The timing of the announcement that poetry would not be compulsory in next year’s GCSE English literature exams seemed illogical, perverse, even.
During this strange and trying year, poetry has provided consolation to many, even helping to make sense of things (I averaged about five Mary Oliver poems a day at the height of lockdown).
But in August Ofqual announced there will only be one compulsory topic in next year’s exam; a Shakespeare play. Pupils can then choose from two of three other areas: a 19th century novel, British fiction or drama post-1914 — or poetry.
Pity the poor student who opts for the dense Victorian novel over poetry in the mistaken belief that the latter is tricky or challenging.
‘A novel is like a long, warm drink, but a poem is a spike through the head’ declares the protagonist of Sara Collins’ Costa award-winning novel, The Confessions of Frannie Langton.
With the canon being further relegated, it has never been more important to expose children to poetry, encourage them to read aloud, even commit favourites to memory. For a greater understanding of the world, for a larger vocabulary, for solace, for fun, for protection against life’s vicissitudes, for that ‘spike in the head’: here are some collections to cherish.
Appley Dapply’s Nursery Rhymes, Beatrix Potter (Warne, £5.99)
One of her shortest works, — just seven rhymes with illustrations — this is the perfect way to introduce very young children to metre and rhyme and the charming world of Beatrix Potter. It’s also the ideal size for small hands to hold. Potter considered old Mr Pricklepin, the hedgehog, the best drawing she ever produced.
When We Were Very Young/Now We Are Six, AA Milne (Egmont, £14.99)
Who could resist the changing guard at Buckingham Palace or the exploits of James James Morrison Morrison Weatherby George Dupree? As with Appley Dapply and friends, these volumes are a good introduction to one of the cornerstones of our literary heritage, as the Winnie the Pooh stories are a little long for the very young. But children of all ages (and grown ups) will enjoy whispering the last verse of Disobedience, before roaring, ‘You-must-never-go-down-to-the-end-of-the-town-if-you-don’t-go-down-with-ME!’.
A Child’s Garden of Verses, Robert Louis Stevenson (Puffin, £5.99)
‘How do you like to go up in a swing/ Up in the air so blue?’ Whimsical and innocent, this collection, beloved by generations, somehow taps in to the collective experience of childhood, even though the world it depicts is long gone (Stevenson dedicated the book to his nanny). A delightful series of Kate Greenaway illustrations come to life, a number of these poems are anthology staples, notably From A Railway Carriage (the one that begins, ’Faster than fairies, faster than ditches’…)
On a Bat’s Back, a poetry anthology for children edited by Mirabel Guinness (Mount Orleans Press, £17.50)
Had I not found my five year-old glued to the CBeebies production of The Tempest, I’d never have realised he was ready for excerpts from Shakespeare. Fortunately, Mirabel Guinness knows better (the title of her collection is taken from one of Ariel’s songs). On a Bat’s Back brings together her own childhood favourites, many read aloud to her father, Bryan Guinness (Lord Moyne) while he was shaving.
Shakespeare, nursery rhymes, folk songs, Hillaire Belloc and William Blake are organised thematically, alongside evocative illustrations by Roland Pym.
Poems to Learn by Heart, edited by Ana Sampson (Michael O’Mara Books, £12.99)
Learning poetry by rote has become largely obsolete; something Ana Sampson would like to change. She advises starting with something short with a strong rhyme scheme (to which I’d add, something funny): my children find There Was An Old Man With a Beard by Edward Lear hilarious.
Older children will graduate quickly to the likes of The Night Mail by WH Auden or The Listeners by Walter de la Mare — especially if you bung them a fiver for each one committed to memory.
Promise Me the Stars, poems for children chosen by Poppy Fraser (Fraser publishing, £12.99)
Crammed with good things, this slim volume is a literary smorgasbord, from the first poem its editor learned at primary school (Something Told the Wild Geese by Rachel Field), to prayers, sonnets, Elizabeth I’s speech at Tilbury and Ithaka by CP Cavafy. It would be the perfect present for a new godchild.
The Rattle Bag, edited by Seamus Heaney and Ted Hughes (Faber, £16.99)
Amassed by two of the titans of twentieth century poetry, this collection for young people is arranged in ‘arbitrary alphabetical order’ — to allow ‘the contents to discover themselves as we ourselves gradually discovered them’. Yeats, Larkin and Shelley stand cheek-by-jowl with folk songs, ballads and translated works (the title comes from a 14th century Welsh language poem by Dafydd ap Gwilym).