Sounds of time

23rd January 1998 at 00:00
POEMS FROM THE PAST. By Mary Berry and Alex Madina. Cambridge University Press #163;5.25

Lower secondary pupils are the target audience for this interesting contribution to the obligatory study of pre-20th-century literature. The poems range from Chaucer to Auden and are arranged thematically. The editors draw parallels between past and present modes of thinking, and whether it is Chaucer's admonitory "Controlling the Tongue" or Carroll's "Jabberwocky", language is presented as infinitely adaptable within varied and exciting forms, never as a stumbling block.

An emphasis on the spoken word is the most authentic ingredient of the "active approaches" the book promises. In Elizabeth Hands's "The Widower's Courtship", for instance, Nell's monosyllabic responses and the courtly formality of the widower's advances are ideally suited to the spoken performance encouraged throughout.

The collection also aims to equip children with the terms of reference needed to talk and write about poetry. As well as "personification" and "enjambement", words such as "conceit", "aphorism", and "irony" are explained within a readily accessible context. The irony in the inscription on Ozymandias's broken statue, "My name is Ozymandias, king of kingsLook on my works, ye Mighty, and Despair", will have been understood at an intuitive level. Knowing the right word sharpens reading and writing.

In their suggestions for writing, the editors are concerned to make the poems relevant. Perhaps they try a little too hard. There is a fine line between making a poem such as Thomas Hood's "November" relevant to contemporary miseries and compromising its integrity by suggesting letters to agony aunts. Cartoons, posters and so on sometimes cause children to work at a decreased emotional and intellectual level, and demean the text. On the other hand is Auden's "Night Mail", whose genesis makes it ideally suited to the suggested advertising campaign. It is all a matter of context and purpose.

The section "The Ticking of Time" bridges the centuries most effectively.Here Shakespeare, Herrick and Shelley are in powerful collusion to persuade us of the enduring power of language. When Herrick says of his poem, "Here is my hope And my Pyramides", and Shakespeare enshrines his lover in his words for all eternity, we know our literary heritage is the pulse heard within our present.

The collection ends with "The Ancient Mariner", and it is here that speaking and writing tasks come of age. Most challenging is the critical essay on Coleridge's use of language. Children must draw on their new resources - knowledge of technique, terms of reference, and sensitivity to sound and meaning mediated across the centuries.

Jill Pirrie is a former teacher at a middle school in Suffolk

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