edited by Celeste Flower. Longman Pounds 3.99. - 0582 25400 0.

POEMS 2: POETRY FOR KEY STAGE 4. Edited by Julia Markus and Paul Jordan Longman Pounds 3.99. - 0582 25401 9.

No doubt about it, John Agard is a fine ambassador for performance poetry, and his new anthology in the Longman Literature series is a vigorous addition to the list.

"Lend the poem your breath," he writes in the first section of Poems in my Earphone, a selection from his own work with a running commentary, "and the poem will lend you its voice". What follows in the rest of the book is a diversity of voices, many of them belonging to the current wave of popular performers, but space is also given to anonymous work from various traditions and cultures, well-known poems which it is good to meet in a fresh context and some real surprises such as Jonathan Swift's "Market Women's Cries" and "Ballade" by Francois Villon. Whatever sets his feet tapping, fingers clicking or contains "wonderful words to get your voice box around" is good enough for Agard.

Participation and audience reaction are the heart of the matter, and in the copious, enthusiastic notes on performance, many of the questions and tips are there to make a platform, or catwalk, of the classroom: "Are there any key punchlines?", "Think yourself into fashion-show mood" etc. But there is also plenty of food for thought in quieter moments, directing attention towards subject matter, style and use of language. In short, Poems in My Earphone is a book for sitting down to as well as jumping up from, emphasising the artistry of performance, and when Agard suggests the pairing of "Prayer before birth" with Bob Dylan's "Masters of War" his exhortation to "exploit their closing lines to get audience reaction" shows respect for the work (and audience) more than a wish to encourage effects for its own sake.

Poems 1 and Poems 2 are initially more anxious in their presentation, beginning their introductions respectively with "Enjoy it! This is exactly where to begin with poetry", and "Why does the thought of poetry make many people groan?" These are familiar enough commands and caveats, depressing in their assumed necessity but a fair reflection of the way things are. As it is, the editors of these two books make a good go at combining their primary objective - to introduce a range of poems by accessible contemporaries - with the secondary requirement of producing a user-friendly explanation of technical terms and a set of ideas for discussion and writing.

Poems 1 contains the work of James Berry, John Betjeman, Charles Causley, Gillian Clarke, Wendy Cope, Elizabeth Jennings, Liz Lochhead and Grace Nichols, and Poems 2 features Maya Angelou, Carol Ann Duffy, U A Fanthorpe, James Fenton, Seamus Heaney, Philip Larkin, Sylvia Plath and Anne Stevenson.

The poems are well-chosen, not just the obvious anthology pieces, and in each volume a glossary is provided. The introductory "notes about the poet", accompanied by a photograph, are, on the whole, informative, and in one or two cases cheekily intimate. My favourite is the description of James Fenton as "middle-aged, large, bald and brilliant".

At the back of each anthology there is a three-section study programme, and in the key stage 4 volume, the students are invited to "Write a guide for next year's GCSE class, taking account of how far their understanding and enjoyment of poetry is likely to have progressed so far." Why does the thought of grammar make many copy editors nod off?

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