In the spring of 1999 I got the best education in poetry I have ever had. I was in Suffolk, a guest of the Aldeburgh Poetry Festival for two weeks as poet in residence. The requirements of the residency were straightforward. I was to visit primary schools, colleges, prisons, libraries and local writers groups giving poetry writing workshops and readings.
It was the best of times. I got to meet and read with the great Connie Bensley; I got to try out ideas for teaching poetry with local teachers and schoolchildren; and I saw first-hand the triumph of dedication, hard work, inspiration and passion that goes into creating the special (and I would argue unique) culture of enthusiasm for poetry that is to be found on that part of the Suffolk coast.
For me the most formative aspect of this joyous time was the conversations I had in the car with my hosts Michael Laskey and Naomi Jaffa. In my experience there is always good banter, gossip and speculation to be had when poets meet and compare notes: who is reading whom, who is in form (or not), which are the new names to be looked out for etc. Joseph Brodsky called this ’the shopping list’.
What took this to another level in my experience at Aldeburgh was the intense close reading and enthusiasm that Michael and Naomi clearly brought to everyone they raved about. I will talk about Naomi’s recommendations in another post, but for now want to pass on how I came to know C. K. Williams’s ‘Kin’.
Michael and I were on our way to a primary school in Sudbury. Stuck in traffic, but completely on time, we were nevertheless impatiently waiting at some lights outside a Spar shop when two young girls came out shouting at each other. Michael nudged me and said: ‘It’s just like that C. K. Williams poem, you know the one, where he says ‘the wretched history of the whole world’. You know the one. You must do. There. It’s there. In those girls. That poem.’ I looked back at him blankly. I said I had read A Dream of Mind but did not know that poem.
‘Come on, Anthony, you must. Bloody hell, what, you don’t, I can’t believe, it’s there, right there, look!’
The girls had stopped walking and were now facing each other. The younger of the two was trying to reach the bag of crisps the older one was holding and eating from, tantalisingly out of reach of her sister. ‘Do you know the poem? I can’t remember what it’s called now. Of course you do.’ He quoted from it again: ‘the wretched history of the world’.
At that the lights changed and we moved off.
As we got to the school I asked him for the name of the poem. By then of course the conversation had moved on. I had the distinct impression that there would be a sizeable chunk of homework waiting for me after the residency had finished. To paraphrase what Pound is supposed to have said to Eliot, I would have to modernise myself.
I’ll never cease being grateful for that morning, and the ones I followed it. I sensed a burgeoning and a growth in my confidence first as a human and second as a writer in and through those tutorials with Michael and Naomi in their cars in the lanes of Suffolk. It was and continues to be the best kind of education, one which pulses through me still each time I open A Dream of Mind, The Singing, and the weighty Collected Poems.
The poem seems to me more prophetically powerful than ever, reaching far beyond my encounter with it through observing two young squabbling girls in a rural town on a February morning, and who, it now strikes me, will be old enough to have children of their own.
“You make me sick!” this, with rancor, vehemence, disgust—again, “You
hear me? Sick!”
with rancor, vehemence, disgust again, with rage and bitterness, arro-
gance and fury—
from a little black girl, ten or so, one evening in a convenience market,
to her sister,
two or three years younger, who’s taking much too long picking out her
candy from the rack.
What next? Nothing next. Next the wretched history of the world. The
history of the heart.
The theory next that all we are are stories, handed down, that all we are
are parts of speech.
All that limits and defines us: our ancient natures, love and death and
terror and original sin.
And the weary breath, the weary going to and fro, the weary always
knowing what comes next.
C.K. Williams, from New and Selected Poems (Bloodaxe, 1995)
You can read my piece on Michael Laskey here
You can read my piece on Smiths Knoll here
Above the desk where I am writing this is a shelf on which sits more than a yard of poetry from North America.
I decided to move it into my office for practical reasons as much as anything. There just wasn’t room for it to stay mixed in with everything from everywhere else. It seemed to demand its own space. It may one day need its own room. I like seeing it there, growing silently, year on year, like Sylvia Plath’s mushrooms (which reminds me, for some reason she is in the wrong shelf, on her own with the Brits…).
There are books by Sharon Olds and Robert Lowell and Raymond Carver up there which seem to have been with me forever. Another book I seem to have always had is Stephen Berg’s New and Selected Poems, published in the UK by Bloodaxe in 1992 and which I have just discovered you can buy on Amazon for 13p. Which seems to me both a bargain and something of a scandal. (If you look for him on the Bloodaxe site, he isn’t there either. Maybe, as we used to say about indie bands in the 1980′s, he has been ‘dropped’). A bargain, because 13p for 219 pages of amazing lyric poetry is a serious proposition, austerity or no. A scandal because I think he should be a household name, like Billy Collins and CK Williams.
Here, in fact, is what CK Williams has to say about him, on the back cover blurb:
Passionate and audacious, eloquent and zany, Berg’s poems deal with the most raw and emotionally rending themes, while maintaining a startling forthrightness of vision and a remarkable elegance of tone… This is the lyric striving to extend itself, and the human soul struggling to come to terms with all the lost and lonely corners of its mansion.
This is remarkable in the purple-prose world of poetry blurbs for being both selfless and true.
I read Stephen Berg’s New and Selected Poems cover to cover, during the time in my life when I had made an active decision to put poetry at the heart of the enterprise of everything I was doing. Mostly this involved reading, secretly, and writing even more secretly, occasionally sending a poem to a magazine and losing weight while I waited for a response. As I have written before, this coincided with the birth of my children.
I am not sure how I heard about Stephen Berg’s wonderful book. (If memory serves it was a review in Scratch magazine. Or perhaps it was a Bloodaxe catalogue). But I did decide to buy it, and read it, and learn from it. I love his head-on tackling of difficult subject matter. Far from feeling ‘confessional’ the poems sound to me as though he had no choice in the matter, simultaneously displaying self-awareness of the cost, both of writing them and concomitant silence. I think this is what people mean when they say a writer is up to the challenge of writing honestly about the age they happen to live in.
The book feels both weighty and slim. The titles of the poems (‘William Carlos Williams Reading His Poems’, ‘Wanting to be Heavier’, ‘At a Friend’s Birthday Party in the Garden at Night’, ‘Sunday Afternoon’) draw you in and give you an immediate flavour of something both ordinary and mysterious. It contains two astonishing sequences: ‘With Akhmatova at the Black Gates’ and the sixteen-page tour de force ‘Homage to the Afterlife’, each line of which begins with the words ‘Without me…’.
I thought about ‘Eating Outside’ this week as it is an activity I like doing and would like to be doing more of in this cursed British summer of ours. I admire its almost Chekhovian sensibility, with its cataloguing of ‘beautiful women’, ‘talk about work and love’ and overt symbolism of the moon. Much more than that, I am very taken with the way the poem begins with a plain description of ‘fat pine boughs’ to one of the ‘self’, twenty-eight lines later, as ‘clear, white and unseen’.
Having spent time with this poem for twenty or so years, I am still not completely sure how this change is carried successfully into the ear and the mind of the reader. I do know that each time I read it, even though I know how the poem ends, these final lines seem to rise up out of somewhere very profound and unsettled. It is here, in a garden I know and have spent time in. You have been there as well.
Fat pine boughs
droop over the vegetable garden’s
sticks and leaves,
the moon’s hazy face comes and goes
in the heat.
your skin can barely be seen.
The moon’s gone. Clouds everywhere.
A pale hand curls
on the tabletop next to mine,
there’s talk about work and love.
We’re like the moon at this hour
as clouds swallow it or dissolve so
it glides through the shaggy limbs,
full, like the grief inside us,
then floats off by itself
beyond the last tips of the needles.
The trees are quiet. In the house
my daughters play the piano and laugh.
The family dog races in and out howling.
The candles on the table have blown out.
I keep trying to explain
but when I go back, like now, there’s
the red hammock, the barbecue guarding
the lit back wall like a dwarf,
the self, awed by changes,
motioning to us as it leaves.
Deep among those arms, it pauses
clear, white and unseen.
Stephen Berg, from New and Selected Poems (Bloodaxe, 1992)
I was struck by a remark of Seamus Heaney in an interview he gave some years ago now. He was musing on how many poems can affect the life of an individual across that person’s lifetime. Was it ten, he said, twenty, fifty, a hundred, or more? This is the question that has underpinned this pet project of mine since I began it in July 2009.
Since then I have been copying out poems into a plain Moleskine notebook, one at a time, in inky longhand, when the mood took me. Allowing myself no more than one poem per poet, I wanted to see how many poems I could honour with the label ‘lifesaving’. I quickly realised it was a deeply subjective and unscientific exercise. Frequently, the poem that was copied into my book was not especially famous, certainly not representative or even the ‘best’ of that poet’s work.
My criteria were extremely basic. Was the poem one I could recall having had an immediate experience with from the first moment I read it? In short, did I feel the poem was one I could do without?
The list below is, therefore, not a perfect anthology-style list of the great and the good. It is a list of poems I happen to feel passionate about, according to my tastes. As Billy Collins says somewhere: ‘Good poems are poems that I like’.
Copying them out into my book has not always been fun, but now that I am finished, I am in possession of a deeply satisfactory feeling of having learnt more about myself and about each poem that I copied.
Over the next weeks and months I am going to be blogging here about the stories behind the choices I made, the influences upon them, and what I learnt in the process. (Before anyone writes in, I have noticed that William Blake snuck in with two choices).
For what it is worth, here are my
Let a place be made, Yves Bonnefoy, from European Poems on the Underground Read more here
Isn’t My Name Magical, James Berry, from A Caribbean Dozen
‘This morning was cold’, Jaan Kaplinksi (trs. Jaan Kaplinski, Sam Hammill and Riina Tamm), from The Wandering Border Read more here
Hamlet, Boris Pasternak (trs. Jon Stallworthy and Peter France), fromSelected Poems
Beachcomber, George Mackay Brown, from Selected Poems
Prosser, Raymond Carver, from Fires Read more here
Lying in a Hammock at William Duffy’s Farm in Pine Island, Minnesota, James Wright, from Poetry With an Edge
Night Drive, Seamus Heaney, from Door Into the Dark Read more here
A Letter to Peter Levi, Elizabeth Jennings, from Selected Poems Read more here
K563, Peter Sansom, from Everything You’ve Heard is True Read more here
Era, Jo Shapcott, from Of Mutability Read more here
Corminboeuf 157, Robert Rehder, from The Compromises Will be Different Read more here
Bike, Michael Laskey, from The Tightrope Wedding Read more here
A Morning, Mark Strand, from Selected Poems Read more here
To My Heart at the close of the Day, Kenneth Koch, from New Addresses Read more here
May the Silence Break, Brendan Kennelly, from A Time for Voices Read more here
Words, Wide Night, Carol Ann Duffy, from The Other Country Read more here
Mansize, Maura Dooley, from Explaining Magnetism Read more here
Aunt Julia, Norman MacCaig, from Worlds Read more here
Tides, Hugo Williams, from The Penguin Book of Contemporary British Poetry Read more here
Fishermen, Alasdair Paterson, from Strictly Private Read more here
On Roofs of Terry Street, Douglas Dunn, from The Penguin Book of Contemporary British Poetry Read more here
Coming Home, Carol Rumens, from The Penguin Book of Contemporary British Poetry Read more here
One Cigarette, Edwin Morgan, from Worlds
Autobiography, Thom Gunn, from Worlds Read more here
This is what I wanted to sign off with, Alden Nowlan, from Do Not Go Gentle
Wind, Ted Hughes, from Worlds
Riddle (No. 7), Anon (trs. Kevin Crossley-Holland), from The Exeter Book: Riddles
Alone, Tomas Tranströmer (trs. Robin Fulton), from New Collected Poems Read more here
Listen, John Cotton, from The Crystal Zoo
A Private Life, John Burnside, from Swimming in the Flood
Sunday Lunchtime, Connie Bensley, from Choosing to be a Swan Read more here
Loch Thom, W.S. Graham, from Selected Poems
Eating Outside, Stephen Berg, from New and Selected Poems Read more here
A Lyric Afterwards, Tom Paulin, from The Penguin Book of Contemporary British Poetry
I am a Finn, James Tate, from Emergency Kit Read more here
The Missing Poem, Mark Halliday, from Jab Read more here
You!, Anon (Igbo dialect, Nigeria), from The Oxford Book of Animal Poems
Love, Miroslav Holub (trs. Ian Milner,) from Touchstones 5
The Picnic, John Logan, from Touchstones 5 Read more here
June 30, 1974, James Schuyler, from Collected Poems Read more here
Heliographer, Don Paterson, from Nil Nil
An Horatian Notion, Thomas Lux, from New and Selected Poems Read more here
Jet, Tony Hoagland, from Donkey Gospel Read more here
Everyone Sang, Siegfried Sassoon, from Selected Poems
Reading the Books Our Children Have Written, Dave Smith, fromThe Faber Book of Contemporary American Poetry
Song of Reasons, Robert Pinsky, from The Faber Book of Contemporary American Poetry Read more here
Elegy for Jane, Theodore Roethke, from Poetry in the Making Read more here
‘No Worst, There is None’, Gerard Manley Hopkins, from Poems and Prose Read more here
Picture of a Cornfield, Stanley Cook, from Writing Poems
Poetry, Iain Chrichton Smith, from Ends and Beginnings
The New Poem, Charles Wright, from The Faber Book of Contemporary American Poetry
Epilogue, Robert Lowell, from Day by Day
Down by the Station, Early in the Morning, John Ashbery, from The Faber Book of Contemporary American Poetry Read more here
Birth of the Foal, Ferenc Juhasz (trs. David Wevill), from The Rattlebag Read more here
And Yet the Books, Czeslaw Milosz, from Collected Poems
‘Be not afear’d: the isle is full of noises’, William Shakespeare, fromThe Tempest, Act 3 Scene 2
Disillusionment of Ten O’Clock, Wallace Stevens, from The Rattlebag
Mushrooms, Sylvia Plath, from Collected Poems
Cups, Gwen Harwood, from Emergency Kit
The Middle Kingdom, John Ash, from Selected Poems Read more here
Looking at them Asleep, Sharon Olds, from The Matter of This World Read more here
Siwashing it out once in Siuslaw Forest, Gary Snyder, from Making Your Own Days
Kin, C.K. Williams, from New and Selected Poems Read more here
Why I Am Not a Painter, Frank O’Hara, from Selected Poems Read more here
With Only One Life, Marin Sorescu, from The Biggest Egg in the World Read more here
My Shoes, Charles Simic, from Selected Poems: 1963-2003
I Cavalli di Leonardo, Rutger Kopland (trs, James Brockway), fromMemories of the Unknown Read more here
Deep Third Man, Hubert Moore, from The Hearing Room
Nightwatchman, Peter Carpenter, from After the Goldrush Read more here
‘So we’ll go no more a roving’, George Gordon, Lord Byron, fromShort and Sweet
Results, Siân Hughes, from The Missing Read more here
Groundsmen, David Scott, from Selected Poems
Avocados, Esther Morgan, from Beyond Calling Distance
The Beautiful Appartments, George Messo, from Entrances Read more here
Morning on Earth, Piotr Sommer, from Continued
Exe, Alan Peacock, from Collected Poems
The Lack of You, Lawrence Sail, from Building into Air
The Only Son in the Fish ‘n’ Chip Shop, Geoff Hattersley, from Back of Beyond
Swineherd, Eiléan ní Chuilleanáin, from Emergency Kit
Chemotherapy, Julia Darling, from Sudden Collapses in Public Places Read more here
Psalm 102, of David, from The Old Testament Read more here
Instructor, Ann Sansom, from Vehicle
Talking in Bed, Philip Larkin, from The Whitsun Weddings
Poetry and Religion, Les Murray, from Collected Poems
Buffalo Dusk, Carl Sandburg, from This Poem Doesn’t Rhyme Read more here
History, Tomaž Šalamun, from Homage to Hat and Uncle Guido and Eliot: Selected Poems
Some of the Usual, Naomi Jaffa, from The Last Hour of Sleep Read more here
Caring for the Environment, Mandy Sutter, from Greek Gifts Read more here
An Upstairs Kitchen, Susannah Amoore, from Poetry Introduction 6
Morning, Caroline Yasunaga, from Hard Lines 3
Heaven on Earth, Craig Rain, from The PBS Anthology 1986/87
This is just to say, William Carlos Williams, from Wordscapes
Pigtail, Tadeusz Rōżewicz, from Faber Modern European Poetry
Atlas, U.A. Fanthorpe, from Safe as Houses
The Black Wet, W.N. Herbert, from New Blood Read more here
To His Lost Lover, Simon Armitage, from The Book of Matches
From the Irish, Ian Duhig, from Short and Sweet Read more here
Slaughterhouse, Hilary Menos, from Berg Read more here
High Fidelity, Christopher Southgate, from Easing the Gravity Field Read more here
Mercifully ordain that we may become aged together, Ann Gray, from At the Gate Read more here
I Would Like to Be a Dot in a Painting by Miro, Moniza Alvi, from The Country at My Shoulder Read more here
Photograph in a Stockholm Newspaper for March 13, 1910, Don Coles, from Someone has Stayed in Stockholm: New and Selected Poems Read more here
Machines, Michael Donaghy, from Shibboleth
Swans Mating, Michael Longley, from The Penguin Book of Contemporary British Poetry
Before, Sean O’Brien, from Emergency Kit
The Ingredient, Martin Stannard, from The Gracing of Days Read more here
The Birkdale Nightingale, Jean Sprackland, from Tilt Read more here
Prayer/Why I am Happy to be in the City This Spring, Andy Brown, from Goose Music Read more here
Ultramarine, Michael Symmons Roberts, from Raising Sparks Read more here
Domestic Bliss, Mark Robinson, from The Horse Burning Park Read more here
To Autumn, John Keats, from The Rattlebag Read more here
Goodbye, Adrian Mitchell, from Worlds
The Tyger, William Blake, from The Rattlebag Read more here
Sowing, Edward Thomas, from Selected Poems and Prose
Birches, Robert Frost, from The Rattlebag Read more here
Tube Ride to Martha’s, Matthew Sweeney, from Blue Shoes
Annunciation, Gillian Allnutt, from How the Bicycle Shone: New and Selected Poems
Midsummer, Tobago, Derek Walcott, from Collected Poems: 1948-1984
He Wishes for the Cloths of Heaven, W.B. Yeats, from Selected Poems
Literary Portrait, Evangeline Paterson, from Lucifer at the Fair
‘A man called Percival Lee’, Spike Milligan, from The 101 Best and Only Limericks of Spike Milligan Read more here
‘I always wanted to go on the stage’, Roger McGough, from Unlucky for Some
The Dog, Christopher North, from A Mesh of Wires
On the Impossibility of Staying Alive, Ian McMillan, from Selected Poems Read more here
Let Evening Come, Jane Kenyon, from Let Evening Come
Saint Francis and the Sow, Galway Kinnell, from Selected Poems Read more here
Ghost of a Chance, John Harvey, from Ghosts of a Chance
What it’s Like to be Alive, Deryn Rees Jones, from Signs Round a Dead Body Read more here
Praying Mantis, Yorifumi Yaguchi, from Three Mennonite Poets
Poem, Elizabeth Bishop, from The Faber Book of Contemporary American Poetry Read more here
Morning, Billy Collins, from Picnic, Lightning
Prayer, Marie Howe, from The Kingdom of Ordinary Time Read more here
The Way We Live, Kathleen Jamie, from The Way We Live Read more here
Dusting the Phone, Jackie Kay, from Other Lovers Read more here
Women Who Dye Their Hair, Janet Fisher, from Women Who Dye Their Hair Read more here
Who?, Charles Causley, from Collected Poems for Children
The Journey, Mary Oliver, from New and Selected Poems Vol. 1
Early Summer, Peter Scupham, from The Penguin Book of Contemporary British Poetry
Wet Evening in April, Patrick Kavanagh, from Collected Poems Read more here
August 1914, Isaac Rosenburg, from Poems on the Underground
Musée des Beaux Arts, W.H. Auden, from Selected Poems
Paris, Paul Muldoon, from The Penguin Book of Contemporary British Poetry
Putney Garage, Paul Durcan, from Daddy, Daddy
Let’s Celebrate, Mandy Coe, from Clay Read more here
Hysteria, T.S. Eliot, from Collected Poems: 1909-1962
‘my way is in the sand flowing’, Samuel Beckett, from ‘Four Poems’
Leaning into the Afternoons, Pablo Neruda, from Twenty Love Poems and a Song of Despair
The Simple Truth, Philip Levine, from The Simple Truth
Silence, Stephen Dobyns, from Velocities: New and Selected Poems
The Last Hours, Stephen Dunn, from Different Hours
Boggle Hole, Cliff Yates, from Frank Freeman’s Dancing School Read more here
in Just, ee cummings, from Wordscapes Read more here
The Divine Image, William Blake, from The Human Dress (Lies Damned Lies) Read more here
Owl, George MacBeth, from Poetry in the Making
Wintering, Matthew Hollis, from Ground Water
Not Me, Shel Silverstein, from Poetry Explored: 5-8
Everything is Going to be All Right, Derek Mahon, from Selected Poems Read more here
8.06 p.m. June 10th 1970, Tom Raworth, from Jumpstart Read more here
I’ll begin by promising that there’ll be times in your life as a poet when the problems that are a part of trying to live that life will make the whole undertaking seem a terrible mistake, and you’ll find yourself thinking there must be something else to do that might better reward your labor. And indeed some poets do release themselves from poetry; they become novelists, or teachers, or accountants, (happy accountants!) and this can happen to poets who are still surprisingly young.
I should also say though that I don’t think the decision to abandon poetry has to do with how much talent one believes one has or doesn’t have, or how much dedication, or confidence; it’s rather more a spiritual crisis, a loss of faith in the conviction that poetry has a value beyond the doing of it. Surely the pleasures of that doing are undeniable; the making of something from nothing is a delight unlike anything else.
So the conviction that poetry has significance beyond its practice becomes absolutely essential, yet it isn’t at all self-evident. Finally, at some point we have to ask what it is that draws us to poetry in the first place? It seems to me that the essential function of poetry is to unify.
Human beings experience ourselves as assemblages, almost collages, of the passional, the sensual, the intellectual and the spiritual. We are at once philosophers, aestheticians, social and political theorists; we are lovers and haters, children and parents, we lie, we tell the truth, we make myths and stories; there is violence in us, but there is also the unlikely charity which illuminates our spiritual history. And what’s more, we are both participants and observers of all these portions of ourselves, these selves. Poetry’s real greatness is that it is the most effective means we have of bringing together these apparently disparate parts of ourselves. Because to be real poetry must be true, and because it must deal unconditionally with the reality of a single person’s existence, by its definition it entails a bringing together of selves within the self. Poetry makes us more whole than we thought we could be.
And for a poem to do this, in some strange way it doesn’t matter what it is about, what its subject is. Poems can be self-consciously dedicated to the moral adventures of our lives; they can delve into that complex swarm of emotions and thoughts out of which our ethical sensibilities and obligations arise, and this will give them a certain admirable weight, like the poems of Dante, or Milton, or Baudelaire, but whether poems do this or not doesn’t determine their ultimate merit. All poems exist in the tension between the immateriality of consciousness and language and the brute physical facts of reality, and so all poems, or all poems that are not empty drums banged to garner the applause of others, poets or critics, resolve this tension in ways that make them speak both to and out of the self. A poem can seem to be about nothing at all – a clever conceit about lost love in a sonnet by Ronsard, a meditation on a moment of sensual delight in an ode of Keats – and yet, if a poem is authentic, if it is true, it will still evoke this essential unity in us, and will help us understand that we are not the poor fragmented things we can seem to be, and that our social organizations aren’t merely groupings of other fractured beings. Because poetry demonstrates that the plural is merely a convention for the human spirit. The truth is that we are born and live and die one by one, and poetry, because it speaks at once to the poet and the reader, links the experience of one single soul to another and by doing so it exalts both. That, finally, is what poetry is about, it is what allows us to be able to sit in a room by ourselves and do battle with language and form and with the pain of being able to do so little about human pain, and still feel we are doing what we know is the right thing.