Collected Poems for Children. By Gareth Owen. Macmillan Children's Books pound;10.99
All Sorts. By Christopher Reid. Ondt and Gracehoper pound;7.50
Jenny Joseph's poems in All the Things I See are gathered from anthologies and her own adult collections to make this special selection for children.
The book grew on me. At first I thought its tone was not quite right for children. Some poems seemed beyond them, old-fashioned in vocabulary and detail. Others seemed whimsical. I wondered what age of reader the poet and editor had in mind. Then I heard in the best of these poems the quirky voice of an eccentric aunt viewing the world with a highly original eye, observing human behaviour with generous mockery.
It's the voice she uses in "Warning", with the famous first line, "When I am an old woman I shall wear purple". It is the favourite poem of Radio 4 listeners, the poem by which Joseph would rather not be remembered. But such poems show a playful mind, a sharp eye, a slightly prosy voice, truthful and accurate, and these are more typical of this poet than the pretty verse quoted on the back cover.
There is no doubt that Gareth Owen is popular with children for the sound and the subjects of his poems, and his Collected Poems for Children is a 239-page hardback robust enough for classroom use. He makes words tap and skip like playground chants. His subjects are urban, anti-romantic and familiar, and in most of these poems the voice and viewpoint are the child's. In the 25 verses of "Sports Report" he uses the rhythm of a limerick to mix family voices and football results in a noisy living room at tea-time. "Radio" rymes wittily with "say to you" at the ends of lines three and four: "A sudden reversal at Reading,A last minute winner at York. 'Turn down that radio!D'you hear what I say to youI can hardly hear myself talk.'" He plays with rhythm, using it, scanning it, breaking it, letting a poem fizzle out into prose, catching it again. He is a poet used to reading aloud and to children's ways of seeing and speaking.
The Signal Award for the best book of new poems for children published in 1999 has gone to All Sorts, removing the risk that this slim volume could go un-noticed. We are used to Reid as a poet for adults, but this collection for children is a great surprise, a whirligig of word-pleasure with Yeatsian moments, like all the best nursery rhymes, and illustratedwith Sara Fanelli's wittyline drawings.
The first verse of the first poem sets the tone. "Oh, do not marry that wild young man,oh, do not marry, my daughter,or you will live the rest of your dayson dog biscuits and rain-water." It plays with the eccentricities of English idiom, as in "The Lost Girl" where the notion of being lost in a book is explored, "because all too soonshe was lost to sight, like a slip of moonon a cloudy night". By contrast, in a hundred tongue-twisting lines, "The Man from Mattapan" finds good use for "mightiest man", "McMonaghan", "Yucatan", "Isle of Man", "mighty span", "Aldebaran", "marzipan", "metal can", "mighty spoon", "macaroon", "flaming pan", and a good deal more before he's done. All Sorts is as serious, as imaginative and as witty a book as Jenny Joseph's, and as light on its dancing feet as Gareth Owen's, with something of its own that belongs to the voice of someone who takes poetry seriously.