It’s been a while, but here I am at last.
Some time ago I wrote a post listing some of my favourite books. I badly need to update it and will do so before too long. But today, given it is National Poetry Day here in NZ, I want to talk poetry.
I love reading poetry and I dabble in writing it but I wish I was better at it. To me, reading a good poem is like being gifted a rare insight into what makes us human. The melody of the words, the musicality and richness of the rhythm, the thought-provoking imagery and mystery: all of these make great poetry a joy to read. As a writer it is important to read poetry just as much as fiction. Good poets can teach us much about how to wield the magic of language.
I’d like to share ten of my favourite poems with you. Some are more recent discoveries. Others are works that I fell in love with a long time ago and which have stayed with me, silent and lyrical companions, through the years. I have reproduced the shorter poems here and provided links to the longer ones where possible.
1. Dover Beach, Matthew Arnold
This poem grabbed me from the first verse. A Victorian poet, many of Arnold’s poems speak about loss and longing, doubt, disillusionment and fear. (He was a cheery soul. You’d want this guy at your next party.) The last stanza, in my opinion, is one of the best (and most depressing) in the English language.
2. The Lady of Shallot, Alfred Tennyson
I love this poem not only because it is beautiful, but because one of my favourite singers, Loreena McKennitt, turned it into a song (listen here), and because 19th century artist John William Waterhouse painted her, and I have it on a wall in my office:
3. Before the Fall, Rachel McAlpine
This tender reflection on the innocence and loss of childhood touches me every time I read it. And it makes me think of my father, who is a retired Presbyterian Minister.
After the bath with ragged towels
would dry us very carefully:
six little wriggly girls,
each with foamy pigtails,
two rainy legs,
the invisible back we couldn’t reach,
a small wet heart,
and toes, ten each.
He dried us all
the way he gave the parish
as if it was important,
as if God was fair,
as if it was really simple
if you would just be still
4. Paradise Lost, John Milton.
What can I say. One of the most controversial, thrilling masterpieces in the history of poetry. Read it. It’s hard going, but worth it. And…my novel-in-progress is loosely based on some aspects of it.
5. The Man Under the Bed, Erica Jong
Brilliant poem lamenting the impossibility of finding the perfect man. Amen, sister.
6. somewhere i have never travelled, gladly beyond – E.E. Cummings
I just adore the unexpected use of language. A thing of beauty.
7. Belfast Confetti, Ciaran Carson
I wrote my Masters thesis on Carson and the poetry of the Northern Irish Troubles. This is one of his best. Like me, he is fascinated with the mechanics of language. I had the privilege of listening as Carson himself read this poem just for me in a private interview. I felt like royalty.
8. You, C K Stead
Why does this poem bring a tear to my eye? The love between a couple after 50 years of marriage is just so beautifully and poignantly presented.
Our friends’ wedding:
I’d lied, called it a funeral
to get army leave
so I could be with you.
It was surprise, a present
and your blush of pleasure
cheered me like a crowd.
So here we are on the step
above ‘the happy couple’
who will one day divorce-
looking into the future
which is now.
Ten friends together
in that photograph.
Fifty years on
and four are dead.
Who will be next?
Who will be last
and put out the light?
It’s time to tell you again
how much I loved the girl
who blushed her welcome.
Forgive my trespasses.
Stay close. Hold my hand.
9. Love After Love, Derek Walcott
I have this one pinned above my desk. It reminds me of the importance of knowing and loving your authentic self.
The time will come
when, with elation
you will greet yourself arriving
at your own door, in your own mirror
and each will smile at the other’s welcome,
and say, sit here. Eat.
You will love again the stranger who was your self.
Give wine. Give bread. Give back your heart to itself,
to the stranger who has loved you
all your life, whom you ignored
for another, who knows you by heart.
Take down the love letters from the bookshelf,
the photographs, the desperate notes,
peel your own image from the mirror.
Sit. Feast on your life.
10. The Muse
OK, I’m going to be cheeky. I wrote this one. It’s my gothic take on writer’s block and I just loved crafting it. It’s not a masterpiece but it’s fun. And feel free to check out my other poems (under the Category “My Poetry”).
Please tell me if you have a favourite poem. I’d love to read it.