When time is out of the essence;Children's books

16th October 1998 at 01:00
John Mole recommends getting lost for hours in these new poetry volumes

THE OXFORD TREASURY OF TIME POEMS. Compiled by Michael Harrison and Christopher Stuart-Clark. Oxford pound;14.99

THE FROG WHO DREAMED SHE WAS AN OPERA SINGER. By Jackie Kay Illustrated by Sue Williams. ONCE UPON AN ANIMAL. By Faustin Charles Illustrated by Jill Newton. THE WORLD'S YOUR LOBSTER. By Adrian Henri Illustrated by Wendy Smith. ROBOCAT. By Adrian Henri Illustrated by Wendy Smith. Bloomsbury pound;3.99 each

SANDWICH POETS SERIES. LOST PROPERTY BOX. By Peter Dixon, Wes Magee and Matt Simpson, illustrated by Lucy Maddison. AN ODD KETTLE OF FISH. By John Rice, Pie Corbett and Brian Moses, illustrated by Lucy Maddison. ELEPHANT DREAMS. By Ian McMillan, Paul Cookson and David Harmer, illustrated by Lucy Maddison. Macmillan pound;3.99 each

CLASSIC POETRY: AN ILLUSTRATED COLLECTION. Selected by Michael Rosen Illustrated by Paul Howard. Walker pound;14.99

When asked for the meaning of time, St Augustine answered "I know if you don't ask me", while W B Yeats, in a definition of poetry, once remarked that "wisdom first speaks in images".

Put notions of time and poetry together as a conscious conjunction and, as an anthologist, you are going to find yourself touching on all the big themes.

This is certainly what Michael Harrison and Christopher Stuart-Clark do in their splendid new anthology. In 11 sections, the first page of each decorated with dandelion clocks, The Oxford Treasury of Time Poems first takes on youth and age, creation and judgment day, parting and loss. There's a wonderful little quatrain by Frances Cornford, "Parting in Wartime", hauntingly illustrated by Alan Marks, the finest of the book's ten well-chosen illustrators.

Then the book goes on to consider the natural world, the poignancy of family photographs and much more. There's room, too, for plenty of humour. Alongside poems which concern themselves with the evanescent, the transient, and the great unanswered question, there are playful, thought-provoking squibs like John Corben's "Doing my Homework":

"I asked my mum if she Could spare me a minute. . . I said I'd bring it backAs soon as I'd finished".

Three cheers for Bloomsbury's commitment to a new paperback poetry list. The covers are colourfully enticing without being garish, and the illustrations throughout are properly discreet in their responsiveness to the poems. With a poet of the quality of Jackie Kay, this really does matter. Her work is subtle and various, closing the gap between streetwise vernacular and poignant lyricism. The Frog Who Dreamed She Was an Opera Singer makes use of the full resources of poetry. Poems like "Innit", where a little hardnut shifts from aggressive boastfulness to resentful pathos in 16 hammering lines, compel attention by their sheer truthfulness.

There's a splendid "joining-in" piece, "Word of a Lie" and some delicious extended conceits such as "The Sick Bed": "The sick bed was sick to death of itself. Pillows feathery with delusions".

An extrovert "Girl Footballer" imaginatively paired with "No-Speaks" ("I am the child who stopped talking Three years ago. . .") and several poems about personal identity ("The girl I was is out at sea"), a subject which Jackie Kay handles with particular imagination and sensitivity. This is fine for dipping into but even better for experiencing from cover to cover.

The other volumes in this series are also distinctive, Faustin Charles's for his animated and affectionately observant menagerie, ideal for reading aloud in the primary classroom, and Adrian Henri for his characteristically inclusive rattle-bag of entertainments which range from boisterous impro-visations to endearingly excruciating puns ("There's no aspirins in the jungle 'Cause the parrots ate 'em all") with the occasional pause for longer thought.

Macmillan's Sandwich Poets series is a remorselessly boggle-eyed enterprise. Several of its contributors are capable of writing real poems, but the look of these books is uniformly sub-Beano. Fair enough for rhymes which kick off, as many do, with lines like "Gizza go of yer tootle, Just one belt of the ball?" but a thought-provoking poem like Peter Dixon's "School Trip" in which a child remembers "ladies and boxes full of men" rather than the historic sights is not well served by the accompanying stereotypical cartoon of a bearded tramp. The sooner children grow out of such books the better. Better is what they - and these poets, when they are not pandering to a dubious notion of what "kids" want - deserve.

Of course, the familiar counter-argument is that this kind of book is accessible, unintimidating and a turn-on to poetry whereas beautifully-produced "treasuries" can have the reverse effect, their Sunday-best presentation analogous to a room in which children must be careful not to scratch the furniture. Sometimes there can be truth in this, but Michael Rosen's Classic Poetry, like the Oxford Treasury, happily transcends any such distinctions. Page after beautifully-designed page, it offers a fresh, personal choice of poems that have "gone on mattering to people".

The excellent full-colour pictures by Paul Howard suit every mood. Sometimes they fill a double-page spread, illustrating a single, telling moment or line, as with Robert Browning's "My Last Duchess". In addition, Rosen offers very brief but effective introductions to each poet, emphasising the cultural mix and internationalism of "classic" poetry in English, and some helpful notes at the back.

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