CHILDREN'S BOOKS / Steak with a punk mermaid: Michael Glover discusses the child's eye view with award-winning poet Philip Gross

Since 1969, an annual award has been made for the best collection of children's poems published over the previous 12 months. This year the winner pocketed pounds 100, the certificate came through the letter box, and there wasn't even a press reception. All that seemed to matter was the quality of the work.

The award's sponsor is Signal, a journal published three times a year, which explores various aspects of children's literature. Its first winner was Ted Hughes for Moon Bells, one of the finest collections of children's poetry since the Second World War. This year it has gone to Philip Gross for The All-Nite Cafe (Faber, pounds 3.99).

Ten years ago Gross was better known as a poet for adults. In 1984, Faber published his widely praised collection, The Ice Factory, and Gross was even feted as an honorary Martian for a time. More recently, he has poured his creative energies into his work for children. Manifold Manor, a verse sequence which takes the reader on a private tour of a haunted ruin, and features a jackdaw whose head is stuffed with bamboozling riddles, appeared in 1989. A novel, The Song of Gail and Fludd (now in paperback, Faber, pounds 4.99) followed in 1991. This month, in addition to receiving the Signal Award, he will publish Plex (Scholastic, pounds 5.99), a second children's novel.

Until recently, Gross did most of his writing in the cellar of his Bristol house, a room with a tiny single window at garden level from which he could observe the huge brown slugs that the area's clayey soil produces in such abundance. Close, particular observation is something that he has tried to encourage in his creative- writing sessions at local schools, where he has spent almost a day a week over the past 12 months.

'What is poetry like?' he'll ask a group of eight-year-olds. 'If poetry was a building, what kind of a building would it be? Would it be a church - a tall, gloomy place where you tread very quietly and only speak in whispers? Or is it like a tent because you can pack it up on your back and go anywhere in the world with it? Or a nuclear air raid shelter perhaps - a place you can go to be completely safe from the world?'

He'll press the children for that strange, small detail, the thing that will finally make their building unlike any other building in the history of the world. This is poetic thinking in action: an exercise in wresting the expressive from the predictable; an artful means of training children to appreciate the depth, the richness and the economical vividness of language.

Poetry written for children, and the teaching of poetry to children, have changed beyond all recognition in the past 25 years. Learning by rote has largely disappeared. Poetry read aloud in the classroom is just as likely to have been written by the living as by the dead. And one or other of those live poets may even have paid a visit. In 1971, W H Smith began to sponsor its Poets in Schools scheme, which finances visits by practising poets. The Poetry Society, in association with Northern Telecom, has just published Cross Currents, an anthology of European poetry written by school children in Calais, Kent and County Mayo, following visits by English, Irish and French poets to local schools.

There are more good books of poetry available now than ever before. Signal 74 lists 25 outstanding individual collections and anthologies which were published over the past year. The best of the anthologies, Apple Fire, edited by Jill Pirrie (Bloodaxe, pounds 7.95), was written by children. Pirrie, a

middle-school teacher from Halesworth in Suffolk describes how poetry can sharpen a child's perceptions and transform the seemingly mundane. The poems are the work of her own pupils in mixed-ability English classes, and the best of them have a Hughesian energy, a quite remarkable and absorbed attention to detail. As Philip Gross put it, 'nothing is boring'.

These poems were all written by children, but how does an adult writer cope with the fact that he is not writing for his own age group? Are not children's writers, I asked Philip Gross, too often tempted into a kind of ingratiating silliness that they mistake for a child- like point of view?

'That's true - and it often amounts to a serious misunderstanding of what children are . . . they feel things so deeply and overwhelmingly because so much of the world is a lot bigger than they are. What they want to write and think can seem so very conservative because they're growing so fast and are being exposed to so much that what they often aspire to is a kind of safe sameyness with each other. . . As far as adults are concerned, all of us go on being all of the ages we once were. Everything that delighted us at the ages of five, eight and eleven is still there. It's like onion layers - or growth rings on a tree. Each one adds its own knots, kinks, scars. The good writer peels back to the age at which something wasn't quite faced or learnt or executed right . . .'

With Philip Gross, that age seems to lie somewhere between about ten and thirteen if the evidence of The All-Nite Cafe is to be taken at face value. These poems are troubling tales from a fairly dark continent, charged by pain: the strange dance of the punk mermaid; the who-man who hides behind the mud-mask or the biker's visor; the noises of a sleepless night; and all those strange visitors to the all-nite cafe itself where steak a la Dracula is on the menu.

But learning is through fun, lightness and laughter too - which is something that English poets often have difficulty with. This is precisely why one of the most refreshing aspects of the current poetry scene - and it is just as prevalent in collections published for children as for adults - is the strong presence of Afro-Caribbean poetry: John Agard, whose new collection for children, Grandfather's Old Bruk-a-Down Car, (Bodley Head, pounds 7.99) is published this month; Grace Nichols, whose last collection, Come on into my Tropical Garden, recently appeared in paperback (Lions, pounds 2.99); or A Caribbean Dozen, an anthology selected by Agard and Nichols, which will be Walker Books' lead poetry title of the autumn.

'They get us all out of a fix,' says Philip Gross. 'It's a proof, I suppose, that there don't have to be two separate worlds of poetry - one which is serious, sensitive and high-minded, and the other which is entertaining but like fast food. It doesn't have to be either / or, high or low, serious or funny - that's what the Caribbean poets seem to be teaching us. You can be serious while still possessing the energy of song.'

Michael Glover selects the best new poetry books for children:

Plenty of Time, Brian Morse, Bodley Head, pounds 8.99

My Granny is a Sumo Wrestler, Gareth Owen, Young Lions, pounds 3.50

Nuts About Nuts, Michael Rosen, Picture Lions, pounds 3.99

Secrets, Helen Dunmore, Bodley Head, pounds 7.99

Three Has Gone, Jackie Kay, Blackie, pounds 8.99

Lucky, Roger McGough, Puffin, pounds 3.50

A World of Poetry, ed Michael Rosen, Kingfisher, pounds 4.99.

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