Update 07/11/2017: I am revisiting something I wrote three and a half years ago. Pertinent to a promise I recently gave to a literature student friend, this contains my ten favourite poems, and while my reasons for choosing them are that they personally resonate and I enjoy reading them, I am also happy to recommend these for others to read. As I reflect on the choices I made then, I concur those choices still remain although with a caveat that there are many other great poems I have read, and many I have yet to read, that could qualify if circumstances etc. were to change. But back to the title …
Poetry Please is a weekly radio programme broadcast on BBC Radio 4 in which listeners request poems, which are then read by a cast of actors. Wikipedia also informs us that the programme marked its 25th year in 2004 and is known to be the longest running poetry programme broadcast anywhere in the world. As an avid Radio 4 listener, I have to confess, to my embarrassment, that this is not a programme I have listened to all that much, despite finding the format appealing and being a lover of poetry. Over the years, I have written a few poems, which I felt were rather good at the time, and the few friends who commented agreed, although maybe they were just being nice. Alas, as bits of papers get lost and every few years I change my computer, I can no longer find any of them.
But the creative juices are beginning to flow, so do please watch this space. I hope to publish something in the “Writing” section of this website soon. The three “P”s of literature: Plays, Prose and Poetry have been one of my passions ever since my youth, and at some point I hope to reflect on the first two of these in this blog: Plays and Prose, but for the time being I will just focus on the third: Poetry. One of the unexpected happenings, whilst I was recently managing one of the church winter night shelters, was to engage with some of the guests concerning poetry, and their insights were refreshingly revealing and insightful. I suppose one of my favorite films of all time is “The Dead Poets Society”, and while the hero’s view that one of the main purposes of poetry is to woo woman, didn’t especially resonate, the idea that poetry is an important means of opening up new ideas, emotions, possibilities and perspectives did.
What I would like to do now is to select ten poems that have particularly struck me over the years, the text of most of which are available on the Poetry Foundation website. I have arranged them in reverse order of significance, although that is not an easy call and doesn’t always equate to my very favorites. Neither do they equate to the best poetry ever written, although that is arguably a subjective call anyway; there is no place for Shakespeare’s sonnets, for example, although when it comes to plays those by Shakespeare will be at the very top. I don’t propose to say much about each of the poems, certainly not enough to do them justice, but I will attempt to relate why I rate each of the poems and what each poem is about.
Ten – “Daffodils” by William Wordsworth is one of the first poems I ever learnt and was a particular favorite of my mother, who learnt it while at school. The sentimental value alone qualifies the poem to be included in my list but, while the subject is not my normal preference, I can recognize the beauty of language used, the anticipation, surprise and wonderment of the poet as he journeys alone in a part of the country I happen to know, love and relate to: the Lake District, and the beautiful and moving way he reflects on the wonder of creation, and in particular those daffodils joyfully, unconstrained, “dancing in the breeze”, comparing maybe with the care of the world that can so often weigh us down.
Nine – “Dulce et Decorem Est” by Wilfred Owen was one of those poems that I had to learn as a school boy, and which touched me at the time, as it has touched many others since it was written, by its stirring language and graphic imagery. It pours scorn on the notion that it is sweet and glorious to lay down one’s life fight for a cause, however just in the eyes of many, like that of fighting for one’s own country. Using language that is powerful and imagery that is poignant, the poem reflects on some of the horrors we have come to associate with World War One trench warfare, specifically that which was brought about by the use of poisonous gas.
Eight – “Dover Beach” by Matthew Arnold holds attractions for me as I can identify with the poet’s anxiety, while surveying the sea that ebbs and flows before him, reflects that the certainties and comforts of religion are being replaced by doubt and dilemmas, and the simplicity and surety that had once been experienced had been replaced by something more sinister and less desirable, and over which he had little control and what would hinder rather than help true progress and benefit. It is sobering to reflect that some of the concerns we might have now was also shared some 150 years ago.
Seven – “The Retired Cat” by William Cowper is a delightful rendering by someone who is better known for his hymns, such as “God moves in a mysterious way” and “There is a fountain filled with blood”, and as one who suffered from depression for much of his life, both of which I can identify with. The poem has an important moral, well expressed in the antics of the cat that presumed all the comforts of the house that he was enjoying were put there purely for his benefit and pleasure, whereas like the cat we need to have a more humble take on our own importance. I also like the poem because I am a cat lover and currently have three cats and can readily relate their presumptuous antics with the cat in this poem!
Six – “No Man is an Island” by John Donne reminds me of something that we do well to remind ourselves of every day. What we do (or not do) affects others (for good or bad). Moreover, we are related to something far greater and our time is short and none us can say how long. If nothing else it should cause us to reflect on the brevity of life and make the most of the time we have. A friend once tried to convince me that of all poets, the “metaphysical ones”, such as Donne, with their acute insight into divine mysteries, were the ones most worthy of study. He might well have been right.
Five – “To Autumn” by John Keats is another poem I had to learn at school. I still remember waxing lyrical about the powerful use of figurative language, when I had to write about it when I sat my “O Levels”. The author compares the advantages of Autumn compared with other seasons. Some of it is sentimental slosh but the author can be forgiven given the many wondrous things he reflects upon regarding this season. As one that has entered the Autumn of my life, I take certain comfort thinking about those things now that would not have been possible were it my earlier Spring time.
Four – “The Deserted Village” by Oliver Goldsmith tells the story of a village that had once been thriving, bordering on idyllic, now sadly deserted as the tide of history and progress has thus dictated. The author reminisces with nostalgia on a time that had gone forever. I enjoy the graphic portrayals of the various inhabitants of the village and often refer to the godly preacher, who was a true pastor, and the wise, kind, albeit stern, teacher, who sought and succeeded in getting his charges to imbibe wisdom.
Three – “If” by Rudyard Kipling is definitely up there with the greats, extracts of which I frequently find myself quoting, sometimes in the context of dealing with the unforeseen circumstances we find we have to face in life. What does it take to be a true man? Read this poem and you will know the answer. Among other things, it encourages us to bravely face the challenges of life and accept the adversities that will surely come our way and learn to overcome and triumph whether or not things turn out well and as we would hope them to be. I have often found that the advice set forth in this poem has guided my own actions, as I sought to “be a man my son”!
Two – “Goblin Market” by Christina Rossetti is a haunting and graphic tale of a sister being enticed by a sinister band of Goblin merchants to buy their delicious fruits but once having succumbed finds this is no longer available and then pines away, only to be rescued while near death’s door by the sacrificial love of her sister. While there are several interpretations, including popular feminist ones, I see a number of important elements in the poem, such as how we can be duped and become addicts, losing even life itself, the biblical narrative of death and resurrection, and the power of love. If it were not for one GMH, this poem would be my favorite.
One – “The Windhover” by Gerald Manley Hopkins is my number one choice as Hopkins, a Jesuit priest, and yet another depressive, who died aged 44, if I were to be pressed, is my favorite poet. I could have just as easily selected from some of his other works, such as “Thou Art Just” and “Spring”, but I return to this one as I have referred to it many times since discovering this poet when doing an Open University degree. The incredible language depicting this beautiful kestrel completely mastering its environment, being suddenly plucked out of the skies, while in full flight is astounding, as are the parallels he draws with Christ our Lord.