No excuses for neglecting poetry

12th September 1997 at 01:00
Excuses, Excuses. Compiled by John Foster. Oxford Pounds 8.99 hbk Pounds 4.99 pbk.

Spaceways. Compiled by John Foster. Oxford Pounds 4.99.

Bad Bad Cats. By Roger McGough. Viking, Pounds 9.99 hbk Puffin Pounds 3.99.

The indefatigable John Foster has become a brand name. Even the most poetry-resistant bookshop is likely to have several of his anthologies on its shelves, and I suspect that for many teachers he is the beginning (if not, for some, the end) of poetry.

Whatever one's reservations about the quality of some of the commissioned, made-to-measurework, especially those slim booklets catering for the inevitable project (dinosaurs, dragons, etc), the achievement of Foster's more substantial anthologies is undeniable.

Excuses, Excuses is the ideal collection for pupil and teacher to read together. Each will recognise the other's strategies of manipulation and evasion, and the laughter is likely to come loud and fast. In several of the observant classroom poems, such as Mike Jubb's "Do We Have to Write a Poem About It, Miss?", teaching methods are parodied with affection, while teachers can counter with a poem such as Gareth Owen's variation on the "My Grandma Died" ploy which gives the anthology its title.

Many of the problems that make school a centre of nervous apprehension, difficult adjustment and real heartache are sensitively addressed. Jackie Kay's "Duncan Gets Expelled" and Wendy Cope's "Team Spirit" ("Hell is being in a team") are only two of the poems where recognition will come not with the bonding of communal laughter but with the relief of an experience shared.

The reissue of Foster's 1986 anthology Spaceways - as engagingly inter-galactic as Excuses is down-to-earth - is welcome. It says much for the selection that it does not appear dated. This is in no small measure due to the human dimension. There are the inevitable goggling aliens and grotesque scenarios but the nutty is balanced with the numinous, and there is plenty of room for wonder and speculation, not to mention the chilling dialogue between child and parents in perhaps the most remarkable poem in the book, James Kirkup's "Question and Answers (a ballad)". Any anthologist with the nerve to include work as demanding and disconcerting as this is to be valued.

"What does a compiler do?" "He choosed what poems would be writed in that book" (see above). Yes, but don't forget the poets from whose collections the choice is made. If a teacher finds a particular poem successful with a class, the first thing to do is to get hold of as much of that poet's work as is possible. As well as re-issuing recent collections by John Agard, Michael Rosen and Benjamin Zephaniah as paperbacks, Penguin has issued Roger McGough's Bad Bad Cats in paperback and a hardback simultaneously. All four of these poets are accomplished performers and regular visitors to schools Prolific, engaging, hyper-alert to the idiom of classroom, playground and neighbourhood, even at their weakest all four demonstrate a delight in the rhythms of everyday speech and the possibilities of word-zplay which is guaranteed to stimulate imitation - often collectively. Ideal for reading aloud, and each with a highly individual voice, their "solo albums" should certainly be sought out.

Bad Bad Cats is a generous helping of McGough. There's a fresh sequence to accompany Saint-Saens' "Carnival of the Animals" which makes a change from the super-sophisticated New-Yorker-ese of Ogden Nash, and - for the literacy hour - there are plenty of clever ways of enlarging vocabulary. "Penultimate" can be added to "compiler" by means of playful instruction: Pen ultimate. She said So I wrote:The End.John Mole._

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