Loss adjusters

3rd October 2003 at 01:00
Anthologies on conflict and death for key stages 3 and 4 reviewed by Sian Hughes

A Jetblack Sunrise: poems about war and conflict. Compiled by Jan Mark. Hodder Wayland, pound;10.99.

The Nation's Favourite Poems of Remembrance. Forword by Michael Rosen. BBC Books, pound;6.99.

Do Not Go Gentle: poems for funerals. Edited by Neil Astley. Bloodaxe Books, pound;6.99.

There is an art to the anthology, and Jan Mark's selection and arrangement of the material in A Jet Black Sunrise make it a perfect example of that art. The foreword describes how the four sections work like chapters of a novel, moving from pleas for peace and arguments for war, through accounts of conflict to its aftermath, and into the final section "Cold and Civil" which examines the thesis that "war is the normal pursuit of mankind; peace breaks out occasionally".

Placing the more traditionally studied poems of conflict within this framework gives the book a more thoughtful and challenging aspect. If the book reads something like a well-made novel, building its argument chapter by chapter, it equally resembles the cyclical poem: the penultimate poem is Paul Muldoon's "Anseo" - a story of bullying and violence being passed on, of cruelty working its way through generations, the "here and now" of the roll-call response, "Anseo", moving into other times and other places.

This is a book as much about the power of words as about war. As Jan Mark points out, as long as people have been writing, they have written about war - inciting, dissuading, grieving, reporting, arguing. This is what humans do. They make war, and they make words about it. For young readers, tuning in to this particular discourse is nothing less than placing oneself in the history of the human race. As far as KS34 is concerned this means context, contrast, themed reading and research - in other words it's real education.

Michael Rosen's foreword to The Nation's Favourite Poems of Remembrance carries an even more universal punch. Writing of the the death of his teenage son Eddie in 1999, he describes how poetry became a lifeline out of the unbearable pressure of grief, how words can connect humans to each other through the universality of loss: "I could now stop myself from thinking that I was the only person in the whole world who had ever lost a son, a child, a much-loved person. It happens."

It happens. It is not consolation, only education. Opening this book in the first days of grief for the death of my young cousin Niall, I was relieved to find in its pages not only words of acceptance, but also rage, refusal, shock, utter dismay, among them "One Of Us Fell Off the Boat" from Michael Rosen's own recent collection Carrying the Elephant (Penguin): One of us fell off the boat. Look in our faces, read our eyes as we come ashore.

One of us fell off the boat. We're back.

In our homes, you can see that there are times when we hate surviving. There are times when we think how easy to have been him. One wave and gone.

Moving through centuries of words for sons, brothers, parents, neighbours, the inescapable message of such a book is that grief, like war, has its seasons and cycles, that writing and reading about loss is as much a part of the human condition as loss itself.

As Maura Dooley writes in "Gone" - "Sometimes I think we knowof nothing else, lost loves, lost lives,the hopeless benediction of rain."

Readers of all ages turn to poetry to celebrate and seduce as well as to grieve, but the commonest request for a "suitable poem" is the one for a funeral. The excellent Bloodaxe anthology Do Not Go Gentle sets out to answer that need, containing not only a fine range of poetry, but sections of poetic prose and philosophy that resonate well beyond their original settings, translations of Buddhist scripture alongside the King James Bible.

There is a real attempt to chart the ordinary, extraordinary human course of feeling, different sections of the book dealing in turn with fear, pain, remembrance, comfort and haunting, ending with "release and letting go" but most admirably of all, never turning embarrassed from the vexed question of belief. A funeral may be the starting point for grief, but to go on living is to go on mourning.

Loss cannot be contained in one area of the curriculum any more than it can be restricted to the funeral service, which is why a book of poems for funerals is an essential resource for every school. Michael Rosen suggests that the BBC book might help readers become writers of their own grief.

Poetry does lead to poetry.

The Do Not Go Gentle book, with its reader-centred arrangement of emotion-led chapters, may well be even more conducive for young writers who are looking for a vocabulary with which to deal with their own loss.

See www.poetrysociety.org.uk for National Poetry Day (October 9) events and resources including teachers' toolkit. Features and teachers' poetry competition in today's TES Friday magazine

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