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 not 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

Lifesaving poems


Waiting for the Barbarians, C. P. Cavafy Read more here

Going, Philip Larkin Read more here

Poem Without Sleep, Carrie Fountain Read more here

The Curtain Falls, Stuart Pickford Read more here

Reading Frank O’Hara in Hospital, Tom Andrews, Read more here

In a Church, Kathryn Symmonds, Read more here

A Rainy Morning, Ted Kooser, Read more here

August 1914, Isaac Rosenberg, Read more here

By Any Other Name, Tania Hershman, Read more here

You say “drone”, Josephine Corcoran, Read more here

Time does not bring relief, Edna St Vincent Millay, Read more here

my way is in the sand flowing, Samuel Beckett, Read more here

The Negro Speaks About Rivers, Langston Hughes, Read more here

The Dead Woman (La Muerta), Pablo Neruda, Read more here

The Advantages of Learning, Kenneth Rexroth, Read more here

The Soho Hospital for Women (IV), Fleur Adcock, Read more here

Goulash, Myra Schneider, from Circling The Core Read more here

After Reading Tu Fu, I Go Outside to the Dwarf Orchard, Charles Wright Read more here

Thank you Lord, thank you, Michel Quoist, from Prayers Read more here

The Sofas, Fogs, and Cinemas, Rosemary Tonks, from Bedouin of the London Evening Read more here

A Misremembered Lyric, Denis Riley Read more here

Damp white imprints dog the feet, Yevgeny Yevtushenko, Read more here

I Am Not I,Juan Ramón Jiménez, Read more here

And Yet the Books, Czeslaw Milosz, from Collected Poems, Read more here

Hamlet, Boris Pasternak, from Selected Poems, Read more here

The Secret, Denise Levertov, from O Taste and See: New Poems, Read more here

Be Here First, Ellen Doré Watson, from Dogged Hearts, Read more here

The Burning of the Houses, Chrissy Williams, from Flying into the Bear, Read more here

The Art of Disappearing, Naomi Shihab Nye, from Words Under the Words, Read more here

Table, Edip Cansever, trs. Julia Clare Tillinghast and Richard Tillinghast, from Being Human Read more here

Father’s Day 1970, Kath MacKay from Anyone Left Standing Read more here

Sugar in Banana Sandwiches,Martyn Crucefix from Beneath Tremendous Rain Read more here

Middle Ages, Tonnus Oosterhoff Read more here

In the Desert Knowing Nothing, Helen Dunmore Read more here

Poem for someone who is juggling her life, Rose Cook, from Notes From a Bright FieldRead more here

Tamoxifen, Alison Mosquera, from The Poetry Cure Read more here

Timetable, Kate Clanchy, from Slattern Read more here

from In the Wake of Home, Adrienne Rich, from Your Native Land, Your Life Read more here

How It All Started, Catherine Smith, from Lip Read more here

Rondeau Redouble, Dorothy Nimmo, from The Wigbox: New and Selected Poems Read more here

The Switch, by Laura Apol from Crossing the Ladder of SunRead more here

Underneath the mathematics of time, by Anon Read more here

Things I Learned at University, by Kate Bingham Read more here

Let a place be made,Yves Bonnefoy, from European Poems on the Underground Read more here

‘This morning was cold’, Jaan Kaplinksi (trs. Jaan Kaplinski, Sam Hammill and Riina Tamm), from The Wandering Border Read more here

Prosser, Raymond Carver, from Fires Read more here

Night Drive, Seamus Heaney, from DoorInto the DarkRead 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 PoemsRead 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

Duty Psychiatrist, Emily Riall, from A Sinkful of Sky Read more here

Mansize, Maura Dooley, from Explaining Magnetism Read more here

Aunt Julia, Norman MacCaig, from Worlds Read more here

Twilight, Margaret Avison, from The Essential Margaret AvisonRead 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 Read more here

Autobiography, Thom Gunn, from Worlds Read more here

The bookbinder, Clare Best, from Excisions Read more here

Psalm, Wisława Szymborska, from Miracle Fair Read more here

This is what I wanted to sign off with, Alden Nowlan, from The Poetry Cure Read more here

Wind, Ted Hughes, from Worlds Read more here

Riddle (No. 7), Anon (trs. Kevin Crossley-Holland), from The Exeter Book: Riddles Read more here

Alone, Tomas Tranströmer (trs. Robin Fulton), from New Collected Poems Read more here

A Private Life, John Burnside, from Swimming in the Flood Read more here

Sunday Lunchtime, Connie Bensley, from Choosing to be a Swan Read more here

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 Read more here

I am a Finn, James Tate, from Emergency Kit Read more here

The Missing Poem, Mark Halliday, from JabRead more here

Love, Miroslav Holub (trs. Ian Milner,) from Touchstones 5 Read more here

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 Read more here

An Horatian Notion, Thomas Lux, from New and Selected Poems Read more here

Jet, Tony Hoagland, from Donkey Gospel Read more here

Reading the Books Our Children Have Written, Dave Smith, fromThe Faber Book of Contemporary American Poetry Read more here

Song of Reasons, Robert Pinsky,fromThe 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

Poetry, Iain Chrichton Smith, from Ends and Beginnings Read more here

Epilogue, Robert Lowell, from Day by Day Read more here

Down by the Station, Early in the Morning, John Ashbery, from The Faber Book of Contemporary American PoetryRead more here

Birth of the Foal, Ferenc Juhasz (trs. David Wevill), from The Rattlebag Read more here

Mushrooms, Sylvia Plath, from Collected Poems Read more here

Cups, Gwen Harwood, from Emergency Kit Read more here

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

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 Read more here

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 Read more here

Nightwatchman, Peter Carpenter, from After the Goldrush Read more here

Results, Siân Hughes, from The Missing Read more here

Groundsmen, David Scott, from Selected Poems Read more here

Avocados, Esther Morgan, from Beyond Calling Distance Read more here

The Beautiful Appartments, George Messo, from Entrances Read more here

Morning on Earth, Piotr Sommer, from Continued Read more here

The Lack of You, Lawrence Sail, from Building into Air Read more here

The Only Son in the Fish ‘n’ Chip Shop, Geoff Hattersley, from Back of Beyond Read more here

Swineherd, Eiléan ní Chuilleanáin, from Emergency Kit Read more here

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 Read more here

Buffalo Dusk, Carl Sandburg, from This Poem Doesn’t Rhyme Read more here

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 Read more here

Morning, Caroline Yasunaga, from Hard Lines 3Read more here

Heaven on Earth, Craig Raine, from The PBS Anthology 1986/87 Read more here

Atlas, U.A. Fanthorpe, from Safe as Houses Read more here

The Black Wet, W.N. Herbert, from New Blood Read more here

To His Lost Lover, Simon Armitage, from The Book of Matches Read more here

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 Read more here

Before, Sean O’Brien, from Emergency Kit Read more here

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 RattlebagRead more here

Goodbye, Adrian Mitchell, from Worlds Read more here

The Tyger, William Blake, from The Rattlebag Read more here

Birches, Robert Frost, from The Rattlebag Read more here

Annunciation, Gillian Allnutt, from How the Bicycle Shone: New and Selected Poems Read more here

Literary Portrait, Evangeline Paterson, from Lucifer at the Fair Read more here

‘A man called Percival Lee’, Spike Milligan, from The 101 Best and Only Limericks of Spike MilliganRead more here

‘I always wanted to go on the stage’, Roger McGough, from Unlucky for Some Read more here

Everybody Verybody, Michael Rosen Read more here

The Dog, Christopher North, from A Mesh of Wires Read more here

On the Impossibility of Staying Alive, Ian McMillan, from Selected Poems Read more here

Let Evening Come, Jane Kenyon, from Let Evening Come Read more here

Saint Francis and the Sow, Galway Kinnell, from Selected PoemsRead more here

Ghost of a Chance, John Harvey, from Ghosts of a Chance Read more here

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 Read more here

Poem, Elizabeth Bishop, from The Faber Book of Contemporary American Poetry Read more here

Morning, Billy Collins, from Picnic, Lightning Read more here

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 Read more here

The Journey, Mary Oliver, from New and Selected Poems Vol. 1 Read more here

Early Summer, Peter Scupham, from The Penguin Book of Contemporary British Poetry Read more here

Wet Evening in April, Patrick Kavanagh, from Collected Poems Read more here

Paris, Paul Muldoon, from The Penguin Book of Contemporary British Poetry Read more here

Let’s Celebrate, Mandy Coe, from Clay Read more here

Hysteria, T.S. Eliot, from Collected Poems: 1909-1962 Read more here

Magpiety, Philip Levine, from Stranger to Nothing Read more here

Silence, Stephen Dobyns, from Velocities: New and Selected Poems Read more here

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

Wintering, Matthew Hollis, from Ground Water Read more here

Not Me, Shel Silverstein, from Poetry Explored: 5-8 Read more here

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


You can buy Lifesaving Poems from Amazon here, order it from Inpress here, or from Waterstones here.