I began writing the Lifesaving Poems series of blog posts in May 2010. The idea was to celebrate the poems that I had spent the previous year copying by hand into a notebook. This is a personal anthology of arbitrary tastes and rules: to include a poem I had to be able to remember where I was when I first read or heard it; and I only allowed myself one poem per poet (yes, I know, William Blake got in with two).
Here are the Top Ten most popular poems visited on my site so far:
The connecting of the familiar and everyday to an abstract and real state of terror.
The poem which acted as a kind of gateway for me into the world of poetry.
The apparently unresolvable tension between pressing realities and the call of something other.
Redemption and healing in the art of making, speaking, listening to and reading poems.
‘The smallest things are gifts’
To write poetry, you need to be in relationship with poetry.
How far is an artist ever fully present in their inhabited circumstances and therefore necessarily prey to the guile required to craft poetry from experience?
I hold the poem in my hand, like a pebble turned over repeatedly, searching for solace, even as it grows dark.
Each participating poet had to recite from memory ten minutes of their poetry.
A beautifully paced reading, with proper peaks and troughs, moments of slapstick comedy followed by lyrical grace; towering rage followed by barehanded grief.
You can read the full list of Lifesaving Poems here
You can read the newest entry in the Lifesaving Poems series here
I fell in love with the poetry of Mark Strand via the enthusiasm of Rupert Loydell sometime in the late 90′s. Every time I bumped into him, it seemed, he would impress upon me why I needed to buy Strand’s Selected Poems and right now, what the hell was I thinking of not owning it? (This is consistent with much of what Rupert used to say to me in that a) it would often come in the form of a bollocking and b) it contained much wisdom, had I ears to hear it). As I understand young people are given to say, good times.
I owe Rupert a great deal for his championing, not least for the gift, from one of his trips to the US, of Strand’s Dark Harbor, as mesmerising and beautiful a book-length sequence of poems as you will find. Not that I would have known it: ‘It’s no good really,’ he told me, as he handed it to me, ‘but you should still have it.’
So I gave in and bought the Selected and fell in love again and the rest is history.
What I love about Strand’s work is its immersion of the reader in both the everyday and the mysterious. His poems are populated by speakers who are suddenly knocked sideways by the ineffable. Perching on thresholds of grief, separation, restlessness and solitude his characters seem to plunge into new layers of understanding about their lives in dreamy voices audible as whispers.
This is true of ‘A Morning’, I think, bringing to us that ‘deep down sense of things’, to borrow from Hopkins, both at the conscious level of thinking and experience, and that ‘drowned other half of the world’. There is a clotted Hopkinsian relish in the watery plash of syllable and sibilance in the lines:
Small waves splashed against the hull
and the hollow creak of oarlock and oar
rose into the woods of black pine crusted with lichen.
The brilliant transparency of the lines that follow it remind me of Seamus Heaney’s fishing boat poem of ‘seeable-down-into-water’, ‘Seeing Things’. They also bring to mind that other great poet of submergence and emergence, Tomas Tranströmer: ‘I moved like a dark star, drifting over the drowned/other half of the world’.
The poem’s final line is also worthy of Tranströmer at his best, recalling his famous poem of solitude, ‘Alone‘. I wonder if this is not the secret desire of every poet, to answer the call of ‘distant promptings’ where we arrive at and capture places stripped clean of both language and experience, and which hint at our pre-verbal and inmost selves, without fully revealing them.
I have carried it with me each day: that morning I took
my uncle’s boat from the brown water cover
and headed for Mosher Island.
Small waves splashed against the hull
and the hollow creak of oarlock and oar
rose into the woods of black pine crusted with lichen.
I moved like a dark star, drifting over the drowned
other half of the world until, by a distant prompting,
I looked over the gunwale and saw beneath the surface
a luminous room, a light-filled grave, saw for the first time
the one clear place given to us when we are alone.
Mark Strand, from Selected Poems (1995)
Lifesaving Poems: Tomas Tranströmer’s ‘Alone’
It reminded me of what I value about Tranströmer’s poetry: the very odd sensation of witnessing experience as though from an altogether new perspective.
I was drawn to this poem long before the opening line ‘One evening in February I came near to dying here’ took on a special resonance when I was diagnosed with Non-Hodgkin’s Lymphoma on Valentine’s Day, 2006. On first reading it reminded me of the time that our family car similarly skidded sideways on ice in the Jura mountains after we had spent Christmas with my mother’s family.
I especially liked the description of slow-motion panic and frustration: the ‘transparent terror that floated like egg white./The seconds grew – there was space in them -/they grew as big as hospital buildings’. I like the risk in these images, the connecting of the familiar and everyday to an abstract and real state of terror. But describing time as big is not especially new, maybe even cliched; and the poet risks overstating his case by linking this idea with what is perhaps obvious in this case of a car accident: hospital buildings. The effect is both immediate and otherworldly, apprehended as though pre-verbally in these highly cinematic images.
As Paul Batchelor rightly points out in his Guardian review, the second part of this poem describes the effect of this incident in the life of the poem’s speaker: ‘I must be alone/ten minutes in the morning/and ten minutes in the evening./- Without a programme.’ It is as though the events described in Part 1 of the poem take the speaker into a space in which only silence can provide succour and reassurance in a world where ‘Everyone is queuing at everyone’s door’.
There is a quiet determination in these lines, yet they do not attempt to offer an overt reassurance of their own. Tranströmer presents, he does not preach. In their take-it-or-leave-it finality the closing lines of this poem similarly guide the reader into a new contemplation of space and silence, advocating them neither as threatening nor essential.
One evening in February I came near to dying here.
The car skidded sideways on the ice, out
on the wrong side of the road. The approaching cars -
their lights – closed in.
My name, my girls, my job
broke free and were left silently behind
further and further away. I was anonymous
like a boy in a playground surrounded by enemies.
The approaching traffic had huge lights.
They shone on me while I pulled at the wheel
in a transparent terror that floated like egg white.
The seconds grew – there was space in them -
they grew as big as hospital buildings.
You could almost pause
and breathe out for a while
before being crushed.
Then something caught: a helping grain of sand
or a wonderful gust of wind. The car broke free
and scuttled smartly right over the road.
A post shot up and cracked – a sharp clang – it
flew away in the darkness.
Then – stillness. I sat back in my seat-belt
and saw someone coming through the whirling snow
to see what had become of me.
I have been walking for a long time
on the frozen Östergötland fields.
I have not seen a single person.
In other parts of the world
there are people who are born, live and die
in a perpetual crowd.
To be always visible – to live
in a swarm of eyes -
a special expression must develop.
Face coated with clay.
The murmuring rises and falls
while they divide up among themselves
the sky, the shadows, the sand grains.
I must be alone
ten minutes in the morning
and ten minutes in the evening.
- Without a programme.
Everyone is queuing at everyone’s door.
Tomas Tranströmer, from New Collected Poems (Bloodaxe), trs. Robin Fulton
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