Poems that make your world (part 1)

from Old Books by Kym McLeod (4)I’ve had lots of positive feedback about the “Touchstone Poems” session at the launch. The thing that fascinated me was how many people seemed hungry for that sort of discussion and commentary. I know I am – it’s one of the reasons why I love books like 52 Ways of Looking at a Poem and The Secret Life of Poems. And one of the reasons why I do close readings. But did it come as a surprise to so many people? Is it that we don’t talk enough about poems we love? The actual nuts and bolts of them, not just oh, yeah, that’s not bad?

from Old Books by Kym McLeod (3)Then yesterday I came across a blog post by Simon Sweetman about 10 Songs that Changed Your World, which got me thinking about the whole favourite poem business again. What we love, and why. However silly, however sentimental. Maybe it’s a poem that opened your eyes to a new way of doing things (poetrywise or other), or a poem that is the adult equivalent of a toddler’s cuddly blanket. Perhaps it’s a single line from the poem that you keep in your head as a mantra. Or a line that leaps into your mouth whenever you hear a certain combination of words (for me it’s the combination of “under___, over___”, which triggers the automatic response “Wombling free” … yes, I know, I know).from Old Books by Kym McLeod (2)

So there’s the challenge. List five of the poems that make up your world, and why (or how, or when). The five poems that you would save from a burning building. Or maybe the five that you would never need to save, because they’re perfectly safe in your own head. I know that this sort of listing can end up being skewed by the perfectly natural desire to select poems that make you look good, or intelligent, or particularly well-read etc etc. Resist the temptation! Be honest – even if one of your five is by Pam Ayres, or Helen Steiner Rice. Or Purple Ronnie. (And if you haven’t read the article where Purple Ronnie’s creator was arguing that he should be poet laureate, have a quick squizz here.) from Old Books by Kym McLeod (1)Actually lets make that part of the rules for this. You must include one poem (at least) that isn’t “high literature” – maybe a limerick, or some sort of “light verse”, or bit of folk song, rap lyric etc. This isn’t about judging, it’s about sharing. Taking part in a conversation.

Five “articles of poetry” that are part of the fabric of your life, of who you are, with a short explanation of why they matter to you. I’ll post my five on Monday, and those who feel so inclined can add theirs as comments. But even if you have no desire to share them with the rest of us, do sit down and give five or ten minutes to considering them. Your own personal poetic inventory.

Hmm …

4 Replies to “Poems that make your world (part 1)”

  1. WB Yeats – “Sailing to Byzantium” – one of the first poems i sat down and memorised. Soulshattering; a poem that changes one on a physiological level. it is Fierce Beauty.
    Susan Howe – “The Pythagorian Silences”. The opening is one of the most beautiful things written, which is one of the reasons i chose it (painfully) above other poems of hers, such as “Articulations of Sound Forms in Time” or “Bibliography of the King’s Book or Eikon Basilike” either of which could replace it in a pinch. She is one of the most important poets to me.
    Ronald Johnson – “ARK” (its a long poem – 200 odd pages, so I hope that’s not cheating. if it is, then just Beam 30, available here:
    Ron Johnson, alongside Michele Leggott and Susan Howe, has been one of the biggest influences on my own work. Every now and then I turn back to him, or Louis Zukofsky’s 80 Flowers, and remember that it is OK for a boy to write about Flowers.
    Sandy Florian’s The Book of No – Which was only published last year, but has totally blown my mind. Review in the next Brief. I can’t describe how fantastic a poem this is.
    The “not high literature” would be Leonard Cohen’s “Who By Fire” eerie, not making much sense, strangely beautiful – everything i want in a song.

  2. Ezra Pound – Canto 81
    Geoffrey Hill – Genesis
    Basil Bunting – Briggflatts
    Laura Riding – Poet: A Lying Word (yes, of course, along with many others)
    F.T. Prince – Epistle to a Patron

    Since anyone who is committed to responsibly involving themselves in poetry will have or will read these poems, there seems little point in appending a justification as to why I’ve chosen them (though it’s more likely they chose me, despite my struggles to resist them).

    Prince is a little off the curriculum, though he was one of the so-called New York school’s touchstones, especially for little J.A., a commendation which may be off-putting for some, as it was for me.

    If I had to give one reason why these poems stand up, I guess it would be because they are as rigorous and self-destructive texts as one could find in any Language Game, and make no bones about it.

    “Sad and angry consolations…”

    I’ve left out my favouite Limericks, but I won’t be the last to do that.


    1. Interesting … although I still do want your reasons for the individual choices. What is it about them, and which did you struggle to resist? And what are you offering as your low-literature poem?

      I have to confess I haven’t come across the Prince poem before … I think I shall have to sit down and study it properly. (At the risk of sounding ignorant, it reminds me of Pound’s River-Merchant’s Wife, with a hint of Geoffrey Lehmann’s gorgeous Pope Alexander VI.)

      1. Low-literature? The Earl of Rochester’s “The Maimed Debauchee” would make certainly the cut, as would many of his poems (my daughter and I find him hilarious), though that he also wrote “Upon Nothing” ought not to be forgotten. “A Lay for a Day” is also pretty funny, but directed to a more exclusive readership. Wendy Cope’s piss-takes?

        Regarding the Prince poem, I’ve not come across a better example of syntax carrying the day, nor a poem which has taken on James on his own terms and remained a poem (as opposed to a chunk of poetry). Davie thought very highly of it, and wrote of it in his book on the subject.

        I resist them, with the exception of my choice of Riding, whom I consider unimpeachable, because, amongst other reasons, they are rhetorical and therefore not to be trusted. The auditory imagination lies. And if Pound had read the Pisan Cantos in court, it hardly would have amounted to an apology for his risible behaviour, and yet they are brilliant poems –an assessment which is telling for poetry, a situation in language of which Riding was acutely aware, and she acted accordingly.


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