I can’t remember if I was six or seven years old when my grandma gave me a book for Christmas which, I now realise, probably set the course for my life – an English literature degree, a job in literary journalism. The book was I Like This Poem, edited by the legendary Kaye Webb of Puffin, and it absolutely, entirely delighted me.
The genius of this poetry anthology for children – along with Webb’s incomparably appealing selection of poems – is the way it is divided into ages, starting with six and seven-year-olds, and the way each poem comes with an explanation from a real child about why they love it.
As a younger reader, there was something deliciously exciting about daring to look at the poems for older children – Ozymandias sent shivers down my spine, without me really knowing what was going on. Looking back at it now, I see Webb put a slice of Shakespeare into her six-year-olds’ section (“Double, double, toil and trouble”), so she never spoke down to the little ones.
Hilaire Belloc’s Tarantella (“Do you remember an Inn, / Miranda? / Do you remember an Inn?”) was written about a child who loved the dancing rhythm of the poem (“And the Hip! Hop! Hap! / Of the clap / Of the hands to the twirl and the swirl / Of the girl gone chancing, / Glancing, / Dancing, / Backing and advancing”). I still remember, vividly, how the child noted the change in rhythm at the end (“Never more; / Miranda, / Never more”), and how I suddenly got a glimpse into how poetry works.
I discovered poetry, really, through this book. I used to learn poems from it off by heart to help me sleep – I can still do Lone Dog by Irene Rutherford McLeod and Sea Fever by John Masefield. I can picture Walter de la Mare’s The Listeners and how it sat on the page, and remember how the line where “his horse in the silence champed the grasses / Of the forest’s ferny floor” felt like magic to me (it still does). Alfred Noyes’ The Highwayman, now I think about it, was probably my first venture into my beloved world of romantic literature (“Look for me by moonlight; / Watch for me by moonlight; / I’ll come to thee by moonlight, though hell should bar the way!”)
Webb showed me that poems could be funny, whether it was Macavity the Mystery Cat (“he’s called the Hidden Paw”), or Noyes’ Daddy Fell Into the Pond. Pippa’s Song – Pippa is my sister’s name and I was extremely jealous that she had her own poem in the book – still pops into my head on a spring morning; “the hill-side’s dew-pearl’d”. Cats Sleep Anywhere by Eleanor Farjeon arrives fully formed whenever I see our idiot cats in another ridiculous position. I had no idea who Robert Louis Stevenson was, or the joy that Treasure Island would bring me in a few years’ time, but I thrilled to the rhythms of “Faster than fairies, faster than witches, / Bridges and houses, hedges and ditches” in his From a Railway Carriage.
I don’t know where my old copy of I Like This Poem is; I suspect at my parents’, and if I make it back there this Christmas I’m digging it out for sure. I’d forgotten the effect this collection had on me until I began writing this article. But I don’t think there’s any book, ever, to have imprinted itself on me so deeply.
I think, and hope, my grandma knew how much I loved it, because she would later give me for a birthday my much-read The Book of a Thousand Poems. As an adult I gave her, in turn, Nicholas Albery’s Poem for the Day, writing in all the family’s birthdays. She, a member of the WAAF in the war, is no longer with us, but that anthology is at my parents, and I flick through it and remember her every time I’m there.