This is a different league from Christopher Robin: Forget whimsy. Asked to name their favourite poems, children cite John Agard's robust calypso verse, says Jenny Gilbert

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CHILDREN'S poetry has come a long way since Christopher Robin worried about the deficiencies of his nanny's dressing gown ('It's a beautiful blue but it hasn't a hood. God bless Nanny and make her good'). Forget condescending adult whimsy. Children's poetry has toughened up and broadened out. No longer confined to skimpy paperbacks, in the last few years it has broken into the publishing big time of luscious, lovely-to-hold picture-books. Bookshops report brisk sales in the run-up to Christmas.

Ask children to name their favourite poets and - unlike their parents - they may well be able to reel off a handful of names, and John Agard will probably be among them. In the 15 years since arriving in Britain from his native Guyana, he has performed his work in more than 2,000 schools, leaving a generation of confirmed poetry-lovers in his wake. Teachers who have seen him in action trip over their superlatives: inspiring, thrilling, spellbinding.

Yet those who come to the books cold often don't know what to do with them: 'All very well, but how do we read it out loud?' They have a point. Take a few lines from his latest volume, The Emperor's Dan-Dan ( pounds 7.95), a picture-book in carnival colours that retells Hans Christian Andersen's story of the emperor's new clothes in calypso style: 'Soon the Emperor causing big hullabaloo/

people outside pushing for a better view/ They can't believe they seeing right/ the Emperor stark naked, only he crown shining bright'. The verbal images are sparkling clear, the lilting, rhythmic Caribbean voice sings from the page, but you can understand why an Anglo-Saxon in Norwich or Basingstoke might feel self-conscious standing in front of a class with it.

Yet Agard insists that he writes for children regardless of their cultural background (some of his poems use standard English, others use Caribbean Creole in varying degrees). Children apparently have no problem with the latter, they plunge straight in, but adults . . . . 'Linguistic hang- ups are part of the adult personality,' he says, 'especially, I would say, of the English personality.'

Agard spent his own schooldays in Georgetown, a small breezy city on the northern seaboard of South America. For English A-level he did the English Romantics, 'and no one ever agonised about whether or not to teach Wordsworth because they couldn't do a convincing Lake District accent. You just responded to the magic of the words'.

Later, he worked in a library and then as a newspaper sub-editor. He had two books published in Guyana before following his father, in 1977, to Britain, where lectured for the Commonwealth Institute in London. He now writes and performs full-time and lives with the Guyanese poet Grace Nicols in Lewes, Sussex. They have collaborated on several projects, including a collection of old and original Caribbean nursery rhymes, verses that display in miniature all the clarity and poise and creative potential of the Caribbean language: 'You could hickory me/ You could dickory me/ or lock me in a dock/ I still say I didn't run up no clock.'

Agard is delighted to think that his work could be 'building bridges' for black Britons who, if they are second or third generation, might have no experience of their own oral tradition. But he is just as keen for it to be read and heard simply as poetry - by everyone. Multi-cultural education is not just for places such as Brixton and Bradford, he insists.

He is eager to correct the notion that Caribbeans speak 'just an ungrammatical form of English. We call it the Creole language. As a result of the transatlantic journey, and slavery, the people of the Caribbean had to learn an alien tongue - English - and brought to it their African consciousness. Linguists have traced elements of Creole syntax and grammar to specific African languages.'

But these are grown-up concerns; children take language as it comes. They don't shun Little Miss Muffet because the word tuffet has fallen out of use. And a refrain such as 'me go hug-up mango tree' (from one of the Agard/Nichols nursery rhymes) gives a wonderful picture of how a child might climb. John Agard and Grace Nichols will be taking the floor tomorrow in an evening's poetry jamboree at the Commonwealth Institute - a chance for miffed adults to catch up on the life and breadth of current children's poetry. Michael Rosen, Brian Patten and Roger McGough and an anthology-ful of fellow poets will be there, too. But Christopher Robin and Alice won't be

attending.

(Photograph omitted)

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