16 Poems

There’s a text meme circulating on Facebook at the mo where people write down 10 books that have “stuck with them” and, I suppose the suggestion is, somehow changed the way they look at the world. I’m far more motivated by this than I am by the notion of pouring water over my head for charity, because I’m selfish and egotistical. So I thought I’d post a similar thing here with poems, and invite other poem-readers and poem-writers to do the same, either on their Facebook pages, on their blogs or in their heads.

I’ve chosen 16 because I’m greedy, and because it’s a better number than 10, being divisible by 8, 4, 2 and 1 rather than just 5 and 2 and 1. (Stupid 10.)

Without further ado, here are the first 16 I thought of without repeating a poet (sorry Frosty) and arranged afterwards into roughly chronological order from the point in time when they stuck with me.

Most of the poets are dead, but that’s not my fault because I didn’t kill them.

1. The Listeners – Walter de la Mere
I’m very conscious that this was my favourite poem when I was young (of the many, many, brilliant canonical poems that tend to spiral into one’s life via a combination of school, parents, and Radio 4.) It invites the reader to make a lot of presumptions and decisions, which I wish more of my poems did. It’s mysterious, ambiguous, possibly a bit gothic. And I still love it. I once wrote a fairytale based on it, and it was the first thing I ever had published, (I think you can read it here. It’s not as good as the poem.)

2. The Stolen Child – W B Yeats
I first heard this fairy-abduction-themed Yeats poem as a Waterboys song with a spoken word element on the (amazing) album Fisherman’s Blues. It works just as well read in my head or aloud, but that recording is a relatively rare example of a poem done justice with music. This poem helped me become interested in the Waterboys, Yeats, and fairy mythology in roughly equal measures.

3. Three Fishers – Charles Kingsley
Another poem with a lyrical bent. There’s a lovely version by Canadian folk band The Duhks, but its music had etched it in my head many years before I heard it (in any form) aloud. Its tragic, historical and romantic elements appealed very much to the younger me and there’s a hard enough edge for me not to have shunned it in my cynical middle-age.

4. Indoor Games Near Newbury – John Betjeman
It can be no coincidence that so many poems I connected with in earlier life had either musical accompaniment or musical elements. I was in 6th form when I first got into John Betjeman’s poems by way of a book, but I’d heard Banana Blush many years before. There are many poems it could be (and not all of them were given the musical treatment as far as I know) but this is the most quintessential of the lot for me.

5. The Love Song of J Alfred Prufrock – T S Eliot
Memories of reading this aloud (it’s not a song, controversially) with my housemates in the second year of university, around our beer-sticky ashtray-graveyard kitchen table, are entirely untarnished by how stereotypically studenty that sounds in retrospect. I used to think it was the best poem in the world (it took The Listeners’ place in my heart) but in later years I’ve come to suspect that a poem about a guy’s sexual angst shouldn’t occupy that position, no matter how absolutely and enviably perfect is its execution of language, emotion, memory, and existential dread (everyone’s favourite things, right?). It may not have invented Modernism in reality; perhaps that claim goes to Hope Mirrlees’s much less well-known Paris? And I’d love to have that in my 16, but (much like with Eliot’s The Wasteland) I can’t claim to have read it start-to-finish in one sitting and really felt like I got it. No, for me at least, this poem invented modernism. And in spite of the very real curse that I honestly still believe Eliot and his pals, and modernism, have laid upon poetry, this is still worth it. And the Hollow Men. But not that hippo one.

6. Lady Lazarus – Sylvia Plath
There are two types of people in the world: people who have read Lady Lazarus and recognized it for the enormous horrorful beautiful literary colossus that it is, and those who haven’t read it. Any alleged third type are not people as far as I’m concerned. Probably even more than Eliot (although Proofrock remained unshook at the top of my mental slush pile) Plath’s way with words in this poem in particular (but also in others from Ariel) represents what I feel is the enviable balance between poetic and natural, and traditional and modern, that most of us will never quite get, no matter how long we spend trying. (And, yeah, heaven forbid we should try, right Chuck?)

7. Not Waving but Drowning – Stevie Smith
If Plath’s best works are grotesquely beautiful poetic sculptures, poems like “Not Waving…” by Stevie Smith seem like perfectly executed origami swans. It’s certainly the former that I’m likelier to reach for myself, but when you see one of these lying around, you can’t help but pick it up and marvel at its folds.

8. Ah, Are You Digging On My Grave? – Thomas Hardy
I love Hardy’s novels and Hardy’s poems, and I think he gets bad press nowadays for not having been modern enough. This poem alone proves for me that he’s worth the time and attention of a modern poetry-reading populace. (For further proof, try the Ruined Maid.) It’s funny, it’s grim, and it has questions to ask about the bigger things that bother us. And it’s got a dog in it. What’s not to like?

9. Killing Time – Simon Armitage
This was in the list of books I cited, so I’m cheating having it in both. It’s a 1,000-line poem commissioned as some sort of state-of-the-nation sci-fi satire TV drama in poem form. I’ve always liked Simon Armitage’s poetry, and in spite of believing that as a CBE-toting Radio 4-ubiquitous established canonical living breathing idea of what a poet should be (TM) he’s somehow The Enemy, poems/collections like Killing Time satisfy me that he deserves to be read. I mean, for one thing, it’s just so readable. And there’s no reason poetry shouldn’t be that.

10. Out, Out— – Robert Frost
Of the many Frost poems I could include here (Woods, Road, Tidings, Acquainted) I choose this because it jumped out and sliced into me just like the circular saw in the first line. It’s startling in its depiction of contemporary life, work, technology, society, combined with the timeless terror of the unknown. It’s a perfect poem, even though it has an em-dash in the title, and very, very bleak in a way that perhaps you’d expect the Hardy poem on the same subject was more likely to be.

11. Castles in Spain – Lloyd James
This is a song, I guess. But the lyrics of Naevus (Lloyd James’s band) are sold in printed form, and often performed in something I’d call close to sprechgesang. The words are barbs that draw you in; it was certainly the words that did so for me when first I saw the band performing live. It seemed at first to be something of a surrealist dadaist collage, but on closer inspection there are long, fully formed, almost labyrinthine yet grammatically robust sentences going on. The subversive presentation of mundane information in Naevus lyrics (as superbly illustrated here) offers a perspective that’s often absent from the scattershot word-association of many less conventional writers of songs or poems. There are brief moments of absolute clarity and certain truth that slip through the fingers when grasped. I wouldn’t presume to be able to tell you exactly what Castles in Spain is about, but so much room is left for the reader’s interpretation that listening becomes an empowering, almost artistic, act in itself. The words of Naevus songs stick to my brain like magnets on a fridge door. It is a way of writing that I am drawn to perhaps because it is so alien to me and so beyond my capability. Certainly it better fits my own ill-defined notions of poetry than most lyrics, or indeed poems, I come across.

12. My Pretty Rose Tree – William Blake
Any number of Blake poems could be in here, but this seems so concise and perfect in execution that it sums up everything Blakey about Blake for me. Romanticism, darkness, angst, nature, etc. It’s all here. And it’s Blake, so it deserves to be.

13. Goblin Market – Christina Rossetti
This is now my favourite poem. A story of sisterhood, forbidden fruit and creepy critters that exists in its own world and on its own terms; it invites the reader to interpret in so many ways, but ultimately, I think, defies any kind of academic reading by the sheer weight and execution of its own vivid, sensual fantasy narrative. I like many of her other poems, but none are even close to being like this, let alone as good as it. I don’t know if it could be as good if it were not so long; certainly the narrative is important. It is almost childlike, and seems to concern children, but its author was adamant that it was not meant for children, and I feel I couldn’t possibly have enjoyed it so much had I read it as a child. See it as an expression of feminist politics, repressed homosexuality, proto-anticapitalism, and/or ecological allegory if you will. I just see it as a perfect poem. And a very long one at that.

14. The Cost of Living – Isabel Rogers
Shortlisted in the same competition as one of my as-yet-unpublish’ds in 2013, this poem was my immediate favourite from the Live Canon collection when I received a complimentary hard copy of the printed shortlist last autumn. Partly due to its immediacy, I suppose; its language (though poetic) is plain, and its concept apparent from the off. (That’s rare in poetry, you know.) But beyond that, its treatment of a subject both political and personal is so well measured that it can command your emotions without you feeling like you’re being commanded. I suppose it invites them? Whatever it is that it does, it does it again and again, and it remains my favourite almost a year on, which I suppose I expected, but has also risen through my subconscious to bob about in the private pool where all my most treasured notions of poetry share space. And one never expects that, because although I enjoy a lot of poems, and read new poetry with more regularity than I used to, they rarely stick.

15. Mondeo Man – Luke Wright
I still can’t work out if Luke Wright’s best work is that which least lends itself to performance, or whether I just happen to especially enjoy reading those I haven’t yet seen him perform, by coincidence. I saw him before I read him, you see, and enjoyed a couple of performances before moving sufficiently far from civilization to no longer be bothered by the likelihood of enjoying spoken word or performed poetry by any other means than YouTube; which, although it’s my only performance outlet, I must admit as a consumer, seems a poor substitute for a real live experience. I enjoyed the majority of Wright’s collection Mondeo Man. Sod it, I enjoyed all of it I suppose. But where some of the more jovial satirical affairs tested my admittedly-somewhat-lacking patience on rereading, his more “serious” poems, like this, really have stuck. And this in particular convinced me he’s not only a poet worth reading, but a poet more worth reading than most who would never dream of calling themselves performers, or indeed of performing, and presumably thus demand to be read where I imagine Wright would rather be heard. What seems to be an earlier version of the poem is online here. I’m not sure if that’s a mistake or not.

16. Travelling Light – ?
Last but by no means least is a poem I read as part of a competition I entered this year in which everyone who enters is also a judge. This is what it was called, and I hope I’m not infringing anyone’s copyright by saying so. I can’t (or won’t) reproduce any of it here, but it certainly made me think more competitions should involve the competitors in judging, because a few poems I read as part of the process have stuck with me. This, which I very much hope has won (especially now I know I haven’t!) in particular. I look forward to linking you to the ebook in autumn, regardless of whether it’s won, as I know it will be in there, as will one of my own, which is only slightly less good.

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