I’m currently working on the final draft of my second poetry book, “The Things We Thought Were Beautiful”. Like “Up in the Air”, I’ve divided this one up into sections, the first of which is called “Another World”. The poems in this section focus on the natural world and our desire to see more deeply into it.
One of my favourite poems is Wordsworth’s “Lines Composed a Few Miles Above Tintern Abbey”, in which he talks of what the eye and ear ‘half create, and what perceive.’ I’ve always loved that line. It’s as if there really is a transcendent value in nature that we can grasp, or “perceive”.
But when Wordsworth talks about us “creating” it, is that in the sense of making it real – or just us making it up? And how do we know which bits are our own creation, and which bits are real? The true reality behind reality – if there is such a thing – can only ever be understood, or felt, in glimpses. Poetry is one of the best ways of having those glimpses.
To read more about why I love Wordsworth, check out this post.
This is the last of my Five Favourites series, based on the categories of books I’ve published myself. It’s a reflective time of year, so I’m finishing with my five favourite poems.
I think in general your emotional response to a poem is strongly attached to where and when you first read it. But not always. For me, there are some poems that get richer over time, and continue to provide a visceral, often transcendent, feeling. My favourite poems are always changing, but the five below have stayed with me throughout my life.
Louis MacNeice was a Northern Irish poet who wrote some wonderful poems, including Prayer before Birth and The Sunlight on the Garden. My favourite is Snow, a poem that points to the incongruousness and mystery of the world:
The room was suddenly rich and the great bay-window was Spawning snow and pink roses against it Soundlessly collateral and incompatible: World is suddener than we fancy it.
2. The Sun Rising
My pitch-perfect memory for poetry is not good, but there’s a power in the opening lines of this poem that has always stuck with me. I love John Donne, his interplay between sacredness and lust, spirituality and corporality, and the way he finds a way through the opposites to breathless transcendence.
This poem, with its movement from chiding the sun for rousing him from his lover’s bed to the moment when he realises it’s fulfilling its duty by warming them, is the perfect epiphany.
Busy old fool, unruly sun, Why dost thou thus, Through windows, and through curtains call on us? Must to thy motions lovers’ seasons run? Saucy pedantic wretch, go chide Late school boys and sour prentices, Go tell court huntsmen that the king will ride, Call country ants to harvest offices, Love, all alike, no season knows nor clime, Nor hours, days, months, which are the rags of time.
Thy beams, so reverend and strong Why shouldst thou think? I could eclipse and cloud them with a wink, But that I would not lose her sight so long; If her eyes have not blinded thine, Look, and tomorrow late, tell me, Whether both th’ Indias of spice and mine Be where thou leftst them, or lie here with me. Ask for those kings whom thou saw’st yesterday, And thou shalt hear, All here in one bed lay.
She’s all states, and all princes, I, Nothing else is. Princes do but play us; compared to this, All honor’s mimic, all wealth alchemy. Thou, sun, art half as happy as we, In that the world’s contracted thus. Thine age asks ease, and since thy duties be To warm the world, that’s done in warming us. Shine here to us, and thou art everywhere; This bed thy center is, these walls, thy sphere.
Alice Oswald continues and reinvigorates the traditions of William Wordsworth and Ted Hughes. Nature is the main focus of her poetry, suffused with the numinous. In poems like Dunt: A Poem for a Dried-Up River, nature (here, a nymph trying to give birth to the poor stream) seems to represent the arduous challenge of the creative process itself.
I’ve chosen the poem Mountains from her first collection, The Thing in the Gap-Stone Stile. Like all the best poems (writing?) there is a push towards resonance, idealism, the unfathomable; the things which open up the mind and feelings as opposed to shrink and contain them. I like to think there’s an allusion to Plato’s cave at the end, the bigger reality behind daily experience:
…you can feel by instinct in the distance the bigger mountains hidden by the mountains, like intentions among suggestions.
4. Lines Composed a Few Miles above Tintern Abbey
I owe my love, and writing, of poetry to Wordsworth more than any other poet. I have written about why I like him – and especially Lines Composed a Few Miles above Tintern Abbey – so much here. The line about what the eye and ear “half create, and what perceive” is, I think, one of the best ideas ever contained in a poem. We connect deeply with nature, glimpse something bigger than us there; but what that is remains always beyond our reach. Our story is in the yearning.
5. Tales from Ovid
Ted Hughes and Sylvia Plath seem to me to be among the last generation of poets to have gained iconic status. It’s hard to choose between them in terms of greatness. In the end I’ve opted for Tales from Ovid by Ted Hughes, as it was the first book-length poem that I devoured with the excitement of a thriller. Hughes’ rendering of these classical Greek stories is a revelation. He brings to life the rawness of the stories (the hunters killed so many animals the ‘slopes were patched red with the butchering places‘) and the warping of souls caused by deep and precarious passions.
Many other poems by Hughes are brilliant, including Birthday Letters (about his time with Plath) and his most famous poem, The Thought-Fox. But Tales from Ovid is the one I push my friends to read.
Finally, a few of those that got away…
So, I’ve mentioned Sylvia Plath. I discovered her poetry one winter in Kenilworth and loved the icy desolation / vivid madness of Tulips, the dark power of Daddy, and the wonder and playfulness of You’re.
Another poet I admire is John Burnside, whose Myth of the Twin (‘bending to a clutch of twigs and straw to breathe a little life into the fire‘) is deep, complex, bleak. It’s out of print unfortunately, but you can still find a second-hand copy.
One of the first poems I had published was in a magazine called Tandem, which placed famous poets alongside new. One edition included a poem by Seamus Heaney, Postcript, which includes the astonishing image of the ‘earthed lightning of a flock of swans’. The poem alludes to the impossibility of holding on to things:
“Useless to think you’ll park and capture it / More thoroughly. You are neither here nor there, / A hurry through which known and strange things pass“
Finally, I have to mention Dylan Thomas’ Do not go gentle into that good night, a poem about how no matter how you live your life you will always feel a lack. And somehow the poem seems to suggest that the lack, or yearning, is somehow in itself what makes life worth living. The failure, the drive to be more, to comprehend. From a young age, I’ve always felt that the most important thing for me is to understand what being alive means. This poem captures the keeness – and frustration – of that desire to know.
These are a few of the poems that have inspired me down the years. There are many, many more. If you’d like to see what they’ve led me to write, check out my book, Up in the Air:
Here’s the latest in my series of Poems on Video from my collection Up in the Air.
An alembic is a distilling tool that combines different elements to create something new. It’s used in philosophy for a process of refinement, or transmutation. This poem, written about a summer evening in my grandmother’s garden in Eastbourne, is my first video request. Let me know if there’s a poem from Up in the Air that you’d like me to read on video.
And of course this poem is dedicated to my grandma, Pamela Isobel Lilian Korn.
Here’s the second in my series of videos in which I read poems from my book Up in the Air. This time, The Cormorants, one of the first poems I ever had published. It’s a short poem about yearning and restlessness, seabirds, and the remote and lonely Scottish island of Iona.
As always, if you like it, please leave a comment.
The first of an occasional series of videos in which I read poems from my book, Up in the Air.
I wrote Weather Map when I was living in a small flintstone folly owned by the National Trust on the edge of a housing estate in London. At the end of the garden was – beyond a tricky pile of thorny scrub – a beautiful and little-known tributary of the Thames, the River Wandle. I had just started going out with the lovely woman who was to become my wife.
So, here is me reading Weather Map. If you like it, leave a comment.
I’m hugely grateful to New Zealand book blogger Pauline Reid for this review of my poetry book Up in the Air – my first ever Youtube review!
In it, Pauline talks about the sections in the book and shows her own Instagram photo of the book. She does a lovely reading of my poem ‘A Bird on the Moorland’. She also flags up the local interest for some of her subscribers, as one of the poems features the Albatross Statue in Wellington, her home town.
2018 was a very full year for my books and writing. In July I published the final volume of The Secret of the Tirthas, The Unknown Realms. Following Lizzie’s journey from her initial move to the Herefordshire cottage with its strange garden of rooms all the way to her final showdown with the demons and their followers at the Fountainhead has been a real delight for me. I never knew just how much the story and characters would grow, and particularly how much I would come to love Lizzie, Pandu, Raj and Ashlyn. A huge thank you to all of you who have joined me on this journey, especially everyone who let me know what they think through reviews and emails. Your support means a lot to me!
Whilst the publication of the final novel might mean the end to readers in English, it’s just the start for readers in China and Taiwan, as the series is being translated by Mandarin publisher Fiberead. In September The City of Light came out on Amazon’s Chinese site and a range of other Mandarin retail sites, followed quickly by The Book of Life and The Dreamer Falls. The final two books are also being translated, so it’s a very exciting time for me.
And on top of all that, I have an Argentinian friend who is now translating The City of Light into Spanish. It’s great to see the series opening more portals in the real world!
In October I also brought out my first book of poetry, Up in the Air. I’ve been writing poems since my twenties, and had quite a few published in magazines such as Poetry Ireland, The New Welsh Review and Poetry Scotland. Up in the Air brought the best of these together, alongside a few unpublished poems. I was over the moon when the collection reached no.8 in Amazon’s Inspirational Poetry category!
I love this quiet period between Christmas and New Year. It’s the perfect time to do some thinking – and in my case, some plotting of the next novel, something with a very different twist.
I hope you have a fabulous New Year – and many thanks again for your reading and support!
My new poetry book, Up in the Air, is divided into five sections – Air, Love, Water, Air (again) and Image.
The Image section consists of eight poems inspired by paintings, photographs, a display, a poster and a line drawing. In this post I’ll identify some of these pictures and talk about how they inspired my poems.
First off, the paintings.
The section begins with On Justice, inspired by the painting of Margareta van Eyck by her husband Jan van Eyck. The painting hangs in the Groeninge Museum in Bruges. When I saw it, I was mesmerised by the character in the woman’s face. I could see her intelligence and what I thought was a hint of sharpness, possibly even bitterness. My poem (check it out here if you don’t have the book) wanted to capture that, as well as meditate on the failure of even the greatest art to transcend mortality.
The next poem, Self-Portrait, is based on one of Van Gogh’s paintings. There’s a lot going on here, as you can see, plenty of light, colour, chaos and energy. This painting is a gift to anyone’s imagination, so I just let mine run riot.
Exhibition, Merton is a long poem based on the paintings of the artist Jocelyn Merivale. I used to work with her husband, John, and so had the pleasure of studying her paintings in their home. Jocelyn’s main theme was water and especially the sea – but she also painted birds and portraits. Jocelyn died a few years ago and her website is currently down whilst her paintings are being professionally photographed, but below is a close up of Field of Birds. You can see more of her paintings here.
The other poem based on a painting is Looking at it Now. Paolo Uccello’s Saint George and the Dragon in the National Gallery is a masterpiece. But, as with the poem that follows it, Beast (based on a gallery drawing), I wanted to re-imagine the relationship between man, woman, and ‘monster’, to reflect more modern sensibilities.
The Ogrw-Garw Display was an exhibition about one of the valleys in South Wales, created by a friend. The exhibition comprised beautiful photographs of the ancient oak woodland scattered across the mine-scarred landscape. But in the middle of the display was a single black-and-white photo of… a group of school children.
I wrote Ugandan Bestiary after a safari holiday with my wife in 2007. Back home, I studied the photos of the trip, mulling over the animals we’d had the good fortune to see. In doing so, I came up with this series of short, vignette-style poems.
Finally, Christ in the Crowd was randomly inspired by this poster for Jesus Christ Superstar. As they say, inspiration comes from anywhere and everywhere.