Much more than a dream
By Anthony Farrell
Edited by Rex Gibson
Cambridge University Press #163;4.95
Anthony Farrell and Rex Gibson share a dream: to publish a textbook that delivers both understanding and enjoyment. In Poetry Past to Present the dream nears reality, even though the book is clearly focused on helping students prepare for GCSE English and English literature. Indeed, the book's first, and longest, section is a syllabus-satisfying anthology of 44 poems, plus bits and pieces such as epitaphs. There are works by pre-20th century poets, "established" moderns, and writers from non-British cultures and traditions, most of whom will be fresh to 14-year-olds. Moreover, several might fulfil the editor's aspirations by lingering in students' post-exam memories, certainly for those with a "Big Aunt Flo" (Wes Magee) or relatives in a "Geriatric Ward" (Phoebe Hesketh).
One section contains seven pairs of poems for the now obligatory comparisons. Particularly intriguing is the pairing of Keith Douglas's "Vergissmeinnicht" and Miroslav Holub's "The Fly".
The value of the material on poetic form, structure, imagery, figures of speech, rhyme and rhythm depends, of course, on students' awareness of such technicalities through work covered before Year 10. Revision or virgin learning? Either way, literary terms are explored appropriately, within the context of reading poems, not through stand-alone exercises. Thus, Sylvia Plath's "Mushrooms" reveals the nature of personification.
Section two provides "starters" for coursework assignments, with its mix of photos, biographies and poems by seven authors spanning Wordsworth to Heaney.
In both these sections the "responding" activities should generate understanding and so increase enthusiasm for the poetry. Initial approaches are often collaborative and talk-based. The strategies are stimulating, descendants of Fox and Merrick's "36 things to do with a poem".
Examples include the performance of a Grace Nichols poem as rap with musical backing and imagine Liz Lochhead reading her poems in a working men's club, then writing the follow-up question and answer session.
The final section, mostly advice on writing about poetry in examinations and coursework, is worthy but mundane. Even so, I warmed to this book, not least the lucid editorial language.
Poetry Past to Present includes Shakespeare's sonnet 60 ("Like as the waves"). It is a lovely thought that young readers might want more and so make for Rex Gibson's edition of The Sonnets.
His opening chapters - "What is a sonnet?" and "Introducing the Sonnets" - eschew dogmatism, in genre definitions or textual interpretation. The viewpoint is Peter Benton's: "Poetry is a medium of riddling word play, yielding a range of meanings."
In considering this ambivalence, and other poetic qualities of the sonnets, each page contains text and commentary, practical work (including cross referencing), and help with unfamiliar words and images. Several photographs are an integrated embellishment.
Gibson's scholarship - the millionth Cambridge School Shakespeare, edited by him, has just been sold - and love for his subject do not produce oppressive didacticism or bardolatry. Suggestions are floated ("You may prefer...") not imposed. Readers are encouraged to evaluate confrontational judgments. Are 46 and 47 exercises in barren ingenuity or sincere emotion? Is 151 obscene?
The final 20 pages examine the sonnet tradition, the themes of love, time and poetry, the language of the sonnets and a methodology for studying them. Emerson argued that inspiration cannot be carried on and made consecutive. Rex Gibson proves him wrong. Fans (like me) know that he continues to inspire beneficial approaches to Shakespeare in schools. First the Project, then the plays in this Cambridge series, now The Sonnets. Carry on inspiring.
Brian Slough was a member of theworking group on English in the national curriculum