This Thursday will be National Poetry Day. I don’t think the nice people at the Forward Poetry Foundation who came up twenty years ago with the idea of an annual celebration meant ‘national’ to conjure up images of flag-wearing, face-painted groups of nationalists chanting poetry at each other across the barricades, but close, forensic attention to words, singly and together, is the essence of poetry. You know, of course, Coleridge’s throw-away line that poetry is ‘the best words in their best order’. Good old Coleridge, a hoot to be with, I suspect, especially after a glass (or a sniff) or two, and showing great mastery of the political art of saying something that sounds good until you start to examine it closely. The antithesis, in fact, of good poetry. But he could write it. Never mind Kubla Khan and his stately pleasure-domes: try ‘Frost at Midnight’ and feel that Coleridge is there in the room with you, talking.
So, yes, Coleridge is a must for a poetry bookshelf. I expect that, tattered and much read or pristine and never opened, you have a Complete Works of Shakespeare and quite possibly some sort of an anthology as well: Oxford, Norton or Penguin? If you are at a loose end as the evenings grow longer and the nights stiller, by the way, you might like to curl up and read Shakespeare’s sonnets as one continuous narrative. Go on, try it. The famous ones – ‘shall I compare thee’; ‘let me not to the marriage of true minds’ ‘my mistress’ eyes’ – will crop up like buoys in the current, but you will be swept along by the fabulous ribbons of words, images and ideas, at once playful and deadly serious, that weave their way through the sonnet sequence. And use that anthology as a bran tub: dip in and read wherever the page opens.
One of the lasting pleasures of poetry is its habit of twining odd lines and phrases into the deepest recesses of your mind, ready and willing to volunteer themselves when the need –or the mood – arises. As a coiner of sonorous phrases, Dylan Thomas knew few equals. An English-speaker with, as far as I know, little or no knowledge of or interest in Cymraig, the language of Wales, he nonetheless resonated with the sound patterns, the rhymes, half-rhymes and repeated sounds that are the cornerstone of Welsh poetry. His poetry is almost obsessively lyrical, meant to be heard, meant to be responded to almost viscerally, in sharp contrast, perhaps, to the dryly intellectual modernism of his contemporaries. Give yourself a treat and listen to Richard Burton begin Under Milk Wood, read (aloud) ‘Fern Hill’ or ‘Poem on His Birthday’ and agree with Thomas that ‘the world is never the same once a good poem has been added to it.’ And remember that, impossible person to live with that I’m sure he was, he had the grace to say, ‘Someone’s boring me. I think it’s me.’ You could love him for that alone.
Flying the Saltire, let us have our current Poet Laureate, Carol Ann Duffy. Hers is a still voice dropping into the dark. She can be funny, passionate, dry and reflective, as the need arises. The shipping forecast – a beacon of loveliness on the radio in the small hours – may have changed the area names, but her poem ‘Prayer’ inscribes them on your heart:
Some days, although we cannot pray, a prayer
utters itself. So, a woman will lift
her head from the sieve of her hands and stare
at the minims sung by a tree, a sudden gift.
Some nights, although we are faithless, the truth
enters our hearts, that small familiar pain;
then a man will stand stock-still, hearing his youth
in the distant Latin chanting of a train.
Pray for us now. Grade I piano scales
console the lodger looking out across
a Midlands town. Then dusk, and someone calls
a child’s name as though they named their loss.
Darkness outside. Inside, the radio’s prayer –
Rockall. Malin. Dogger. Finisterre.
If we’re thinking about poetry that speaks of a sense of nation, then let’s have Auden for our English poet for this week’s shelf. ‘Look, stranger, on this island now’ is as good an injunction as any, and the poem, with its celebration of ‘the leaping light’, the small fields and the ‘swaying sound of the sea’ that surrounds us – for Auden, no little Englander, encompassed all Britain – puts a quiet finger on one aspect at least of a sense of this place. You will of course have noticed that Duffy’s poem is a sonnet, and Auden wrote them too – read, if you haven’t, his sonnet sequence ‘In Time of War’, sadly as apposite now as when he wrote it. In fact, he wrote poems in pretty much all the shapes and forms available to him. He argued that a poet should be able to ply his trade across all the structural forms available to him, and he scorned the sonnet-only (or the free verse-only, or the ode-only) poet as he would have scorned a plumber who only did radiators or an electrician who stayed away from ring mains. I wish I knew what Auden thought of Chopin.
And for Northern Ireland? Well, we should most definitely include Louis MacNeice, not least because he gave us this week’s title (and they are from his poem, ‘Autumn Sequel’, which we can slip onto the end of last week’s shelf). A friend of Auden, who was warmly encouraging of his poetry, and of Anthony Blunt – who knows how hard Blunt tried to encourage him down other, more political paths – and a drinking companion of Dylan Thomas, McNeice is perhaps too easily overlooked today, but his poetry, like his character, is subtle and sensitive with an intellectual backbone and a definite twinkle in the eye.
So, a Fanfare for the Makers it is. Never mind National Poetry Day: make this the year you read at least one poem every day.