Once upon a rhyme

4th September 1998 at 01:00
John Mole on poetry anthologies for next year and beyond

THE RING OF WORDS: An anthology of poetry for children. Edited by Roger McGough. Illustrated by Satoshi Kitamura. Faber Pounds 14.99.

THE FORSAKEN MERMAN ANd OTHER STORY POEMS. Selected by Berlie Doherty. Illustrated by Nick Maland. Hodder Pounds 11.99.

THE hUTCHINSON TREASURY OF CHILDREN'S POETRY. Edited by Alison Sage. Hutchinson Pounds 19.95.

THE PUFFIN BOOK OF UTTERLY BRILLIANT POETRY. Edited by Brian Patten. Viking Pounds 12.99.

READ ME: A poem a day for the National Year of Reading. Chosen by Gaby Morgan. Macmillan Pounds 4.99.

PEACE AND WAR: A collection of poems. Chosen by Michael Harrison and Christopher Stuart-Clark. Oxford University Press Pounds 6.99.

THE POETRY BOOK: Poems for children. Chosen by Fiona Waters. Orion Pounds 5.99.

Poets who also work as stand-up entertainers will be in greater demand than ever this year, especially on National Poetry Day - October 8 - which will focus on celebrating comic verse. The veteran and best among these is Roger McGough, winner of this year's Signal Award for Bad Bad Cats.

Like his creation Georgie Jennings, McGough has become "a legend in his own playtime" but, unlike Georgie, has certainly not "failed miserably in the classroom". Although marginalised by the establishment (he doesn't even rate an entry under his own name in The Oxford Companion to Twentieth Century Poetry), he is a strong favourite with teachers, many of whom have him to thank for their own discovery of contemporary verse. They have passed on their enthusiasm to more than one generation.

Prolific, with a propensity for wordplay which can sometimes overcome him like a nervous tic and a weakness for sentimental whimsy, he is nevertheless a true poet who travels deceptively light in what are often the dark places.

All McGough's strengths watermark his selection for The Ring of Words, an outstanding anthology which opens and closes with the Stevenson poem which gives it its title: "Bright is the ring of wordswhen the right man rings them". As an anthologist, he is just the right man, responding to the unique resonance of each poem he chooses, and placing it for maximum effect in his magic circle of sound and meaning.

One example serves to demonstrate the kind of effect he achieves throughout. In the section "My name is . . ." in which all the poems touch on aspects of personal identity, George Szirtes' initially safe, domestic "A Small Girl Swinging" shifts almost imperceptibly from its narrator's "tiny fears" to intimations of a larger grief. This is picked up in the next poem, "Boy on a Swing" by Oswald Mbuyiseni Mtshali, where the intimations take on a political dimension: "Mother! Where did I come from? When will I wear long trousers?Why was my father jailed?" Then comes the welcome, ebullient release of Carol Ann Duffy's "Whee!", sheer vertiginous fantasy ("I held my head in both handsand flung it through the air"), followed by the equally fantastic "I am Falling off a Mountain" by Jack Prelutsky, which leads, in complete contrast, to Edward Field's "The Tailspin", a pragmatic, almost prosaic, account of how to handle this "dreaded aeronautical problem".

The effect of reading these poems in sequence, as elsewhere throughout the anthology, is simultaneously one of surprise and recognition, a sharing of McGough's own delight in discovering how such very different poems complement each other, though at first they might appear both in style and content to be worlds apart. But then, that is exactly what the best anthologies do. Like poetry itself, they make a kind of inevitable unity out of the unexpected and, like McGough's own performances, they demonstrate the memorable virtues of accessibility.

Equally full of surprises and thoughtful juxtapositions is Berlie Doherty's collection of story poems. Matthew Arnold's "The Forsaken Merman" is joined by several other old favourites, including "The Wreck of the Hesperus" and "Sir Patrick Spens", although perhaps they are not as well known as they used to be.

The real strength here lies in the skill and insight with which the notion of "story" has been interpreted. Not only are we treated to traditional ballads, the sardonic twists of Roald Dahl's retellings, the whole of "The Lady of Shalott" and substantial, tempting extracts from the classics (I can't imagine any young reader not insisting "Go on! Go on!" after hearing the opening of "Christabel" read aloud), but these longer pieces are matched by shorter lyrics with a tight narrative thread such as Browning's "Meeting at Night" or Emily Dickinson's "The Wind Tapped like a Tired Man".

Berlie Doherty realises that stories are often told more powerfully by what is left out of them than what is put in, and her decision to include Anne Stevenson's profoundly disquieting 10-line scenario "Utah" is characteris-tically intelligent and audacious.

The Hutchinson Treasury of Children's Poetry and The Puffin Book of Utterly Brilliant Poetry are both lavish productions, but, perhaps inevitably, lack the final stamp of originality.

The Treasury is a collection of more than 300 rhymes for the very young and poems for the considerably older, with a guest introduction by Michael Rosen who, apart from Anon, crops up more often than any other poet.

I was reminded of Macmillan's rather similar treasury published last year,also with a guest introduction. In that case it was by the excellent Charles Causley, whose absence from this production surprised me almost as much as some of the inclusions under the banner of "best-loved poems".

Certainly many of our best-loved illustrators, past and present, make this a beautifully decorated book. The double-page spread by John Burningham to illustrate Carl Sandburg's tiny poem "Fog" is a masterpiece.

As for the Puffin, what dare one say that the title doesn't? This is a taster for the work of 10 popular Puffin poets, including Charles Causley, each illustrated by a different artist and gathered together by Brian Patten, who interviews all the other poets. He is interviewed by his cat, Wiz, who also sends his regards to John Agard's cat, Corvetta.

Read Me is an engaging, if predictable, enterprise: 365 miscellaneous poems for the Year of Reading and for every mood. "Tomorrow, do thy worst, for I have lived today" announces John Dryden on February 25. Then, when tomorrow arrives, we find Brian Moses wondering "What Teachers Wear in Bed!". In most cases, key festivals apart, the actual dates are as irrelevant as the quality of the poems is diverse, although there is a general seasonal appropriateness.

Finally, two paperback reissues; absolute musts if you don't already have them. In Peace and War, Michael Harrison and Christopher Stuart-Clark avoid all the pitfalls of war anthologies and are particularly strong in their selection of poems which explore the burden of conscience and the complexity of struggling to live at peace in the wake of conflict. There is excellent work by numerous little-known poets as well as many familiar poems. As an admirer of Edward Thomas, though, I was annoyed to discover a single stanza of "Words" passed off as the complete poem - a bad habit that seems to afflict even the best anthologists on occasions.

The other reissue, Fiona Waters' selection for The Poetry Book, stands, along with The Ring of Words, as the exemplary anthology.

John Mole has contributed to the Faber and Hutchinson anthologies reviewed here

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