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: