IMG_20130226_065733I

I first came across e e cummings’s ‘in Just’ in an anthology, Wordscapes, edited by Barry Maybury (OUP, 1971). A few weeks before I took up my first teaching post I spent the afternoon in the children’s poetry section of  the old Dillons store near Goodge Street sitting cross legged on the floor, a wall of slim volumes growing steadily around me.

I did not really know what I was looking for; I was just following my nose. On my PGCE course we had been shown a little of Michael Rosen’s work, so I began with him: Quick, Let’s Get Out of Here and You Tell Mea joint volume with Roger McGough. (I once heard him tell a theatre of crying people that he called it You Tell Me so that when children went to libraries asking for it they would get into trouble: ‘Excuse me, I’d like a book please.’ ‘Certainly, what’s it called?’ ‘You Tell Me.’ ‘No, you tell me.’ ‘You Tell Me.’ ‘No, you tell me!’ ‘No, that’s what it’s called.’ ‘Oh.’)

I also bought Ted Hughes’s Season SongsThe Rattlebag and Poetry in the Making (for £1.75!), and Allan Ahlberg’s classics Please Mrs Butler and Heard it in the PlaygroundThey are all falling apart now, but I still have each of them.

What I loved about the Wordscapes series was that the books deliberately placed well known poems (‘in Just’, ‘This is just to say’,’Be not afeard; the isle is full of noises’) next to poems by children, extracts from fiction and non-fiction, as well as poems by the genius Anon: playground rhymes, riddles, jingles, epitaphs and tongue twisters.

Like Geoffrey Summerfield’s Voices and Junior Voices series the books also contained photographs. Some of these were of obviously ‘poetic’ subject matter, like animals and the sea, but most were not. There were reproductions of Brueghel and Lowry paintings, decontextualised close-ups of inanimate objects, portraits of farm and factory workers, tower blocks.

It was perfectly possible, therefore, to find Shakespeare followed by Carl Sandburg, followed by a sea shanty. When I hear talk of poetry as a ‘democratic’ art-form, these are the books which I think of: where all of human life, and all the ways of saying it, rub shoulders with and draw energy from each other.  In this way they are deeply political documents.

I am not sure a publisher would take on the Wordscapes or Voices series now. In an age where poetry is increasingly (but not completely) marginalised in schools it would be a brave editor indeed who decided to publish something similar. In the week where we have been remembering the influence of a single politician in the story a nation tells about itself I wonder if a more potent, questioning (and often untold) story about education, language and history lies in books like these, whose power, in the words of Bruce Cockburn, appears frail, comedic, useless, ‘like grass through concrete’.

In this age and moment when we all need to have an opinion to have it now these books and the poems in them take pause on a slower path, finding and providing ‘a way of saying, a mouth’ (Auden) that fits our breathing and that will not be silenced.

Lifesaving Poems