Poetry that's not at all po-faced

5th January 2007 at 00:00
Fred Sedgwick delves into some inspiring, imaginative and witty poetry books and learning resources for children which dare break away from the norm

From the post-Edwardian elegance of John Arlott, the cricket commentator (Cricket at Worcester, 1938) to Jean Binta Breeze "on cricket, sex and housework", Not Just a Game is full of delights. I enjoyed Neil Rollinson's thoughts on fielding in the deep, well away from all those manic slip fielders leaping about and sledging the poor batsman.

The short boxing section is strong because the poems are by Vernon Scannell and George Jowett, who are boxers. John Betjeman is here, weak from Joan Hunter Dunn's loveliness on the tennis court and in the car park afterwards. Never has the roof of a car seemed so erotic. But there are surprises too: Ted Hughes, for example, watching football at Slack, and George Szirtes's fine poem about watching Preston North End in Tom Finney's last season. Anyone who still believes that sport and politics don't mix should read Kit Wright's bitter attack on the cricketers who enjoyed South African hospitality during the apartheid era.

His title, I Found South African Breweries Most Hospitable, is a quote from Graham Gooch, the English batsman who led the English side. This book should be in every school where there are sports fans.

Chrissie Gittins, meanwhile, observes so well in I Don't Want an Avocado for an Uncle, whether her subject is the madness of New York, rain spitting at hills or the final rituals of a family Christmas.

But other poems misfire. Her limericks do not scan, and many of the poems are jokes designed to appeal to children who have a more robust sense of humour than she has bargained for.

What distinguishes the hits from the misses is a recognition in the former, that there is no such thing as a good poem only for children. These hits work for anyone who loves poetry. There are beautifully observed pieces.

The ballet teacher is a good example: "Her voice glancing each childwith gossamer" or: "stripes of shellduck tipped up in a lake". Chrissie Gittens's talent is exposed in her observations, not her jokes.

Most primary teachers are familiar with The Works series. I saw a set in a Durham school that was crumbling apart from use. Like Not Just a Game, The Works 6, a primary assembly resource, is full of variety. Here is the Bible, for example. Thank goodness it's from the King James version. Here are lovely pieces from all sorts of traditions: Jewish, Inuit, North American Indian. But here, also, are modern poems by the usual suspects: John Foster, Paul Cookson, Debjani Chatterjee among many others: including (interest declared) me.

There is nothing zany in this book. So what about zany books? What do the titles of the collections by John Siddique, Steve Turner and Andrew Fusek Peters have in common? These poems are all by writers determined to raise a laugh. It's a shame, because among the mutant mangoes, the knickers and the nostrils, are some sensitive poems. But they are crowded out by the zaniness.

Finally, two useful resources. Universal Verse is a beautifully produced teachers' handbook on poetry written for children, both modern and classic.

It is, as Andrew Motion, the poet laureate, has said, "a wonderfully exuberant and stimulating guide". Andrew Motion again, with a poem at the beginning of The Poetry Society website (www.poetrysociety.org.uk and follow the education links). This is also elegant, and contains valuable information on taking "the fear out of poetry" and on the Poets in Schools scheme, among other things

Fred Sedgwick is a language consultant in primary schools. His most recent books are How to Teach With a Hangover and 101 Lists for Primary Teachers, published by Continuum

Not Just a Game: Sporting Poetry. By Andy Croft and Sue Dymoke. Five Leaves Publications. pound;7.99

I Don't Want an Avocado for an Uncle. Poems by Chrissie Gittins. Illustrations by Kev Adamson. Rabbit Hole Publications. pound;5.99

The Works 6: Every Kind of Poem You Will Ever Need for Assembly. Chosen by Pie Corbett. Macmillan Children's Books. pound;6.99

Don't Wear it on Your Head, Don't Stick it Down your Pants: Poems for Young People. By John Siddique. Peepal Tree Press. pound;4.95

Don't Take Your Elephant to School: An Alphabet of Poems. By Steve Turner. Illustrations by David Mostyn. Lion Children's Books. pound;4.99

Mad, Bad and Dangerously Haddock. The best of Andrew Fusek Peters. Lion Children's Books. pound;4.99

Universal Verse: Poetry for Children. Edited by Deborah Hallford and Edgardo Zaghini. Barn Owl Books. pound;7.99

The Poetry Society website www.poetrysociety.org.uk

Log-in as an existing print or digital subscriber

Forgotten your subscriber ID?


To access this content and the full TES archive, subscribe now.

View subscriber offers


Get TES online and delivered to your door – for less than the price of a coffee

Save 33% off the cover price with this great subscription offer. Every copy delivered to your door by first-class post, plus full access to TES online and the TES app for just £1.90 per week.
Subscribers also enjoy a range of fantastic offers and benefits worth over £270:

  • Discounts off TES Institute courses
  • Access over 200,000 articles in the TES online archive
  • Free Tastecard membership worth £79.99
  • Discounts with Zipcar, Buyagift.com, Virgin Wines and other partners
Order your low-cost subscription today