Perfect poetry

27th April 2007 at 01:00
Fred Sedgwick chooses poetry anthologies

Conversation Pieces: Poems That Talk To Other Poems

Selected by Kurt Brown and Harold Schecter; Everyman's Library Pocket Poets pound;9.99


Poems United: A Commonwealth Anthology

Edited by Diana Hendry and Hamish Whyte; Black and White Publishing Pounds 7.99


Here's a Little Poem: A Very First Book Of Poetry

Collected by Jane Yolen and Andrew Fusek Peters; Illustrated by Polly Dunbar; Walker Books pound;12.99


Two original ideas have led to two excellent anthologies that extend understanding of what poetry can do.

Conversation Pieces takes poems and follows them with other poems that argue with them. Christopher Marlowe's Passionate Shepherd attempts, famously, to seduce his love: "Come live with me, and be my love." Walter Raleigh's lady rejects the shepherd on the grounds of human mutability, John Donne composes a set of sensual variations, and C Day Lewis brings it all up to date with promises of courtship by "sour canals".

Bracingly, Ogden Nash's jolly rhyming couplets end up half-promising to murder the beloved. Hugh MacDiarmid slaps at A E Housman, and Randall Jarrell has a more nuanced view of the old masters and suffering. W H Auden, it seems, was a little simplistic in thinking that they were "never wrong".

Conversation Pieces comes from the United States, and the modern American poets that dominate it often celebrate the English Metaphysicals. Teresa Cader responds to George Herbert's great sonnet Prayer with a restrained and elegant meditation on September 11.

This collection would be welcome in a sixth-form library or as a good source of teaching ideas.

Poems United looks and feels like a classy travel guide, and that is what it is - as well as a superb resource for teaching any age group about poetry and other cultures. It could also be enjoyed independently by secondary students.

All the Commonwealth countries are visited. Many poems show what Anonymous can do. In the case of In the Woods, that shadowy figure comes from Dominica: "Spitter... spitter... swallows slip through the steel white sky's pieces".

You hear accents from much of the world. Children will feel honoured and moved to be in touch with the child from apartheid South Africa who, like them, "just wanted to play in the sun", but who "lies with a bullet through his brain" (Ingrid Jonker).

Finally, anyone who lives or works with the very young should have Here's A Little Poem. With lots of clever wordplay, the poetry in this book will soothe the savage breast in many a tired child.

Both this book and Conversation Pieces contain poems by Wendy Cope.

Conversation Pieces is almost worth the cover price for Wendy Cope's reflections on awful men. After 20 years, it still makes me laugh out loud Fred Sedgwick is a language consultant in primary schools, and the author of How To Teach With A Hangover and 101 Lists For Primary Teachers (Continuum)

There's just time to book for free schools' film screenings of The Bridge to Terabithia, a PG film based on the classic children's novel by Katherine Paterson. Call Film Education on 020 7851 94649463 or visit www.filmeducation.orgevents. Screenings are in more than 50 Cineworld cinemas at 10am on May 2

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