Mixing it up

18th June 2004 at 01:00
Love and Longing Introduced by Jacqueline Wilson.

Fear and Trembling Introduced by Kevin Crossley-Holland.

Collections of classic poetry and prose edited by Kate Agnew

Wizard Books, pound;5.99 each

Love, Hate and my Best Mate: Poems about love and relationships. Compiled by Andrew Fusek Peters and Polly Peters. Wayland, pound;10.99

Sardines and Other Poems. By Stephen Knight. Young Picador, pound;7.99

The Good Child's Guide To Rock and Roll. By Carol Ann Duffy. Faber, pound;12.99

Sian Hughes on new collections and anthologies

Two new anthologies from Wizard Books avoid copyright complications by roaming through anything pre-20th-century. However, this does not detract from the immediacy of these pieces or diminish their cumulative effect. The selection and arrangement of material is brilliant, creating cross-currents, complications, and time-travelling coincidences to challenge intelligent readers.

What is lost is a sense that the reader is free to join in. Jacqueline Wilson, introducing Love and Longing, confesses to writing bad verse in response to love in her youth, and suggests that reading might be preferable. Certainly, reading more, and reading work with the clarity of Charlotte Mew or William Congreve, would do a great deal to improve the literary quality of most teenage writing, but it seems foolish to impose a divide between what is inspiring to read, and the response it so naturally inspires.

Love, Hate and my Best Mate, edited by Andrew Fusek Peters and Polly Peters, includes older pieces, but mixes classical with contemporary, some of it previously unpublished, which may largely account for the extra pound;4 on the cover price. The one contribution by a teenager - "I ask for a divorce", by Kate Shipton, aged 15 - is among the best of the new, holding its own alongside the excellent directness of Dave Calder, Helen Dunmore and a translation of Vasko Popa. Much of the rest of the contemporary work is sloppy and obvious, and can inspire a young reader to write themselves only in a spirit of "I couldn't do worse". By far the worst offenders are the compilers, who have given themselves more pages than any other poet. It seems we must choose between an exclusive club of excellence and an open door to a club we may have mixed feelings at joining. Why the big divide?

One way round this is to choose a collection rather than an anthology. The vagaries of a single voice in all its moods allow for plenty of variety, and the reader should be assured of consistent quality. Stephen Knight's first collection for young readers is reassuringly like his adult work; in fact, it's hard to see the dividing line. Poems using imagery of school, sports fields and playground games to unearth fear and longing do not seem exclusively for the young, especially when, like this, they retain an element of honest retrospection: "The things I built that fell to bits?At last, I own the proper tools.Those interviews that didn't work?I have the answers. All of them."

To acknowledge the adult viewpoint is to acknowledge the powerlessness of the young and, by marking the difference, to force the poem over that divide. Carol Ann Duffy's The Good Child's Guide to Rock and Roll similarly confesses to the adult voice and viewpoint, here taking the roles of storyteller, myth-maker, and simply educator. What emerges is an adult delight in youth, newness, frivolity and language games, an engagingly direct invitation to the young reader to let the writer lead the dance, whether it is into images of death, descriptions of music or experiments with wordplay and nonsense.

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