I like poetry, and I read it often. I even write it … No, no, come back, I’m not going to inflict it on you. What I am going to do is ramble on about poetry for a bit, and share some of my favourites with you.
But first let us pause and consider; what is poetry? It doesn’t (and never did) have to rhyme, but is any piece of text that is broken up into lines and not right-justified a poem? Well, no; otherwise my shopping lists would be odes to Tesco. Wordsworth opined that poetry is emotion recollected in tranquillity, which is one of those things that sounds good, but doesn’t really survive closer examination. I can recollect being very angry at the England cricket team (multiple occasions), and can now be calm about it, but it isn’t poetry. Shelley (or, as I like to call him, The Bysshe) said that poets are the unacknowledged legislators of the world which again sounds awesome, and again isn’t really all that helpful, even if Tennyson did sit in the House of Lords.
My own personal definition is that to be a poem, there has to be some kind of rhythm; a pulse, a beat, a thread running through it and holding it together. It doesn’t have to be regular metre or rhyme or scansion, but it has to be felt and you know it when you feel it. If you can’t feel it, then what you have is not a poem, but some chopped prose.
My other and less comprehensive definition is making the minimum number of words do the maximum amount of work. There is, of course, such a thing as free verse, but a great deal of poetry is about the writer trying to express thoughts concisely within the constraints of a verse form, whether that be a rhyme-scheme, a metrical device, a set number of syllables or lines, alliteration, or what. It is a discipline, forcing you to think carefully about your choices of word, so as to make the meaning clear (if such is your aim) through the straits imposed by the form. I would contend that it is a valuable discipline for all writers to try; it can make you re-assess your choices of words and phrasing, and provide useful exercise for your literary muscles.
(If you want to explore this discipline, and have a go at some restrictive verse forms, can I point you to The Ode Less Travelled, by Stephen Fry, which will guide you through the process, although you do have to put up with Fry being a bit of a smartarse).
I said earlier that rhyming isn’t mandatory (and never was), but if you do rhyme, don’t go changing your mind halfway through. Stick to the form you chose to start with, or it will look a mess and read poorly. Changes in pronunciation can sometimes ruin older poems for the modern reader; we can tell from The Tyger that Blake either rhymed eye with tree or symmetry with eye … although given that Blake was a colossal loony, maybe he rhymed them both with toe.
Which brings us to the topic of what poems I like to read. I have a fairly wide taste, ranging from Old English alliterative verse (which I love the flavour of, even if I don’t understand all the words) to modern free verse. It’s whatever has that rhythm I spoke of, that I can feel and tap into and synchronise my heartbeat with. Let’s take a few examples, in no particular order.
Let’s start with possibly my favourite poet, John Betjeman (1906 – 1984). Betjeman is often dismissed as a frivolous, shallow poet, his verse drenched in cosy nostalgia, his poems regarded as trifling. Betjeman, you see, committed the ultimate sin against literary snobbery: he became popular. Your reputation as a serious artist can survive Communism, Fascism, murder, incest and quite possibly cannibalism, but become appreciated by the masses and the literati will fall upon you and rend you limb from limb. Needless to say, I disagree. Beneath the surface of his seemingly innocent and evocative poems, often rhyming, often in simple metre, often couched in terms of jollity, there is almost always something else going on, a deeper, darker current that those keen to write him off usually miss. I’ve chosen a poem that brings that dark undertow to the fore, and is a rare example of his devices being more obvious than usual:
Devonshire Street, W.1 (1948)
The heavy mahogany door with its wrought-iron screen
Shuts. And the sound is rich, sympathetic, discreet.
The sun still shines on this eighteenth-century scene
With Edwardian faience adornments Devonshire Street.
No hope. And the X-ray photographs under his arm
Confirm the message. His wife stands timidly by.
The opposite brick-built house looks lofty and calm
Its chimneys steady against a mackerel sky.
No hope. And the iron nob of this palisade
So cold to the touch, is luckier now than he
Oh merciless, hurrying Londoners! Why was I made
For the long and the painful deathbed coming to me?
She puts her fingers in his as, loving and silly,
At long-past Kensington dances she used to do
It’s cheaper to take the tube to Piccadilly
And then we can catch a nineteen or a twenty-two.
Next up is Robert Herrick (1591 – 1674), who here expresses my own distaste at formality in dress. Herrick, I feel sure, would have hated ties as much as I do:
The Poetry of Dress
A SWEET disorder in the dress
Kindles in clothes a wantonness:—
A lawn about the shoulders thrown
Into a fine distractiòn,—
An erring lace, which here and there 5
Enthrals the crimson stomacher,—
A cuff neglectful, and thereby
Ribbands to flow confusedly,—
A winning wave, deserving note,
In the tempestuous petticoat,—
A careless shoe-string, in whose tie
I see a wild civility,—
Do more bewitch me, than when art
Is too precise in every part.
The following sonnet by The Bysshe (Percy Bysshe Shelley, 1792 – 1822) is very well-known, but I include it because I love the story attached to it. He wrote it as part of a verse contest with one Horace Smith. This is The Bysshe’s version:
Ozymandias of Egypt
I MET a traveller from an antique land
Who said:—Two vast and trunkless legs of stone
Stand in the desert. Near them on the sand,
Half sunk, a shatter’d visage lies, whose frown
And wrinkled lip and sneer of cold command
Tell that its sculptor well those passions read
Which yet survive, stamp’d on these lifeless things,
The hand that mock’d them and the heart that fed.
And on the pedestal these words appear:
“My name is Ozymandias, king of kings:
Look on my works, ye mighty, and despair!”
Nothing beside remains: round the decay
Of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare,
The lone and level sands stretch far away.
… and here is Smith’s competing effort:
In Egypt’s sandy silence, all alone,
Stands a gigantic Leg, which far off throws
The only shadow that the Desert knows:—
“I am great OZYMANDIAS,” saith the stone,
“The King of Kings; this mighty City shows
“The wonders of my hand.”— The City’s gone!
Nought but the Leg remaining to disclose
The site of this forgotten Babylon.
We wonder,—and some Hunter may express
Wonder like ours, when thro’ the wilderness
Where London stood, holding the Wolf in chace,
He meets some fragment huge, and stops to guess
What powerful but unrecorded race
Once dwelt in that annihilated place
Only one winner there, I think 🙂
Sticking with the Romantics, here’s a very romantic piece from the maddest, baddest and most dangerous to know of all of them, George Gordon Byron, Lord Byron, (1788–1824). A classic example of making the fewest words do the most work:
We’ll go no more a-roving
SO, we’ll go no more a-roving
So late into the night,
Though the heart be still as loving,
And the moon be still as bright.
For the sword outwears its sheath,
And the soul wears out the breast,
And the heart must pause to breathe,
And love itself have rest.
Though the night was made for loving,
And the day returns too soon,
Yet we’ll go no more a-roving
By the light of the moon.
Now here’s Christina Rossetti, 1830–1894, to take the mood down a bit:
REMEMBER me when I am gone away,
Gone far away into the silent land;
When you can no more hold me by the hand,
Nor I half turn to go, yet turning stay.
Remember me when no more day by day
You tell me of our future that you plann’d:
Only remember me; you understand
It will be late to counsel then or pray.
Yet if you should forget me for a while
And afterwards remember, do not grieve:
For if the darkness and corruption leave
A vestige of the thoughts that once I had,
Better by far you should forget and smile
Than that you should remember and be sad.
*sniff* … and finally, one from professional curmudgeon and anti-modernist Philip Larkin (1922 – 1985). You probably all know how Larkin’s Mum and Dad tucked him up, but when he wasn’t trying to shock or play the grumpy old man he had a softer side, and this is my favourite of his, showing that rarely glimpsed tender spot:
An Arundel Tomb
Side by side, their faces blurred,
The earl and countess lie in stone,
Their proper habits vaguely shown
As jointed armour, stiffened pleat,
And that faint hint of the absurd –
The little dogs under their feet.
Such plainness of the pre-baroque
Hardly involves the eye, until
It meets his left-hand gauntlet, still
Clasped empty in the other; and
One sees, with a sharp tender shock,
His hand withdrawn, holding her hand.
They would not think to lie so long.
Such faithfulness in effigy
Was just a detail friends would see:
A sculptor’s sweet commissioned grace
Thrown off in helping to prolong
The Latin names around the base.
They would no guess how early in
Their supine stationary voyage
The air would change to soundless damage,
Turn the old tenantry away;
How soon succeeding eyes begin
To look, not read. Rigidly they
Persisted, linked, through lengths and breadths
Of time. Snow fell, undated. Light
Each summer thronged the grass. A bright
Litter of birdcalls strewed the same
Bone-littered ground. And up the paths
The endless altered people came,
Washing at their identity.
Now, helpless in the hollow of
An unarmorial age, a trough
Of smoke in slow suspended skeins
Above their scrap of history,
Only an attitude remains:
Time has transfigures them into
Untruth. The stone fidelity
They hardly meant has come to be
Their final blazon, and to prove
Our almost-instinct almost true:
What will survive of us is love.
(I have been to Chichester Cathedral and stood by that tomb and read the poem. It was a bit moving).
I have for obvious reasons selected only a few poems here, all short, but there are many many more I could have shared: go forth and read them: The Lady of Shalott, The Love-Song of J. Alfred Prufrock, In The Ning-Nang-Nong, Dover Beach … and all the rest of them. Which are your favourites?