The most popular lifesaving poems

Earlier this year my Lifesaving Poems blog enjoyed something of a milestone. Not as momentous as Jimmy Anderson taking his 600th Test wicket, perhaps, but important for me in a symbolic way nevertheless. If you want to know what I am talking about, scroll down to the foot of this webpage and look at the number of visitors.

It’s quite something, and I am proud of it. Not for the sake of a large number in itself, but what it represents: this is about community and connection, not stats.

When I started to blog around ten years ago, on Posterous, I had no idea what I was doing (I still don’t). I had this vague notion that I should be blogging about the intersection of poetry and education, because that is what I have spent the best part of my professional life researching.

I remember one particularly tired blog post, after a long day of teaching, about the phonics debate in England at the time. From nowhere, two very heavyweight commenters, from opposite sides of the fence, weighed in with their views on what I had written. Very soon, below the surface of each retaliatory point, it began to get a bit ugly and personal. As one slows down to look at at motorway accident, and against my better instincts, I watched in a kind of appalled fascination. I thought, there has to be a better way of running a blog than this.

Then one day I opened up a notebook I had been keeping in which I had copied out hundreds of poems which had meant something to me over my lifetime. I had begun this as I entered remission from non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma, a blood cancer, in 2006. During my treatment, which included both chemo and radiotherapy, the so-called double whammy, along with my hair I had lost my ability to concentrate on reading.

The notebook was a way of deliberately sending myself back to my shelves to see if the poems I had loved in Life Before Cancer still held their magic for me. Based on the system used by Seamus Heaney and Ted Hughes when they put together The Schoolbag, I restricted myself to one poem per poet.

It took a good few years to complete the project. But there, in my inky scrawl, was my own personal anthology of poetry that I could take anywhere. I called it Lifesaving Poems, because that is how I saw every single one of them.

After the phonics-blogpost-debacle I opened the book up one evening and found Fishermen by Alasdair Paterson (who I am pleased to say has since become a friend). I wrote a few lines about it, posted it on my Posterous blog, and waited.

Nothing happened.

No one wrote in to say how good it was. No one wrote in to complain.

This was exactly the reaction I needed. I felt as though the universe was giving me permission to carry on. A week later, I posted another ‘lifesaving poem’, this time with a bit more of a story attached about how I had first come across it. Again, the same reaction. No one appeared to be interested. Undettered, I wrote another. And another. And on. And on.

All the time I was learning what a blog post could be and how to say what I wanted to say. I also knew that I had discovered, after a false start, what I really wanted to blog about.

Years later, Neil Astley of Bloodaxe Books emailed me to say he liked my blog and did I want to make it into a book? As Seamus Heaney once said, this was like getting a message from God the Father. Things like that just didn’t happen to poets like me. So that I wouldn’t appear too desperate I made him wait a whole day before saying, yes, that would be great, thank you so much, doing invisible fist pumps while I typed.

According to my WordPress stats, the poems in the list below are the most popular Lifesaving Poems.

Thank you to everyone who has ever stopped by here, left a comment or even bought one of my books. There are times, I will admit, as Shawna Lemay recently said, that this feels like writing into the void, as when I started out. Well, lucky old void.

And lucky old me to have all of you along for the ride.

Thank you.

Mary Oliver, The Journey

One day you finally knew
what you had to do, and began,
though the voices around you
kept shouting
their bad advice–

Derek Mahon, Everything is Going to be all Right

How should I not be glad to contemplate
the clouds clearing beyond the dormer window
and a high tide reflected on the ceiling?

U A Fanthorpe, Atlas

There is a kind of love called maintenance
Which stores the WD40 and knows when to use it;

Which checks the insurance, and doesn’t forget
The milkman; which remembers to plant bulbs;

Simon Armitage, To His Lost Lover

Now they are no longer
any trouble to each other

he can turn things over, get down to that list
of things that never happened, all of the lost

unfinishable business.

Pablo Neruda, The Dead Woman (La Muerta)

If suddenly you do not exist,
if suddenly you no longer live,
I shall live on.

Ted Hughes, Wind

This house has been far out at sea all night,
The woods crashing through darkness, the booming hills,
Winds stampeding the fields under the window
Floundering black astride and blinding wet

Till day rose;

Seamus Heaney, Night Drive

The smells of ordinariness
Were new on the night drive through France;
Rain and hay and woods on the air
Made warm draughts in the open car.

Naomi Shihab Nye, The Art of Disappearing

When they say Don’t I know you?
say no.

When they invite you to the party
remember what parties are like
before answering.

Brendan Kennelly, May the Silence Break

Because you do not speak
I know the shock
of water encountering a rock.

Rose Cook, A Poem for Someone Who is Juggling Her Life

This is a poem for someone
who is juggling her life.
Be still sometimes.
Be still sometimes.

With thanks to Sarah Marks for showing me how to use the new Block editor.

17 Comments

  1. Just read Simon Armitage’s poem again – wow! The catalogue of loss and regret intensifies as it goes on to become almost unbearable. Made me wonder for the first time if the poem is actually about the nature of regret. Thanks so much for blogging and continuing to blog Anthony. It means such a lot to so many of us. X

    Liked by 2 people

  2. What a wonderful post to wake up to this sunny, September morning; thank you for sharing your story with us. I am a relatively new subscriber and I am passionate about poetry. I am delighted to say that I have ordered your book, and very much look forward to reading it.
    Mary Oliver has been my “go to” poet for almost every eventuality in my life, even more so since I lost both of my parents.
    I look forward to being introduced to the poets that kept you company during your darkest days.
    I wish you good health, and hope you are keeping safe and well as we continue to navigate our way through these uncertain times.
    Has poetry ever been more important than it has during these past six months? I don’t think so! It has sustained me greatly, which is how I found your blog earlier this year, in my search for comfort.
    Many thanks Anthony, and all best wishes.

    Sue

    Liked by 2 people

  3. This is just to say: the plums are where they were. In the fridge. And also to say thank you for the inspiration, for introducing me (as The Poetry Business does) to poets and poems I would never have known, and for setting the standard for poetry blogging. ! million plus visitors! Better than the National Trust

    Liked by 2 people

  4. Thank you for this. I have read your blog on and off for a few years, and have now spent a delightful hour reading through these various poems and your comments. I agree that poetry is lifesaving. I first heard Mary Oliver’s The Journey about 20 years ago and can still remember the shock I felt, as someone who had always assumed I needed to heed the voices that tugged at my ankles. The poem arrived at the beginning of my own journey in spiritual direction and then therapy, and I have taken some steps, but am still living into the invitation of the poem, taking in my own experience of cancer and divorce on the way.
    I have been writing my own, similar blog over lockdown: Poems for the Pandemic, sharing poems that for me speak into our weird and uncertain times. Your blog paved the way, and I’m grateful for that.

    Liked by 2 people

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