29th September 2000 at 01:00
THE WORKS: every kind of poem you will ever need for the literacy hour. Chosen by Paul Cookson. Macmillan pound;4.99

The literacy hour has a lot to answer for - some of it good, some less good, and some downright counter-productive. Whether the Government's (and the public's?) narrow definition of literacy, measured by the numbers of pupils reaching a certain level in tests, is really what it's all about is certainly debatable. But what is certain is the literacy hour's creation of a new market for educational publishers to exploit.

The Works is a poetry workshop anthology subtitled "every kind of poem you will ever need for the literacy hour". Ever need? I hope not. Good as it is, for the most part, it would be depressing to think that today's children grew up with this as a quasi-set book of poetry. But teachers with little time and sparse knowledge of poetry may well pounce on it as a saviour.

Paul Cookson is one of a burgeoning breed of "children's poets", and is becoming a prolific anthologist. He comes from the area of performance poetry, which needs a live audience to work best. Perhaps this explains why he has included many of his own poems in The Works. Several lead many of the sections.

Generally speaking, though, this anthology has a fresh feeling, and, because there are so many poems, some are bound to be gems. The publisher states on the back cover that the book features poems "from the very best classic and modern poets". Some names are then listed, but only well-known ones. The phrase "the very best" was always going to be ahostage to fortune, and those who already know something about poetry will have their own opinions. Several of the names in the index might even elicit a surprised "who?".

The 39 sections range from traditional rhymes to classic poems, taking in most of the categories of poems listed in the national literacy strategy. The usual suspects are all there - haiku, tanks, cinquains, riddles, epitaphs, limericks, among others. We also find shape poems and acrostics, both of which have attracted teachers and children beyond any merit they may once have had.

Thin poems, which suddenly appeared as a previously unknown genre in the NLS, at least have the advantage of offering recalcitrant writers a quick and easy way of completing a task, even if they do seem to add little to our understanding of poetry.

Humour is always a problem. One person's humour is another person's groan. The section called "Humorous Verse" seems a little flaccid, apart from Ian McMillan's contributions, but elsewhere in the book there are some very funny poems.

The Works will help many teachers, and, on balance, Cookson has done a reasonable job in putting together such a lengthy collection. With a paperback of 548 pages priced at pound;4.99, the publisher is clearly hoping for massive sales, perhaps even class sets. Teachers might, however, be better advised to buy one copy to add to a class library which contains a range of good quality poetry, old and new.

SANDY BROWNJOHN National Poetry Day is on October 5. See the Poetry Society website, www.poetrysoc.com

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