Books: Capturing both soil and starlight

Michael Glover recommends poetry books for children

The heady myth of Christmas is all about the unexpected conjunction of soil and starlight, the birth of a god in an insalubrious place. And, outside the pages of the Bible itself, the words we tend to associate with it fail to do it the imaginative justice that believers would argue that it deserves. Why? Because these words come not from the pens of poets but from the often stilted, scratchy quills of hymn writers who, as a breed, tend, with some notable exceptions, to be a staler, lesser species of writer altogether. Only a few of these hymns are remarkable poems in their own right - "In the Bleak Midwinter" by Christina Rossetti, for example.

An enterprise that goes by the title of The Bloomsbury Book of Christmas Poems (pounds 9.99) seems therefore unpromising and likely to be an excuse for an upbeat, colourfully illustrated and noisy representation of the saccharine, the maudlin and the comfortably predictable.

Thankfully, none of that is true. Fiona Waters, who has edited a number of excellent anthologies of poetry for children in the past, has managed to give some meaning and emotional resonance back to the event by an unusual mixing and matching of poems from many different cultural angles, including translated verses from Galicia, Catalonia and Mexico. (The only turkey in a poem in this book belongs to Benjamin Zephaniah, and it is making an impassioned plea for survival.) Tom Saecker's black and white line illustrations have a tact and a spareness that seem emotionally appropriate too - there is never any fear that the pictures will shout the words down.

One of poetry's most enduring themes is time and its relentless passage - how to make time stretch; how to make time stand still; how to savour the passing moment; whether it is possible to re-capture those moments of epiphany whose significance remains undiminished down the years. These are the themes that dominate the various sections of The Oxford Treasury of Time Poems (pounds 14.99), a lavishly illustrated anthology edited by two veterans of the anthology circuit, Michael Harrison and Christopher Stuart- Clark. You won't find too many surprises in this book - there is no poetry in translation here, and no work by poets whose names will not already be fairly familiar to those with even a passing interest in poetry, but it's an excellent piece of standard anthologising for all that.

Although Read Me - A Poem a Day for the National Year of Reading (Macmillan pounds 12.99/ pounds 4.99) comes on the printer's equivalent of bog paper, it is, at 470 pages, the best value of any of the poetry anthologies published this autumn. The illustrative element in the book is minimal - a small tag announcing the day's date above each poem - but that's the kind of little trick which may well appeal to any young reader who keeps a diary or marks the relentless passage of time in even more secretive ways. Its content is extremely various too, exploding the notion that there is one type of poem that is written for children and another kind that is written for adults. This book contains Emily Dickinson, Wordsworth, Gareth Owen, Ian McMillan, Wes Magee, William Blake and Seamus Heaney - an excellent acknowledgment of the fact that some days we feel wordy and broody, and on other days we feel as brash as the wind, and no deeper than the surface of our skins. This anthology shows some respect for those changeable habits.

Whatever happened to the tradition of publishing collections of poems by individual children's poets? Viking/Penguin, once a pioneering imprint, has gone strangely quiet recently. Hodder, which launched a new poetry series for children last year, has failed to follow it up with any conviction. Only Bloomsbury has shown any enterprise in this area this autumn, with several collections by poets whose names are already established.

Adrian Henri, one of the Mersey poets from the Sixties, has two new titles, a selected poems called The World's Your Lobster (Bloomsbury pounds 3.99), and a collection of new poems, Robocat (Bloomsbury pounds 3.99). Henri - like that other Merseyman Roger McGough - often writes better poetry for children than he does for adults. Somehow he manages to capture the moods of ordinary kids in ordinary places - their brashness, their insouciance, their posturing, their raw, plain-speaking habits, their very particular sillinesses.

But if there were one collection of children's poetry that should be singled out from all the rest this autumn for its imaginative strengths and its unflinching emotional toughness, it would be Jackie Kay's The Frog Who Dreamed She Was an Opera Singer (Bloomsbury pounds 3.99). This is Kay's second poetry collection for children, and, like the first, it's an emotionally challenging one which contains many relatively unguarded words about such tough subjects as divorce, loneliness, victimisation, being a dogsbody, fighting back, lying. This is not a book written from the lofty, patronising heights of adulthood. It's the sort of book that's managing to feel and think, both together, at the child's level.

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