BOOKS FOR CHILDREN : Mutant teachers and class war

POETRY FOR YOUNG PEOPLE
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The Independent Culture
WHEN you've finished reading the country poems in June Crebbin's Cows Moo, Cars Toot! (Viking pounds 9.99) you flip over and start on the town poems, from the back. No doubt about which place is better: "I'd like to go for good long walks/With grass beneath my feet/ So different from the pavement slabs/ In every city street." "A Sticky Business" unmemorably evokes a traffic jam: "Bumper to bumper/ Causing delay/A streetful of jam/spoiling the day." The country poems feature ducklings, steam trains, lambs, carthorses, cows, dandelions, conkers and owls: nostalgia for a rural childhood of generations ago.

Ann Ziety serves up poems about the grotty, the smelly and the gunky in Bumwigs and Earbeetles (Bodley Head pounds 8.99). "Anatomy of a Poet" is an internal self-portrait packed with fantastical neologisms: "her footle is connected/ to her frumpy-rumple-doo/ which conspirigates itself around/ her antiperspypoo". This is a largely working-class world of Mams and budgies, where elderly women set up future eating disorders with their response to all life's troubles: "Av a butty." It all carries a distinct whiff of self-concern, not to mention PC: "Success" contrasts workaholic, rich Jenny, who has a heart-attack at 44, and happy, slobby, poem-writing Jilly, who doesn't. The final poem celebrates that great fete in every child's life: National Poetry Day. "Will cafes give poems with each cup of tea?/ Will bricklayers start reading Ann Ziety?" I don't doubt it.

Gerard Benson's Evidence of Elephants (Viking pounds 9.99), with its flights of fancy, delicate description and bold, thumping metre, is silly and profound by turns. "A Small Star" is elegantly cosmological and ecological, without overtipping itself; "The Magic Potion" begs to be read aloud and "The Poet from Lyme" is splendidly nonsensical: "There once was a poet from Lyme/ Who could not get his poems to rhyme./ Whatever he did/They just didn't work./ He should have used a rhyming dictionary." Spike Milligan's Fleas, Knees and Hidden Elephants (Boxtree pounds 4.99) is terse, grumpy and rude, and all the more irresistible for that: "Climb every mountain/ Ford every stream/ Follow every rainbow/ Till you find you're knackered."

The most entertaining of the anthologies is John Foster's Monster Poems (Oxford pounds 7.99), illustrated by Korky Paul (above), who gives horrible form to mutant teachers, the Grumposaurus, the Glamdrak, and the evil Sliver-slurk which lives at the bottom of the river with the coke-cans and bicycle-wheels.

Paul Muldoon's The Last Thesaurus, illus Rodney Rigby (Faber pounds 8.99) turns on a charming conceit: roaming the primaeval forest with the brontosaurus and the tyrannosaurus is the little thesaurus, shaped like a book with two heads: one acts as a pencil, the other as an eraser. This little fable baffled me rather, despite the "colossal glossary" at the end, also in verse: "On the subject of the 'thrice-great' Hermes Trismegistus// or his Lord Lieutenant, Zoroaster,/my lips are sealed. I will say this: a trundle is a caster." Tough stuff.

Matthew Sweeney's snazzily titled Fatso in the Red Suit (Faber pounds 8.99) was read avidly over my shoulder in the train by a small girl. Extraordinary things happen in Sweeney's world, like a missing dad becoming Santa, a grandpa who takes up with a female monkey, a small boy bequeathed an Arizona farm. Not for Sweeney the frenzied yabba-dabba-do's of other poets: the excitement here comes from the ideas and fizzy language. At "My Party", there'll be cola made with rain to drink, and then moon figs and roast crow: "Horrible? How do you know?" Boys run away, play piano and football, have feuds with monkeys and get sent into the corner, all the time finding reasons to: "grin at everyone/ do it now, go on, SMILE!"

Even more impressive is Philip Gross's Scratch City (Faber pounds 3.99), which takes as its starting point the fact that for many kids, like it or lump it, the city is home. "Teatime, 1960" begins with a twist of synaesthesia: "Imagine listening to a brass band/ while sucking a lemon./ That was Paul's mum's carpet:/ several near shades of orange/ fanged with neon mauve./ It snarled at the toes of the sofa." "A Funny Turn" skewers the kind of seedy entertainer kids despise, while "Knucklebone Yard" is a comic streetfinder: "In Gazebo Crescent/ They're all terribly pleasant./ In Plantagenet Place/ It depends on your face." Most poignant is the fate of the shredded newspapers on trash-top mountain: "Huddled high/ above the deaf, dumb, pulping sea/ they cry./ Poor things, poor silly things/they cannot fly."

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