Take time for a rhyme;Children's books;Features amp; Arts

19th November 1999 at 00:00
SHORT AND SWEET: 101 very short poems. Edited by Simon Armitage. Faber pound;4.99. TREVOR MCDONALD'S WORLD OF POETRY. Andre Deutsch pound;9.99. THE BLOOMSBURY BOOK OF LOVE POEMS. Edited by Benjamin Zephaniah. Bloomsbury pound;9.99. THE KINGFISHER BOOK OF POEMS ABOUT LOVE. Edited by Roger McGough. Kingfisher pound;5.99 (pbk). THE KINGFISHER BOOK OF CHILDREN'S POETRY. Edited by Michael Rosen pound;5.99 (pbk).

These anthologies aim to present the best of our poetic heritage, says John Mole. But it's not as easy as it looks.

It's a nice irony that Simon Armitage, the Dome Poet, should have met his deadline for 1,000 lines just after publishing an anthology in which the longest poems fall one line short of a sonnet and the shortest is a blank space (with a 15-word title).

Preceded by an interesting introductory essay in which he celebrates the short poem as bringing about "an almost instantaneous surge of both understanding and sensation unavailable elsewhere", his selection focuses attention on poetry as "concentration, in its concentrated form". The book is arranged as a countdown (13 to zero), and at most stages take-off is achieved. There are few damp squibs. Only at two and one does a degree of caption-cleverness intrude. I won't give away the secret of zero.

Trevor McDonald's World of Poetry, as might be expected from the chairman of the Better English Campaign, sets out in certain respects to be an Improving Book.

"Poetry," we are told in the introduction - which reads in places rather like the opening address to a teachers' conference - "is a part of our heritage we must never forget". "Must" and "should" are McDonald's key directives, for the best intentions but rather too sententiously. Once the anthology gets going, however, it does carry the stamp of personal enthusiasm (preferable to the "weighty encyclopaedic knowledge" praised in the blurb) and is much more than just another celebrity package.

Along with the many classics, ancient and modern, there is a range of pieces from poets who will be less familiar to many.

Refreshingly, the "heritage" is an imaginatively inclusive one, with some particularly good choices made from American poets including Elizabeth Bishop, John Berryman, Gwendolyn Brooks, Raymond Carver and Marianne Moore. Brief, chattily informative and often anecdotal biographical notes are given on many (though why not all?) of the poets, usefully printed beneath the poems.

In some cases, they send out rather over-romanticised messages about inspiration and composition, but this seems to be in line with McDonald's hope that young readers will be encouraged to "find out more about the extraordinary, and in many instances, the bizarre lives of some of the most brilliant and famous poets". This "above all", he says, should commend the book. Well, maybe.

Despite its whimsical, Valentine-ish cover and the recurrent hearts in its marginal doodles, The Bloomsbury Book of Love Poems finds room for an enjoyable range of verses, a few of which are rather cloyingly soft-centred. Overall, the choices from the past and the present are admirably multi-cultural. Many are ideal for reading aloud, some of the shorter pieces like Colin McNaughton's "I Love you Because" are winning candidates for being passed from desk to desk and, although the appearance of the book does seem at odds with it, the general impact of the anthology is vivid and contemporary.

All aspects of love are included. One particular gem, "October 12th 1872 (for my Grandmother born 1872)" by Paul Hyland, though occasioned by a funeral, fulfils all the requirements of love poem, and is as short and sweet as anything in Simon Armitage's selection: "The box we bear is cold and surprisingly light.One I love should weigh more."

Kingfisher has recently re-issued as paperbacks a pair of anthologies by two of our most popular children's poets. Roger McGough's The Kingfisher Book of Poems about Love and Michael Rosen's The Kingfisher Book of Children's Poetry are both full of good things and original in their choices. Classic standards are imaginatively matched by a range of new and unfamiliar work from many different countries, and in each book the poets' nationalities are given in a helpful index.

These books are attractive and good buys, but it is a shame that the errors which crept into the original hardbacks have not been amended. The two short stanzas from Auden's "As I Walked Out One Evening" with which McGough opens his anthology contain two serious inaccuracies, neither of which is simply a misprint, and in the Rosen there is a word missing from Kit Wright's poem - the same word that has gone missing from the same poem in another recent anthology. In both cases, a more careful look at the source would have been advised.

Mistakes of this kind are easy to make, but there is a lesson here for anthologists and copy editors.

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