Wild island is worth the trip

8th November 1996 at 00:00
Catherine Byron relishes a rich diversity of poetry that reaches dizzying and daring heights.

Welcome to Poetry" - how unexpected and yet how right that sounds instead of "introduction" or "preface" at the front of a poetry anthology. It's how Adrian Mitchell greets the child reader, and the child in any reader, in his wonderful Orchard Book of Poems (Orchard Pounds 9.99).

He tells us in brief, luminous prose that poetry is a wild island well worth exploring, and that if we find a poem that's worth learning by heart it'll stay in our hearts, so you can use that poem whenever you need it. Then he holds out his poet's hand and gives us a poem to follow the prose, a list of dizzying and daring definitions of poetry.

I take his proffered hand, and walk into this big, beautifully designed and themed anthology, feeling so very lucky that a poet and person as true and wild as Adrian Mitchell lives and thrives in Nineties England, and has created this labour of love for all our children. It's at once so personal and so universal that its surprisingly tiny harvest from women poets can almost be forgiven.

Grace Nichols, another fine poet we are lucky to have as an anthologist, makes inclusiveness immensely exciting, not a duty or a prescription. Her Can I Buy a Slice of Sky? Poems from Black, Asian and American Indian Cultures (Hodder Headline Pounds 3.99) takes the reader straight into the poems, with the first section, "My Kind of School", lifting off with illustrator Liz Thomas's inspired flying-carpet frontispiece into Cherokee, Caribbean and Indian slants on school life. "Chocolate" and "Grown-Up Blues . . . Children Blues" are just two of the sections that follow. This is a book of recognitions amid rich diversity, both graceful and passionate.

In Criminal Records (Puffin Pounds 5.99) Anne Harvey, one of our most distinguished and thoughtful anthologists, takes on a vital issue with wonderful seriousness of intent and inclusiveness. This is an essential book, one that should be top of the list for every school library, every teacher, every youth worker. It takes its starting point from newspaper headlines, and then ranges deeper and further in poetry's past and contemporary resources than any reader or writer could ever hope to: a work of genius that should be put in the hands of older children, and become part of our current thoughts and discussions about crime, violence, adults and children.

Judith Nicholls's Otherworlds (Faber Pounds 4.99) is the more familiar sort of anthology, kitted out with an introduction clearly aimed at the adults who will buy it for library or home, rather than the children who will pick it up. No bad thing, I suppose, except that its vision of otherworlds is also rather generation-bound, with its grounding in the more fey reaches of English Literature, Romanticism in particular, and its innocence of science fiction, science anything - let alone the rest of the television and computer game world our children dwell in.

Some may welcome this, but I am saddened by the narrow focus. And I'm annoyed as an adult reader by Nicholls's frequent inclusion of tiny snippets from longer texts, as if this were a private commonplace book rather than an open ticket to other-worlds, let alone to poetry's wild island.

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