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101 Poems About Childhood edited by Michael Donaghy

Legacy of a poet who understood the evolution of a child's mind

Childhood is not an easy subject for poets because, when they write, they often find it all too easy to behave like big kids themselves. In so doing, they not only make themselves look fools, they also vulgarise and trivialise the very idea of childhood. Donaghy recognises that, so in this book there is none of the rubbish so often published in anthologies aimed at the primary school market.

No: this anthology begins with Homer, rockets rapidly forward to the English 17th century, and ends in the present. The focus is not so much on so-called childish behaviour, but the way in which a child's mind works and develops. The book is strongest in the 17th and early-19th centuries. Marvell meditates, soberly and exquisitely, upon the beauty of childhood; Vaughan celebrates its enviable innocence. Traherne takes his praise a little too far - he sounds gluey and false when he celebrates the sinlessness of the child.

Wordsworth treats, acutely and accurately, the psychology of childhood. Then come the mid-Victorian contributions and, for the most part, they bang on too much about the enveloping warmth of those hallowed early days, and how, by contrast, what a terribly chilling disappointment adulthood seems. There is too much self-pity here, we feel, and too much sentimental distortion.

Walt Whitman's "There Was A Child Went Forth" is the greatest contribution from this period - wonderfully clear-eyed in the way it describes, in almost incantatory fashion, how a child is shaped by what he sees and lives through, and how he, in his turn, shapes his own circumambient world. Of the 20th-century poets, Elizabeth Bishop probes deepest, with her lovely poem "In The Waiting Room", a marvellous examination of the sheer, numbing perplexities of growing into one's own small and hopelessly fragile identity.

Michael, you have done us proud in this book - not least for the fact that, like the best of children, you lacked pomposity and self-importance, another familiar blight of poets.

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