Poetry anthologies

12th May 2000 at 01:00

Business is booming for children's poets. A glance at the biographical entries at the back of one of the anthologies under review here tells us that one of the contributors has written "hundreds of poems about school", that another has "written about 40 books and visited over 500 schools" and that the compiler himself has "performed his poetry and stories in thousands of schools".

Given this encouraging state of affairs, it falls to experienced and accomplished school anthologists such as Wendy Cooling, Andrew Fusek Peters and John Foster to use their considerable influence to draw more attention to the wealth of poetry that their predecessors - Walter de la Mare, Geoffrey Grigson and Naomi Lewis, to name only three - made available to a previous generation.

Of course there is a place for the "Mum says, Dad says" variety of milk-tooth jingle, and for all those free-verse anecdotes with a twist in the tail that so many children's poets turn out to commission - though sometimes rather too easily - but I do detect a reluctance to explore the full resources of poetry which may originate with publishers.

Wendy Cooling's Earthwise: poems about our world (Watts pound;10.99) is a good example of what can be done within the limits of a slim classroom anthology. It is handsomely produced, contains an impressive range of real poems, carefully chosen, and can be warmly recommended.

Sources of all the contemporary work are, of course, acknowledged, but teachers might find it helpful to have information about where they could go to discover more about the work of, for example, Emily Dickinson, who is represented by two poems, one of which (given the title "Moon") is only the first stanza of a poem which was originally untitled. I don't point this out just to carp, though I do think that it should always be made clear where extracts are being chosen and titles invented.

A companion volume, Nealy Best Friends: poems about relationships, is, with the exception of poems by Roy Fuller and Langston Hughes, by familiar contemporaries. Each volume contains work by children which fully deserves its place.

Andrew Fusek Peters' two compilations, Poems about Festivals and Poems about Seasons (Hodder Wayland, pound;9.99 each), are directly and helpfully aimed at reinforcing the suggested work at various levels in the national literacy strategy. Even at their weakest, and some are very weak, the poems serve their purpose, offering plenty of scope for activities and with an admirable range of cultural reference. The pages contain strikingly vibrant colour illustrations, particularly of the many festivals covered. There are also recommendations of books to read, amongst which I was delighted to see John Clare's The Shepherd's Calendar ("a beautiful book which can be read aloud" - I agree).

John Foster is bound to score several goals with Football Fever: poems about football (Oxford University Press pound;9.99). An attractive, pocket-size hardback, it's full of wordplay, chants and racy commentaries to match the skills of the teams and personalities its poets celebrate, and there are several particularly successful quieter poems, such as Brian Lee's excellent "Bobby Charlton" ("changing the patternwith the same flowing unhastening stride") which go beyond the roar of the crowd to reflect upon that grace under pressure which characterises the game at its best.

Back home, after the match, Shimmy with My Granny, family poems chosen and illustrated by Sarah Garland (Macdonald Young Books, pound;4.99) really dances with verbal and visual relish. Of all the books in this batch, it is the one which contains the greatest number of surprises offered by good poets who are not the usual suspects in popular anthologies for children, including P J Kavanagh, James Michie, Helen Dunmore and Gavin Ewart.


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