It was National Poetry Day recently, a timely prompt to recall and wallow in all those bits of verse that burrow under our skin. How can we resist the tongue-twisters and brain-teasers, the spine-tingling one-liners, the thought-provoking elegy? Or the epic poems and Icelandic sagas, romantic visions and toe-tapping, hot-hoofed onomatopoeia? We crave the love poems and God poems, visionary, and macabre. Poems to elevate the soul, or render it speechless. Poems to make you sigh, or cry, or laugh-out-belly-up loud.
From my earliest years, my mother read me poems. This excerpt from Henry Wadsworth Longfellow‘s Paul Revere’s Ride had me hooked from the moment I heard it and, I’m sure, was partly the reason I became mesmerised by history. Who could possibly resist the promise of a story such as this:
Of the midnight ride of Paul Revere,
On the eighteenth of April, in Seventy-Five:
Hardly a man is now alive
Who remembers that famous day and year.
I couldn’t read until I was nine, so my mother bought me LPs (records) of poetry and music and, best of all, Richard Burton reading Dylan Thomas‘ Under Milk Wood – a play for voices – where I fell head over heels with the beauty of language. Later, the teenage me became captivated by the romantic image of the pale knight in John Keat‘s La Belle Dame Sans Merci.
O what can ail thee, knight-at-arms,
Alone and palely loitering?
The sedge has withered from the lake,
From the simple rhymes of childhood, to the moody stanzas of teens, I can’t think of a time when I wasn’t enchanted by verse – the sort that prods consciousness and provokes response, or the delicious resonance of thoughts and words like thick hot chocolate on the tongue.
Thy summer’s play,
My thoughtless hand
Has brush’d away.
Am not I
A fly like thee?
Or art not thou
A man like me?
For I dance
And drink & sing;
Till some blind hand
Shall brush my wing.
If thought is life
And strength & breath;
And the want
Of thought is death;
Then am I
A happy fly,
If I live,
Or if I die.
A school syllabus introduced me to Vernon Scannell. His war poem Walking Wounded provided a wealth of imagery. Simple images, powerful and persistent, such as: ‘In the rusty hedges pale rags of mist hung;’ In the piece ‘Nettles‘, he employs similar language in a more day-to-day – but equally touching – poem.
My son aged three fell in the nettle bed.
‘Bed’ seemed a curious name for those green spears,
That regiment of spite behind the shed:
It was no place for rest. With sobs and tears
The boy came seeking comfort and I saw
White blisters beaded on his tender skin.
We soothed him till his pain was not so raw.
At last he offered us a watery grin,
And then I took my billhook, honed the blade
And went outside and slashed in fury with it
Till not a nettle in that fierce parade
Stood upright any more. And then I lit
A funeral pyre to burn the fallen dead,
But in two weeks the busy sun and rain
Had called up tall recruits behind the shed:
My son would often feel sharp wounds again.
And when I became a teacher, I relished introducing children to the delights of poems such as Lone Dog.
I’m a rough dog, a tough dog, hunting on my own!
I’m a bad dog, a mad dog, teasing silly sheep
I love to sit and bay the moon and keep fat souls from sleep.
For me, poetry touches the parts that no other art form can reach, and if I had to choose, then Life by George Herbert would rank as No.1