Lifesaving poems of summer

2013-07-18 20.20.44

Now that we have finally had one in the UK, I found myself wondering recently how many of my Lifesaving Poems choices were about the summer. (I should say I’m generally against this kind of reductionist thinking: any good poem is always about more than it is about. But it is my blog and I make the rules. So humour me).

As I ploughed through the choices I have written about so far themes began to emerge. There is driving (Night Drive, A Private Life); eating and drinking outdoors (The Picnic; Jet; K563; Eating Outside); and of course sport (To My Heart at the Close of Day; Nightwatchman; Deep Third Man).

But most of all it struck me how many of the poems are about being alone, even when the speaker is in company (Results; Eating Outside; Aunt Julia; Coming Home; This morning was cold; K563). The more I read these poems the more the ‘subject’ of summer seems a kind frail pretence to explore the real action, a kind of deep interior questing which is rarely resolved.

Whether the poems are explicitly elegiac (Aunt Julia; Nightwatchman; Deep Third Man), epiphanic (Eating Outside; Jet; A Morning), or low-key (K563; June 30, 1974) this lack of resolution (Autobiography; This morning was cold; Results) appears to be self-consciously and actively sought by each poem’s speaker. These are poems where, in Stephen Berg’s Eating Outsisde, ‘the self, awed by changes,/… pauses/clear, white and unseen’, nevertheless ‘longing so hard to make/inclusions that the longing/has become     in memory/an inclusion’ (Autobigoraphy).

It Is Summer for Months, by Peter Sansom

I first read this poem at the start of the Nineties, just having made the decision to work part-time so I could spend more time writing poetry.

Father’s Day 1970 by Kath McKay

A man’s life, compressed into perfectly weighted language that bears the fruit of compassion because it is precise.

Groundsmen by David Scott

The pile of cuttings puts on dreadful weight,/ swelters in the season, and leaks treacle.

The Picnic by John Logan

 The ‘soft caving in [the] stomach/as at the top of the highest slide’

This morning was cold by Jaan Kaplinski

An ordinary sequence of events simultaneously full of mystery and even a little menace, but without any accompanying commentary or moralising

Night Drive by Seamus Heaney

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?

K563 by Peter Sansom

With half an hour to spare in a bookshop, I fell in love with the book’s cover and snapped it up on spec having read this, where it opened at random

A Morning by Mark Strand

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

Aunt Julia by Norman MacCaig

It is the poem that got me writing because it appeared when I needed it, (which wasn’t till after I had read it)

Fishermen by Alasdair Paterson

It entered my life at a time when I wanted to show poems to children that were full of accurately presented details which carried emotion in a direct and mysterious way

Jet by Tony Hoagland

An intoxicating mix of bravado, underage drinking and wistfulness which I feel unable to resist for one second

Coming Home by Carol Rumens

I would tell my twenty-one-year-old self to read (and write) everything he gets his hands on, by whichever means the poems arrive or are recommended

Autobiography by Thom Gunn

The psalm-like purity of the poem’s gorgeous phrasemaking

Eating Outside by Stephen Berg

He should be a household name, like Billy Collins and CK Williams

A Private Life by John Burnside

I felt I wanted to crawl into a hole and cry for a week

Results by Siân Hughes

And then it hit me. Like being winded. Like waking up in a sweat. Like the air leaving the room

Nightwatchman by Peter Carpenter

I have felt that I owe him my life

Deep Third Man by Hubert Moore

On each page there is a profound sense of how far words will take you, and how far they will not

June 30, 1974 by James Schuyler

Can serious poetry be written at the kitchen table on a Sunday morning after a dinner party, while the rest of the house is asleep?

Bike by Michael Laskey

He makes the ordinary seem strange, and reinvents ‘routine’ experience as potentially pregnant with mystery

To My Heart at the Close of Day by Kenneth Koch

There is something more than autumnal about the piece, the voice dropping to a conversational murmur which is intimate and troubled


  1. A wonderful collection of poetry, this gift you’ve given us today. Thank you. My morning reading just became so much richer.


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