When I was a child, my mother bought me poetry books.

b2ap3_thumbnail_OXFORDBOOK.jpgMany 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.

b2ap3_thumbnail_PUFFINQUARTET.jpgOften (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
To crawl.’

Ian Serraillier


  1. This made me remember Arthur Mee’s Treasury – green covered with black and white photographs and poems and bits of non fiction prose. My favourite poem was Abou Ben Adam and I’ve never forgotten how rich and exciting that book was although I had absolutely nothing to compare it with or to know whether the writing was good or not. I probably read a fair selection of the best English poetry unknowingly while I was still very young. It took until I was a student to suddenly hear MacNeice and to ‘find the world crazier and more of it than we think’ and find that poetry went to unexpected places in unexpected ways and to feel my head exploding with the excitement of it. Thanks for the memory Helena!

  2. You’ve reminded me to dig out my own raggedy copy of [i]A Puffin Quartet[/i], which my daughter obviously took to school with her at some stage as she’s pencilled her name in the front. And next to that one I found [i]A Puffin Book of Verse[/i], also compiled by Eleanor Graham (1953), with ‘decorations’ by Claudia Freedman. And in it, oh! among many many, ‘Romance’ by W.J. Turner: ‘I stood where Popocatapetl/In the sunlight gleams’ and ‘Chimborazo, Cotopaxi/Had stolen me away’. Perhaps the very poem which made me fall in love with words. Such wonderful stuff.

  3. Your mention of Walter de la Mare rang a loud bell. My aunt gave me a copy of “Peacock Pie” with illustrations by Edward Ardizzone for my eighth birthday. I loved it then and still do. It’s very battered now but it has been around and read for more decades than I like to admit to, but I suspect it started my love affair with poetry. Lovely blog, thank you.

  4. The Golden Treasury of Poetry by Louis Untermyer was an actual life safer – it saved my life. I lived in what on the outside appeared to be a white picket fence middle class white family but it was like living next to a volcano filled with violent and unexpected eruptions – but I had this book – and the poems spoke to my heart. There were funny ridiculous tales, tales of forgiveness and grace in violent times, whimsy that even at 7 years old helped me to see a whole world beyond mine. It showed me a timeless world that could make me smile and hope. It was the one book kept my whole life and frequently returned to when I needed to get away and float on wonderful words into an eternal perfect vacation.

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