The First 50 Lifesaving Poems


I began writing the Lifesaving Poems posts in June 2011, back when I was using Posterous for this blog. It was sparked by a remark I once read of Seamus Heaney’s, something to the effect of wondering how many poems can affect you over a lifetime: ten, twenty, fifty, a hundred and fifty?

Privately and secretly I began compiling my own secret anthology of poems, written out in longhand, in black ink, in one of those posh notebooks we all seem to carry to meetings these days. A private rule: its pages were blank, not lined. For some reason this is important.

I allowed myself one poem per poet, and I had to be able to give myself an answer to the question: Where were you when you first encountered the poem? (Since finishing of course I have had to start another notebook, to cater for all the new poems I am reading, plus the ones I left out without realising it).

Lifesaving poems is a hobby, not a programme or a manifesto.

After what felt like ten years of copying out poems for homework my anthology was complete. It is not the best anthology in the world. But it is mine. I know a lot more about myself and the poems in it as a result. If you want to get to know a poem, teach it to some children, as I have done with many of the poems in the list. Or learn it. Or copy it out. Or all three.

Here’s to the next fifty, the first of which appeared yesterday.

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

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

Corminboeuf 157, Robert Rehder, from The Compromises Will be Different Read more here

Bike, Michael Laskey, from The Tightrope Wedding 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

Mansize, Maura Dooley, from Explaining Magnetism 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

Autobiography, Thom Gunn, from Worlds Read more here

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

Eating Outside, Stephen Berg, from New and Selected Poems Read more here

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

The Missing Poem, Mark Halliday, from Jab Read more here

The Picnic, John Logan, from Touchstones 5 Read more here

June 30, 1974, James Schuyler, from Collected Poems Read more here

Jet, Tony Hoagland, from Donkey Gospel Read more here

Song of Reasons, Robert Pinsky, from The Faber Book of Contemporary American Poetry Read more here

Looking at them Asleep, Sharon Olds, from The Matter of This World Read more here

With Only One Life, Marin Sorescu, from The Biggest Egg in the World Read more here

I Cavalli di Leonardo, Rutger Kopland (trs, James Brockway), fromMemories of the Unknown Read more here

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

The Beautiful Appartments, George Messo, from Entrances 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

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

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

From the Irish, Ian Duhig, from Short and Sweet 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

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

Domestic Bliss, Mark Robinson, from The Horse Burning Park Read more here

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

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

Prayer, Marie Howe, from The Kingdom of Ordinary Time 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

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

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

Boggle Hole, Cliff Yates, from Frank Freeman’s Dancing School Read more here

The Divine Image, William Blake, from The Human Dress (Lies Damned Lies)Read more here

Lifesaving Poems


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