When I was a child, my mother bought me poetry books.
Many years later, my own children complained I didn’t do the same for them. Perhaps by then I thought the whole house too full of the stuff. Too late now, though I may give some to my granddaughter and see what happens.
The poetry books I read in my early years were anthologies ‘for children’, and many of them had pictures. I specially loved the Oxford Book of Poetry for Children (1963), edited by Edward Blishen and illustrated by Brian Wildsmith, which I got when I was ten. The picture of the forsaken merman starts on a right hand page, with his fishtail and his sceptre and then finishes overleaf with his great flowing beard and sad face. I once read this poem aloud to my mother, from this very book, and she cried.
And there was The Golden Treasury of Poetry (1961) edited by Louis Untermeyer, with the poky puppy and Edward Lear’s the Akond of Swat.
I found Walter de la Mare’s Come Hither (1957) on a bookshelf in a classroom (we lived in a school) all by myself later. It’s best of all, I think, but I wasn’t truly young when I found it.
More modest was A Puffin Quartet of Poets (1958). I was unreasonably fond of this little book with its cameo woodcuts and read it many times. Last night I had it with me at a poetry reading because I was looking for a poem while waiting for the event to start. A charming woman sitting near me immediately recognised the cover and dived towards me – she too loved that book!
I like the word ‘anthology’ (it comes from the Greek for collecting flowers) and ‘treasury’ too, and I thought of these books as containers for treasure. Like the button tin, you would rummage through and find the magic ones, and sift through the rest to check there wasn’t a gem you’d missed. It’s still the same now. If I go back to these books, I know right away which poems I loved and pored over, and which washed past without effect.
I didn’t know I was reading poems by ‘big’ poets as well as small, Keats and Wordsworth as well as Ben King and Thomas Heywood. When did I begin to know who ‘anon’ was? There were loads by anon:
The common cormorant or shag
Lays eggs inside a paper bag.
The reason you will see no doubt
It is to keep the lightning out.
But what these unobservant birds
Have never noticed is that herds
Of wandering bears may come with buns
And steal the bags to hold the crumbs.
Often (but not always) it was the little poems I liked best. Here is ‘The Tickle Rhyme’ from A Puffin Quartet. It’s Ian Serraillier, perhaps known better for his children’s novel The Silver Sword, which I also loved and must read again. But Serraillier was a poet too. I have no doubt about it.
His ‘Tickle Rhyme’ taught me that magical thing which I still love above all else in poetry – the way the sound, the shape and the movement of the words can become the very thing at the heart of the text – when form, feeling and meaning mysteriously and perfectly fuse.
Thank you, Ian Serraillier. I will not forget you.
The Tickle Rhyme
‘Who’s that tickling my back?’ said the wall.
‘Me,’ said a small
Caterpillar. ‘I’m learning