I love the written and spoken word. Love it. Books. Newspapers. Posters. Tweets. Speeches. Lyrics. Poems. Jokes. Blogs. SMS. WhatsApp. Letters. Emails. Anything written down; anything spoken out loud. Today provides a wonderful opportunity to savour one such media; one vehicle for the creativity, emotion and agenda of their authors. Today is National Poetry Day in the UK.
I don’t consider myself to be a poetry expert – more of a passionate amateur. Someone who loves what he loves. Someone who, like all lovers of culture, has his favourites and his opinions, without claiming to have enough knowledge of the genre to make sweeping statements about the best ever, the greater poet and the like. I can however list the pieces of verse that have stuck with me – through school and college – including the great joy of studying English Literature – to today, when I read poetry for pleasure.
No list could be complete for me without my favourite Irish poet – the great man; Seamus Heaney. I listen to Heaney reading Heaney frequently on an iBook on my phone. His words, his voice, his genius. His work is full of wonder and deepness but this piece never fails to make me smile:
Don’t be surprised if I demur, for, be advised
My passport’s green.
No glass of ours was ever raised
To toast The Queen.
- An Open Letter (1983)
My second favourite poet is the spectacular, adopted Bostonian, Robert Frost. His work takes my breath away for its simplicity and great beauty. The Road Not Taken could move me to tears. His work is iconic.
The woods are lovely, dark and deep.
But I have promises to keep,
And miles to go before I sleep,
And miles to go before I sleep.
- Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening (1923).
Lord Tennyson will always be on my list, especially for the end of Ulysses; “to strive, to seek to find and not to yield”. Poignantly quoted by Senator Edward Kennedy at the close of his 1980 presidential campaign the he spoke of “the words of Tennyson that my brothers loved”. They were not alone.
There is something about being from the north that leaves a soft spot for William Wordsworth and his daffodils. The first poem I learnt at school and can still recite today.
I once quoted my favourite lines from W B Yeats in a best man’s speech;
I would spread the cloths under your feet:
But I, being poor, have only my dreams;
I have spread my dreams under your feet;
Tread softly because you tread on my dreams.
- He wishes for the Cloths of Heaven (1899).
My studying of the Great War was brought to life by the work of Wilfred Owen – deeply moving, deeply evocative verse. Surely one of the most famous lines of poetry ever; Dulce et decorum est pro patria mori (How sweet and honourable it is to die for one’s country) – to be found in many places around the world, including above the entrance to Arlington National Cemetery in Washington DC and on the wall in Sandhurst, engraved in 1913.
Fans of Four Weddings and a Funeral will know – and probably have cried to the wonder of W H Auden’s funeral Blues (1938). As near to perfection for me as it is possible to achieve – reads like a piece of music;
Stop all the clocks, cut off the telephone,
Prevent the dog from barking with a juicy bone,
Silence the pianos and with muffled drum
Bring out the coffin, let the mourners come.
Let aeroplanes circle moaning overhead
Scribbling on the sky the message ‘He is Dead’.
Put crepe bows round the white necks of the public doves,
Let the traffic policemen wear black cotton gloves.
He was my North, my South, my East and West,
My working week and my Sunday rest,
My noon, my midnight, my talk, my song;
I thought that love would last forever: I was wrong.
The stars are not wanted now; put out every one,
Pack up the moon and dismantle the sun,
Pour away the ocean and sweep up the wood;
For nothing now can ever come to any good.
Incidentally, it is quoted on the Heysel Stadium Memorial. He repeated this amazing feat with another of his descriptive works that I love – The Night Mail (1936) every time I read it I picture myself sat on the train, tapping my feet to the rhythm of the railway. Extraordinary.
This is the Night Mail crossing the border,
Bringing the cheque and the postal order,
Letters for the rich, letters for the poor,
The shop at the corner and the girl next door.
Pulling up Beattock, a steady climb:
The gradient’s against her, but she’s on time.
Past cotton-grass and moorland boulder
Shovelling white steam over her shoulder,
Snorting noisily as she passes
Silent miles of wind-bent grasses.
Birds turn their heads as she approaches,
Stare from the bushes at her blank-faced coaches.
Sheep-dogs cannot turn her course;
They slumber on with paws across.
In the farm she passes no one wakes,
But a jug in the bedroom gently shakes.
Dawn freshens, the climb is done.
Down towards Glasgow she descends
Towards the steam tugs yelping down the glade of cranes,
Towards the fields of apparatus, the furnaces
Set on the dark plain like gigantic chessmen.
All Scotland waits for her:
In the dark glens, beside the pale-green sea lochs
Men long for news.
Letters of thanks, letters from banks,
Letters of joy from the girl and the boy,
Receipted bills and invitations
To inspect new stock or visit relations,
And applications for situations
And timid lovers’ declarations
And gossip, gossip from all the nations,
News circumstantial, news financial,
Letters with holiday snaps to enlarge in,
Letters with faces scrawled in the margin,
Letters from uncles, cousins, and aunts,
Letters to Scotland from the South of France,
Letters of condolence to Highlands and Lowlands
Notes from overseas to Hebrides
Written on paper of every hue,
The pink, the violet, the white and the blue,
The chatty, the catty, the boring, adoring,
The cold and official and the heart’s outpouring,
Clever, stupid, short and long,
The typed and the printed and the spelt all wrong.
Thousands are still asleep
Dreaming of terrifying monsters,
Or of friendly tea beside the band at Cranston’s or Crawford’s:
Asleep in working Glasgow, asleep in well-set Edinburgh,
Asleep in granite Aberdeen,
They continue their dreams,
And shall wake soon and long for letters,
And none will hear the postman’s knock
Without a quickening of the heart,
For who can bear to feel himself forgotten?
Just a few favourites there. Mostly well know. But there are others. They do what all great writing should do; they move me; transport me; affect me; leave their mark on me. Happy National Poetry Day.