Poetry

14th January 2000 at 00:00
MEETING MIDNIGHT. By Carol Ann Duffy. Faber pound;4.99. Education pack: Faber edition plus pamphlet (pp30)The Poetry Book Society. pound;12. OUR BOG IS DOOD: selected poems for young readers. By Stevie Smith. Faber pound;4.99. THE DUMMY'S DILEMMA AND OTHER POEMS. By John Mole. Hodder Children's Books pound;3.99.

There are poets, and there are children's poets. The latter rarely write the most memorable poems, but the former, when they turn their attention to children, often write powerfully. Think of Ted Hughes, whose genius and imagination were in full spate when he wrote for the young, giving the grown-ups the greatest language to read aloud at bedtime.

Meeting Midnight is such a book. Carol Ann Duffy believed she couldn't write for children, until a new daughter reminded her of her young self. These are the poems she has written for the child inside herself, displaying all the strengths of her mature work for adults - a playful wit, music, passion, imagination, the trick of telling what it is to be human in a language that sounds easy.

Too many children's poets mix prettiness with rudeness. Do they tell themselves: "The girls will like the stars and the boys will like the farts?" Such presumptions underestimate us all. What we all want and remember forever is the unpatronising best. Meeting Midnight, on the shortlist for the Whitbread Children's Book of the Year, does the job.

There are too many good poems to quote, but try "Late", "Snowball", "Whirlpool", "A Worry", "Five Girls". I love it.

The Poetry Book Society's education pack is expensive, bearing in mind the cost of the book alone. The pamphlet contains an interview full of Carol Ann Duffy's candour and wit, and although many teachers could think up approaches to the poems that are just as good,or better, as those suggested here, a new teacher might find it useful.

Our Bog is Dood is not the kind of title that would have drawn me to a book by any poet but Stevie Smith. These are poems newly selected with children in mind, although she was far from being a children's writer. This most original and timeless of poets, born almost a hundred years ago, has a dark, fantastic imagination, and her sharp eye can be cruel to the people observed and to the reader, who must share the shock of her viewpoint.

This adult-up way of seeing lies at the heart of her work, but wasn't it Stevie Smith who said the poet is an adult in whom the child is still alive? What children will hear and see are her crazy view of ordinary things, her playfulness, her lack of respect for the pompous and the dull.

Selecting her work for young readers is a clever idea, and these poems, and her delightful drawings, will disturb and delight children.

It's lucky that of all those who write children's poetry, it is John Mole whose work must stand in this distinguished company, because he is one of the best, and already has many fans. The Dummy's Dilemma can bear comparison with either of the above collections although its touch is lighter and its texture thinner.

Mole is a lover of metaphor and music, and particularly delightful are "The Last Abbot Sings To His Favourite Piglet", for its relishing of rich period language, and "The Coastguard", of which the first verse sticks in the mind: "Sometimes he asks the waves as they recur if there is nothing more than this, the flat shine of what is left by their receding then the roar of their return, a come- back leap spray-dazzling on the rocks to another burst of brief applause."

Gillian Clarke


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