The book group I belong to decided to mark the appointment in 2009 of the country’s first female Poet Laureate (Carol Ann Duffy) with a bit of a poetry-fest.
Instead of reading a book as usual in the three months before the next meeting, we each put together an anthology of 10 of our favourite and/or most significant poems, and the wonderful Sally put them all into one volume and printed off copies for us each to keep. It was Sal’s idea and it worked an absolute treat. It has been so fascinating to read friends’ choices and, of course, to have the full anthology to keep and enjoy for ever.
Who says book groups are just for drinking wine and gossiping? At ours, you can do those things and read poetry. Oh, and books.
These are my 10 poems of choice, plus one extra – because I can
Uninvited, the thought of you stayed too late in my head.
so I went to bed, dreaming you hard, hard,
woke with your name, like tears, soft, salt, on my lips,
the sound of its bright syllables like a charm, like a spell.
Falling in love is glamorous hell:
the crouched, parched heart like a tiger, ready to kill;
a flame’s fierce licks under the skin.
into my life, larger than life, you strolled in.
I hid in my ordinary days, in the long grass of routine, in my camouflage rooms.
You sprawled in my gaze, staring back from anyone’s face, from the shape of a cloud,
from the pining, earth-struck moon which gapes at me as I open the bedroom door.
The curtains stir. There you are on the bed, like gift, like a touchable dream.
Carol Ann Duffy
• This reminds me of that breathless, thrilling state of falling in love, when every thing and every sense is magnified, sharper and brighter – and nothing will ever be the same again. How else but through poetry, the most intense expression of emotions, could one possibly record one’s feelings?
It is eighteen years ago, almost to the day –
A sunny day with leaves just turning,
The touch-lines new-ruled – since I watched you play
Your first game of football, then, like a satellite
Wrenched from its orbit, go drifting away
Behind a scatter of boys. I can see
You walking away from me towards the school
With the pathos of a half-fledged thing set free
Into a wilderness, the gait of one
Who finds no path where the path should be.
That hesitant figure, eddying away
Like a winged seed loosened from its parent stem,
Has something I never quite grasp to convey
About nature’s give-and-take – the small, the scorching
Ordeals which fire one’s irresolute clay.
I have had worse partings, but none that so
Gnaws at my mind still. Perhaps it is roughly
Saying what God alone could perfectly show –
How selfhood begins with a walking away,
And love is proved in the letting go.
• To me, this perfectly illustrates those misery-making rites of passage endured when one’s children attain adulthood, the memories of which do indeed still ‘gnaw at the mind’. All that letting go – no-one ever prepares us for it, but this poem goes a little way towards reconciling that terrible gulf.
This morning being rather young and foolish
I borrowed a machinegun my father had left hidden since the war, went out, and eliminated a number of small enemies.
Since then I have not returned home.
This morning swarms of police with tracker dogs wander about the city with my description printed on their minds, asking:
‘Have you seen him? He is seven years old, likes Pluto, Mighty Mouse and Biffo the Bear, have you seen him, anywhere?’
This morning sitting alone in a strange playground muttering ‘You’ve blundered, you’ve blundered’ over and over to myself, I work out my next move, but cannot move.
The tracker dogs will sniff me out, they have my lollypops.
• Such a clever tale summarising the serious and the comic aspects of childhood. It has stayed with me, its pathos making me both smile and feel sad, ever since I had to recite it in on stage in Suffolk in 1980 in a revue on the theme of childhood in poetry and prose. The audience absolutely loved it, but it was nothing to do with me – all credit to the brilliant poet. This poem is all about memories – and little boys and wry smiles.
The Road Not Taken
Two roads diverged in a yellow wood
and sorry I could not travel both
And be one traveller, long I stood
and looked down one as far as I could
to where it bent in the undergrowth;
Then took the other, as just as fair,
and having perhaps the better claim,
because it was grassy and wanted wear;
though as for that, the passing there
had worn them really about the same,
And both that morning equally lay
in leaves no feet had trodden black.
Oh, I kept the first for another day!
Yet knowing how way leads on to way,
I doubted if I should ever come back.
I shall be telling this with a sigh
Somewhere ages and ages hence:
two roads diverged in a wood, and I –
I took the one less travelled by,
and that has made all the difference.
• I feel this poem is very relevant as I have made so many changes and taken so many unexpected turnings in my life – invariably choosing the road less travelled. I am also glad to choose one American classic, conscious that so many others have been omitted.
Yes, I remember Adlestrop –
The name because one afternoon
Of heat the express-train drew up there
Unwontedly. It was late June.
The steam hissed.
Someone cleared his throat.
No one left and no one came
On the bare platform.
What I saw Was Adlestrop – only the name
And willows, willow-herb, and grass,
And meadowsweet, and haycocks dry,
No whit less still and lonely fair
Than the high cloudlets in the sky.
And for that minute a blackbird sang
Close by, and round him, mistier,
Farther and farther, all the birds Of Oxfordshire and Gloucestershire
• Train journeys played quite a large part in my life as a child in Cornwall, as to get anywhere further away than Plymouth or Exeter usually meant an interminable ride in a train. My sister and I sometimes took a train to school, before the Tamar Bridge was built, and the remote rural stations almost always had bare platforms, just like the one at Adlestrop. I love this poem for the images it creates and for the way it so effortlessly evokes summer’s lazy heat with the blackbird’s unmistakable voice rising into a crescendo across two counties. I also love the poem because it is written by Edward Thomas, one of my all-time heroes, who writes so lyrically about the countryside. My father once gave me a book that had been owned by Edward Thomas (it has his signature on the flyleaf) and I still swoon when I look at it and hold it.
Anthem For Doomed Youth
What passing-bells for these who die as cattle?
Only the monstrous anger of the guns.
Only the stuttering rifles’ rapid rattle
Can patter out their hasty orisons.
No mockeries now for them; no prayers nor bells;
Nor any voice of mourning save the choirs,
The shrill, demented choirs of wailing shells;
And bugles calling for them from sad shires.
What candles may be held to speed them all?
Not in the hands of boys but in their eyes
Shall shine the holy glimmers of goodbyes.
The pallor of girls’ brows shall be their pall;
Their flowers the tenderness of patient minds,
And each slow dusk a drawing-down of blinds.
• I can never read this without a lump rising in my throat and tears pricking my eyes. It is simple, beautiful, evocative and an utterly profound commentary on the futility of war. Within such poetic language lie the harshest of metaphors. It is even more poignant as the poet himself died just a week before the Armistice in 1918.
I Wandered Lonely as a Cloud
I wandered lonely as a cloud
That floats on high o’er vales and hills,
When all at once I saw a crowd,
A host, of golden daffodils;
Beside the lake, beneath the trees,
Fluttering and dancing in the breeze.
Continuous as the stars that shine
And twinkle on the milky way,
They stretched in never-ending line
Along the margin of a bay:
Ten thousand saw I at a glance,
Tossing their heads in sprightly dance.
The waves beside them danced; but they
Out-did the sparkling waves in glee:
A poet could not but be gay,
In such a jocund company:
I gazed—and gazed—but little thought
What wealth the show to me had brought:
For oft, when on my couch I lie
In vacant or in pensive mood,
They flash upon that inward eye
Which is the bliss of solitude;
And then my heart with pleasure fills,
And dances with the daffodils.
• This is a special poem for a number of reasons. My mother and I often recite it when we’re together, enjoying correcting each other at various points and rushing to fill in the gaps when one of us hesitates over a line. It invariably prompts us to recall the important part daffodils played in our lives in Cornwall, including the vast swathes of daffs and narcissi that were – and still are – a feature of the National Trust grounds around the house my parents lived in for 40 years. We then go further down memory lane as we remember the market garden industry in daffs that was an important part of the local economy in East Cornwall, and all the lovely people we knew involved in it. It is also a special poem because I had a huge crush on Wordsworth in my teens and I couldn’t choose my favourite poems without including one by him, especially one as beautiful and evocative as this. But above all, I choose this poem because it is the one I chanted over and over as part of my ‘distraction breathing technique’ (thanks to the National Childbirth Trust!) when I gave birth to my first baby, Claudia.
REMEMBER me when I am gone away,
Gone far away into the silent land;
When you can no more hold me by the hand,
Nor I half turn to go, yet turning stay.
Remember me when no more day by day
You tell me of our future that you plann’d:
Only remember me; you understand
It will be late to counsel then or pray.
Yet if you should forget me for a while
And afterwards remember, do not grieve:
For if the darkness and corruption leave
A vestige of the thoughts that once I had,
Better by far you should forget and smile
Than that you should remember and be sad.
Christina Georgina Rossetti
• Beautiful use of words and succinct expression of all they symbolise, but most of all I choose this because it is what my sister read at the service of thanksgiving for our father’s life. A second reason for the choice is that someone I knew 30 years ago was engaged in writing a biography of Christina Rossetti and I always think of him and remember him fondly when I read Rossetti’s poems. He was gay, I think – not usual in expat circles in the Far East – and life was not easy for him, but there was always fun to be had in his company.
Living Happily Ever After
We used to strike sparks off each other.
Our eyes would meet or our hands,
& the blue lightning of love would sear the air.
Now we are soft.
We loll in the same sleepy bed, skin of my skin, hair of my head, sweat of my sweat
— you are kin, brother & mother all in one, husband, lover, muse & comforter;
I love you even better without sparks.
We are pebbles in the tide rolling against each other.
The surf crashes above us;
the irregular pulse of the ocean drives our blood,
but we are growing smooth against each other.
Are we living happily ever after?
What will happen to my love of cataclysms?
My love of sparks & fire, my love of ice?
Fellow pebble, let us roll against each other.
Perhaps the sparks are clearer under water.
• Erica Jong’s poetry and novels had a profound effect on me at a particularly turbulent time in my life and I shall always be grateful for the empowerment they gave me. I love this poem. I love the simplicity of the words and the form, and the complexity of the images they create. Most of all, I love the fact that when I first read it, all those years ago, it made me ache with sadness, but now it makes me feel happy and secure. Such is the privilege of the smugly content.
Demain, dès l’aube
Demain, dès l’aube, à l’heure où blanchit la campagne, Je partirai.
Vois-tu, je sais que tu m’attends.
J’irai par la forêt, j’irai par la montagne.
Je ne puis demeurer loin de toi plus longtemps.
Je marcherai les yeux fixés sur mes pensées,
Sans rien voir au dehors, sans entendre aucun bruit,
Seul, inconnu, le dos courbé, les mains croisées,
Triste et le jour pour moi sera comme la nuit.
Je ne regarderai ni l’or du soir qui tombe,
Ni les voiles au loin descendant vers Honfleur,
Et quand j’arriverai, je mettrai sur ta tombe
Un bouquet de houx vert et de bruyère en fleur.
• I choose this poem because its pathos and romance still haunt me 40 years after being introduced to it during A-level French literature studies. It is one of the few poems in a foreign language that I learnt and can still (mostly) remember, especially when I am in France, when it always comes to mind. It reminds me of the great pleasure of French literature and that astonishment when I realised I could actually understand the language well enough to read a poem without needing it to be translated.
AND ONE I DIDN’T CHOOSE, BECAUSE I’D REACHED THE LIMIT, BUT I DO SO LOVE THIS AND I WANT TO SQUEEZE IT IN:
All You Who Sleep Tonight
All you who sleep tonight
Far from the ones you love,
No hand to left or right
And emptiness above –
Know that you aren’t alone
The whole world shares your tears,
Some for two nights or one,
And some for all their years.