Books: McGough throws a party and the words all come

Michael Glover rounds up anthologies of poetry aimed at children
Click to follow
The Independent Culture
Generally speaking, there are two ways of creating an anthology of poetry for children. One way - often the better - is to invite a good poet to do it, and probably one who writes for children. The anthology will then, in part at least, become something akin to a guided tour of that poet's favourite country of the mind - and the heart.

Another way is to choose a theme of proven interest to children - sport, spooks, animals, the family - and create an anthology around the theme. This method does not necessarily require a good poet to be the editor. Someone who knows a good deal about who has written what could do just as well. Publishers often have their own favourite anthologists. This second enterprise is one of the benigner aspects of social engineering: the editor will need to commission lots of new poems from lots of poets. Much sorting of wheat from chaff will take place. Some "slots" - to do with, let's say, disabilities - will be very hard to fill indeed ... and children who write poems may even get a look-in.

Roger McGough is the first kind of anthologist, a full-time poet whose best work has, for a long time, been written for children, and who is generally undervalued as a poet because he writes so well and so prolifically for children. (When was a book of his last reviewed in the Times Literary Supplement?)

McGough has edited a number of anthologies in the past. His new one, The Ring of Words (Faber, pounds 14.99) is one of his best. McGough is enormously alive to the potential playfulness of words, and this is the creative impulse that drives this book along - the thought that, when words are thrown together at a party, magically explosive and unpredictable things do tend to happen. In this book, poems come to life as if they were mesmerising spells, jack-in-the-boxes or card tricks performed by some master conjuror. No matter whom they happen to be written by, whether it be a Dinka tribesman, that son of a word-shy farmer, Seamus Heaney, or Walter de la Mare, they seem to share some fundamental quality of lightsomeness, airiness; some capacity for unpredictable imaginative lift-off.

And so to the second kind of anthologist, the resident professional. John Foster, formerly a headteacher, is an extremely able anthologist and poet for children with dozens of books to his credit - published, for the most part, by the Oxford University Press. Three new books by him have recently appeared. Two of them, containing poems of his own, are for very young children, and the third is a collection of poems about school called Excuses, Excuses (OUP pounds 4.99).

Foster is not a magician among poets, but he is an honest and able carpenter who has the capacity to fashion good poems to order for almost any age group. Both Bare Bear and other Rhymes and My Magic Anorak and other Rhymes (OUP pounds 3.99) are for very young readers, and they use words cleanly, simply and effectively. Excuses, Excuses is for an older age group, and explores as many aspects of school life as can be shoehorned into a single book: bullying; games; vengeful teachers; the glooms associated with prolonged classroom imprisonment, and so on. In the hands of a less experienced anthologist, this book could have been raucous in mood and superficial in its view of schoolchildren. There is knockabout humour here, but there is also much thoughtfulness.

Russell Stannard is the resident scientific populariser among authors for children, with a string of "Uncle Albert" books to his credit. Space, Time, Rhythm and Rhyme (Faber pounds 4,99) is something slightly different, an anthology that mingles poems about the mysteries of the universe with explanatory passages in prose. The book is only partly successful. The prose is clear and effective enough, but some of the poems seem less magical and - and are certainly less well crafted - than the mysteries they are supposed to be illustrating. A more experienced anthologist would have done a better job.

An anthology called The Word Party (Macmillan pounds 2.95), billed by the publishers as "A World Day Poetry Book', and published to celebrate World Book Day, has no credited author at all - perhaps it could not have been published at this bargain-basement price if the publisher had had to pay a name- author too. Many of the poems are by some of the best poets currently writing for children - James Berry, Jackie Kay and Gerard Benson, for example - but the book is more of a random sampler than an anthology with a purpose. It is a book in need of a helmsman.

There's no doubting who the helmsman is in Peter Dixon's Grand Prix of Poetry (Macmillan pounds 2.99). The book rattles along at a great and determined pace, with lots of noisy and jokey poems about a gangster called Fish Fingers, teacher spooks, and hot-shot goalies. This is an author firmly in the driving seat with designs upon his readers.