#PoetryPromise December: Poetry by Marianne Moore

#PoetryPromise is coordinated through Poetry by Heart with the aim of promoting and spreading the love of poetry. My #PoetryPromise for 2015 is to share a favourite poem of mine every month through my blog. My choice for December is Poetry by Marianne Moore.

800px-Eastern_Giant_Toad_(Peltophryne_peltocephala)_(8573972369)

“Imaginary gardens with real toads in them” (source)

Poetry

I, too, dislike it: there are things that are important beyond all this fiddle.
*****Reading it, however, with a perfect contempt for it, one discovers in
*****it, after all, a place for the genuine.
***********Hands that can grasp, eyes
***********that can dilate, hair that can rise
*****************if it must, these things are important not because a

high-sounding interpretation can be put upon them but because they are
*****useful. When they become so derivative as to become unintelligible
*****the same thing may be said for all of us, that we
***********do not admire what
***********we cannot understand: the bat
*****************holding on upside down or in quest of something to

eat, elephants pushing, a wild horse taking a roll, a tireless wolf under
*****a tree, the immovable critic twitching his skin like a horse that feels a flea
*******************************************************the base-
*****ball fan, the statistician—
***********nor is it valid
*****************to discriminate against “business documents and

school-books”; all these phenomena are important. One must make a*******************************************distinction
*****however: when dragged into prominence by half poets, the result is not
*************************************************poetry,
*****nor till the poets among us can be
***********“literalists of
***********the imagination”—above
*****************insolence and triviality and can present

for inspection, “imaginary gardens with real toads in them,” shall we have
*****it. In the meantime, if you demand on the one hand,
*****the raw material of poetry in
***********all its rawness and
***********that which is on the other hand
*****************genuine, you are interested in poetry.


 

What better poem to conclude my year of #PoetryPromise posts, than a poem about poetry? I love Marianne Moore’s playful, enigmatic tone in this piece, which she revised again and again over her lifetime, publishing different versions in 1924, 1935 and 1951. She capped this off by publishing two different versions in her 1967 Collected Poems. The first was condensed down to just three lines:

I, too, dislike it.
   Reading it, however, with a perfect contempt for it, one discovers in
   it, after all, a place for the genuine.

In the back of the same volume she published the version I used here, under the heading “original version.” This is typical of Moore’s tone overall, never allowing herself or her work to be pinned down. This poem wriggles and slips in the reader’s eye and mind, from that initial ironic statement, making the reader complicit in a dislike of the very thing that both writer and reader have set out to enjoy. The rest of the poem renovates this maligned art form, this “place for the genuine.”

I know that poems can “grasp,” can make my eyes widen and the hair on the back of my neck stand up. It is this visceral emotional connection that makes poetry “useful,” not the fact that a “high-sounding interpretation” can be put on it. The craft of the poet, says Moore, is to be a “literalist of the imagination” – to take the imagined, and render it so, as Sylvia Plath says, “it feels real.” To take an imagined garden, and put a real toad in it. The naming of parts, the “the poet uses alliteration in line 17 to…” approach, is not what poetry is all about. It’s the crackling emotional energy, the “raw material of poetry in all its rawness” which gives it its power. This is why I love it, why I read it, and why I teach it – why I am “interested in poetry.”

Read all the Poetry Promise posts here.

Advertisements

#PoetryPromise November: Mametz Wood by Owen Sheers

#PoetryPromise is coordinated through Poetry by Heart with the aim of promoting and spreading the love of poetry. My #PoetryPromise for 2015 is to share a favourite poem of mine every month through my blog. My choice for November is Mametz Wood by Owen Sheers.

Source

Source

I have blogged before about the importance of Remembrance to me, and I make no apologies for citing this poem by Owen Sheers again. Whilst the War Poets bring alive the horror and reality of the Great War as voices from the past, this poem captures better than any other the connection between our present and that harrowing conflict. As a culture, it is our duty to continue to reach back into ourselves and listen to the notes that those who lost their lives sing back to us…and remember.

Mametz Wood
by Owen Sheers
For years afterwards the farmers found them –
the wasted young, turning up under their plough blades
as they tended the land back into itself.

A chit of bone, the china plate of a shoulder blade,
the relic of a finger, the blown
and broken bird’s egg of a skull,

all mimicked now in flint, breaking blue in white
across this field where they were told to walk, not run,
towards the wood and its nesting machine guns.

And even now the earth stands sentinel,
reaching back into itself for reminders of what happened
like a wound working a foreign body to the surface of the skin.

This morning, twenty men buried in one long grave,
a broken mosaic of bone linked arm in arm,
their skeletons paused mid dance-macabre

in boots that outlasted them,
their socketed heads tilted back at an angle
and their jaws, those that have them, dropped open.

As if the notes they had sung
have only now, with this unearthing,
slipped from their absent tongues.

(Source)

Watch Owen Sheers read this poem at The Poetry Station

#PoetryPromise October: The Everyday Hymn by Clare Carlile

#PoetryPromise is coordinated through Poetry by Heart with the aim of promoting and spreading the love of poetry. My #PoetryPromise for 2015 is to share a favourite poem of mine every month through my blog. My choice for October is The Everyday Hymn by Clare Carlile.

Small pleasures
Like opening a can, putting pressure down
And pulling back the rounded metal tag,
Forefinger slipped under, braced against the hiss
Of hydrogen, the give of metal against the thumb
And the kick as the seal passes out.
Even like the low crunch as the speckled
Porcelain egg shell collides with the thick rimmed
Baker’s bowl and splits, just round the side,
Into one thousand geometric shapes.
Or, smaller still, the just audible shake
In a person’s voice when a laugh
Is yearning to escape.

I’ve always enjoyed the Foyle Young Poets Award anthology, and I read the shortlisted poems every year open mouthed in wonder. These young voices feel unleashed through poetry and present ideas in language so well-chosen it makes me envious. I could have chosen any number – Hannah Locke’s Breaking the Ice from 2009, Joe Heap’s The Air Sang from 2004 – but Clare Carlile’s poem from 2012 is the one I come back to.

The Everyday Hymn has that quality I so admire in poetry: the minute observation which allows the verse to render the world in a new perspective. The detail with which the opening of the can and the breaking of the egg are described is exquisite; as I read I can hear and feel them in the words of the poem. And the joys that these everyday events bring, when scrutinised and savoured, connects the reader and the poet in a shared smile and sigh of satisfaction – it’s just wonderful! The poem also reminds me to savour those moments, the small pleasures, and to bank them up. The world is full of joy, if you look closely enough.

#PoetryPromise September: Havisham by Carol Ann Duffy

#PoetryPromise is coordinated through Poetry by Heart with the aim of promoting and spreading the love of poetry. My #PoetryPromise for 2015 is to share a favourite poem of mine every month through my blog. My choice for September is Havisham by Carol Ann Duffy.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

Havisham

Beloved sweetheart bastard. Not a day since then
I haven’t wished him dead. Prayed for it
so hard I’ve dark green pebbles for eyes,
ropes on the back of my hands I could strangle with.

Spinster. I stink and remember. Whole days
in bed cawing Nooooo at the wall; the dress
yellowing, trembling if I open the wardrobe;
the slewed mirror, full-length, her, myself, who did this

to me? Puce curses that are sounds not words.
Some nights better, the lost body over me,
my fluent tongue in its mouth in its ear
then down till I suddenly bite awake. Love’s

hate behind a white veil; a red balloon bursting
in my face. Bang. I stabbed at a wedding cake.
Give me a male corpse for a long slow honeymoon.
Don’t think it’s only the heart that b-b-b-breaks.

I have to include a poem by Carol Ann Duffy in my Poetry Promise. She is one of my favourites and she has fulfilled the role of Poet Laureate with real skill, most notably with her Olympic poem Translating the British and her bleak 12 Days of Christmas (2009). She’s been a staple of English teaching throughout my career; Mean Time was part of the A level in my NQT year and her poems have consistently featured in AQA anthologies. Her unflinching honesty and her mix of horror and humour make her books a gripping read, and her trademark final-line twists mean than her poems stay with me long after I’ve put the book down.

In Havisham Duffy gives us the internal voice of Dickens’ famous character stripped of all the pretence and subterfuge of the novel. In doing so she subverts our expectations and re-interprets the character from a feminist perspective as a woman wronged and undone by men. Duffy’s Havisham spits impotent fury, raging at her betrayer but ultimately unable to enact her revenge. The imagery – pebbles for eyes, ropes on the back of her hands – is vivid and arresting, and the juxtaposition of opposites from the opening line onwards shows the contradictions which have trapped Havisham in stasis. The collapse in the final line shows her tightly-wound anger and desire unravelling.

Havisham stands out in Mean Time as a sign of things to come. Her re-imagining of female characters from fiction and non-fiction forms the backbone of the fantastic collection The World’s Wife, providing voices for the voiceless and identity to the invisible. She continues this mission of exploration and examination of female identity in Feminine Gospels (where the fantastic “Sub” was a close second for inclusion in this post). When I look back at a male-dominated literary canon it makes me proud to read and teach in a time when female voices are as influential, passionate and powerful as Duffy’s.

B0GTV3WCUAEdOZc

#PoetryPromise August: Let me put it this way by Simon Armitage

#PoetryPromise is coordinated through Poetry by Heart with the aim of promoting and spreading the love of poetry. My #PoetryPromise for 2015 is to share a favourite poem of mine every month through my blog. My choice for August is “Let me put it this way” from Reading the Banns by Simon Armitage.

couples-sleeping-together-tumblr-d7osjnnc

Let me put it this way:
if you came to lay

your sleeping head
against my arm or sleeve,

and if my arm went dead,
or if I had to take my leave

at midnight, I should rather
cleave it from the joint or seam

than make a scene
or bring you round.

There,
how does that sound?

This beautiful poem is on the final page of Simon Armitage’s Book of Matches, a series of brilliant meditations on love. It concludes Reading the Banns, the third section of the book, which is an account of his own wedding. I’ve never read anything that captures the simple, selfless truth of love as perfectly as this.

#PoetryPromise July: The Windhover by Gerard Manley Hopkins

#PoetryPromise is coordinated through Poetry by Heart with the aim of promoting and spreading the love of poetry. My #PoetryPromise for 2015 is to share a favourite poem of mine every month through my blog. My choice for July is The Windhover by Gerard Manley Hopkins.

Kestrel hovering

Kestrel hovering (source)

I CAUGHT this morning morning’s minion, king-
dom of daylight’s dauphin, dapple-dawn-drawn Falcon, in his riding
Of the rolling level underneath him steady air, and striding
High there, how he rung upon the rein of a wimpling wing
In his ecstasy! then off, off forth on swing,
As a skate’s heel sweeps smooth on a bow-bend: the hurl and gliding
Rebuffed the big wind. My heart in hiding
Stirred for a bird,—the achieve of; the mastery of the thing!

Brute beauty and valour and act, oh, air, pride, plume, here
Buckle! AND the fire that breaks from thee then, a billion
Times told lovelier, more dangerous, O my chevalier!

No wonder of it: shéer plód makes plough down sillion
Shine, and blue-bleak embers, ah my dear,
Fall, gall themselves, and gash gold-vermillion.

Gerard Manley Hopkins is another unique voice in poetry. Like Emily Dickinson, he crafted his own poetics. He hammered and twisted the English language into a completely new form, sending red hot sparks spilling off the page with his sprung rhythms and exploding images. Reading his verse is like watching a pinball machine, as the meanings of words collide and spin off in unpredictable and spectacular directions, lighting up in vivid colour.

Although in later years Hopkins’ poetry turned darker and more tortured as he wrestled with despair and shaken faith, I love the unconstrained joy of his early poems. Though I am not religious, I feel the same wonder in nature when I see a marvel like a kestrel, catching the wind’s currents to hold itself aloft, its head a static point as its piercing eyes scan the ground for traces of movement. Whenever I see one above the motorway or over a field, Hopkins’ words leap into my head; his rippling lines catch the constant movement of the bird’s wing and the open-mouthed wonder of seeing such awesome adaptation in action.

#PoetryPromise June: Blackbird by Paul McCartney

#PoetryPromise is coordinated through Poetry by Heart with the aim of promoting and spreading the love of poetry. My #PoetryPromise for 2015 is to share a favourite poem of mine every month through my blog. My choice for June is Blackbird by Paul McCartney.

This is one of my favourite Beatles songs – favourite songs full stop. It brings a tear to my eye every time I hear it. Inspired by the civil rights struggles in America in 1968, McCartney channelled J.S. Bach’s Bourée in E Minor to create this beautiful solo piece, punctuated by foot taps and birdsong. I bought Blackbird Singinga collection of Paul McCartney’s lyrics and poetry, for my Dad when it came out. Coming to the lyrics fresh, printed and bound, made me re-evaluate the writing. In the introduction, Adrian Mitchell writes: ‘Clean out your head. Wash out the name and the fame. Read these clear words and listen to them decide for yourself. Paul is…a popular poet.’ I agree.

Blackbird singing in the dead of night
Take these broken wings and learn to fly
All your life
You were only waiting for this moment to arise.

Blackbird singing in the dead of night
Take these sunken eyes and learn to see
All your life
You were only waiting for this moment to be free.

Blackbird fly
Blackbird fly
Into the light of the dark black night.

Blackbird fly
Blackbird fly
Into the light of the dark black night.

Blackbird singing in the dead of night
Take these broken wings and learn to fly
All your life
You were only waiting for this moment to arise
You were only waiting for this moment to arise
You were only waiting for this moment to arise.

#PoetryPromise May: “Could mortal lip divine” by Emily Dickinson

#PoetryPromise is coordinated through Poetry by Heart with the aim of promoting and spreading the love of poetry. My #PoetryPromise for 2015 is to share a favourite poem of mine every month through my blog. My choice for May is this tiny fragment from Emily Dickinson:

Could mortal lip divine
The undeveloped Freight
Of a delivered syllable
‘Twould crumble with the weight

My copy of The Complete Poems

My copy of The Complete Poems

I can remember coveting Dickinson’s “The Complete Poems” whilst at university. The sheer size of the book, filled with nearly 1800 tiny poems, was intriguing and intimidating in equal measure. I can remember buying it and walking back to my room, the weight of the volume digging the carrier bag into my fingers. Fewer than a dozen of these poems were published during Dickinson’s lifetime, which she spent largely as an eccentric recluse. She often dressed in white and, the story goes, rarely left her room later in life. I still imagine her sister, Lavinia, discovering piles of notebooks and loose sheets in a locked chest in that room after Emily’s death, opening them up and discovering the scope and breadth of her poetry. Opening this book, I felt like Aladdin, stepping into a cave filled with enigmatic wonder.

There is so much to marvel at in Dickinson’s “quiet – Earthquake style” – her idiosyncratic use of the dash being one. These tiny bars work hard to restrain the pace and isolate words and phrases in her verse, forcing a kind of breathlessness into the reading. Her contained meditations on the nature of emotion are at once detached and scientific and passionately involved. I still find her poems fascinating little worlds.

Dickinson's original manuscript (source)

Dickinson’s original manuscript (source)

I have chosen this poem as it contains a message I try to remember every day. Once words are spoken, their impact and message cannot be controlled. Anything we say – to anyone – has unimaginable power on the recipient, irrespective of the intention. A flippant, offhand comment, delivered with barely a thought, can ruin someone’s day or stay with them for weeks – or longer. A well-intentioned intervention can backfire and make a situation worse. Our words have the power to can lift, raise and bolster – or crush,  shatter and destroy. Teachers, and especially school leaders, wield this power every day. What Dickinson’s poem teaches me is to weigh the words I am about to say, and deliver them with care.

#PoetryPromise April: The Waste Land by T.S. Eliot

#PoetryPromise is coordinated through Poetry by Heart with the aim of promoting and spreading the love of poetry. My #PoetryPromise for 2015 is to share a favourite poem of mine every month through my blog. My choice for April is The Waste Land by T.S. Eliot. After all, “April is the cruellest month.”

Title page of my copy of the poem. Annotations start here...

Title page of my copy of the poem. Annotations start here…

I first read Eliot as an A Level English Literature student, and I was awestruck. From the Latin/Greek/English/Italian epigraph onwards, this was a work of dazzling ambition and scope. Eliot cuts across cultures and through time in multiple voices, all the while maintaining powerful poetics, rhythms and sounds. The characters and places he establishes are haunting and powerful; I wrote a terrible short story based on the typist and her “young man carbuncular” and whenever I return to London I hear “A crowd flowed over London Bridge, so many…”

But this was a hard poem. As I began, I found myself asking the same questions as the poem posed:

“What are the roots that clutch, what branches grow
Out of this stony rubbish? Son of man,
You cannot say, or guess, for you know only
A heap of broken images”

I knew there was sense in it, but I couldn’t fit it together. As a life-long lover of puzzles, however, I couldn’t resist trying. The Waste Land is like a web, with words tugging on references to other texts which, when decoded, shine a light on the meaning of the whole. This was modernism, a text which existed in reference to other texts as well as to the real world. The trouble was, I knew hardly any of the references. Eliot’s own notes were a starting point but are often more opaque than the poem itself. But in tracing the lines of the web out to their historical, artistic and literary anchor points, I began to appreciate the richness that cultural capital could bring – and I wanted in. I read, and read, and read. I was voracious. And when, later in my course, I read Milton’s Paradise Lost, I found myself recognising more of the allusions. My experience was richer for it, and chasing down inter-textual connections and references still gives me a thrill of accomplishment.

The text of The Waste Land is too long to publish here, but can be found here or here. The typist section that inspired my short story is below. The story, I’m glad to say, is lost.

At the violet hour, when the eyes and back
Turn upward from the desk, when the human engine waits
Like a taxi throbbing waiting,
I Tiresias, though blind, throbbing between two lives,
Old man with wrinkled female breasts, can see
At the violet hour, the evening hour that strives
Homeward, and brings the sailor home from sea,
The typist home at teatime, clears her breakfast, lights
Her stove, and lays out food in tins.
Out of the window perilously spread
Her drying combinations touched by the sun’s last rays,
On the divan are piled (at night her bed)
Stockings, slippers, camisoles, and stays.
I Tiresias, old man with wrinkled dugs
Perceived the scene, and foretold the rest—
I too awaited the expected guest.
He, the young man carbuncular, arrives,
A small house agent’s clerk, with one bold stare,
One of the low on whom assurance sits
As a silk hat on a Bradford millionaire.
The time is now propitious, as he guesses,
The meal is ended, she is bored and tired,
Endeavours to engage her in caresses
Which still are unreproved, if undesired.
Flushed and decided, he assaults at once;
Exploring hands encounter no defence;
His vanity requires no response,
And makes a welcome of indifference.
(And I Tiresias have foresuffered all
Enacted on this same divan or bed;
I who have sat by Thebes below the wall
And walked among the lowest of the dead.)
Bestows one final patronising kiss,
And gropes his way, finding the stairs unlit . . .

She turns and looks a moment in the glass,
Hardly aware of her departed lover;
Her brain allows one half-formed thought to pass:
“Well now that’s done: and I’m glad it’s over.”
When lovely woman stoops to folly and
Paces about her room again, alone,
She smoothes her hair with automatic hand,
And puts a record on the gramophone.

#PoetryPromise March: What Guys Look For In Girls by Savannah Brown

#PoetryPromise is coordinated through Poetry by Heart with the aim of promoting and spreading the love of poetry. My #PoetryPromise for 2015 is to share a favourite poem of mine every month through my blog. My choice for March is What Guys Look For In Girls by Savannah Brown.

I’m a big admirer of the YouTube creator community, as I explain in my post Why I Teach. I like the creativity, passion and independence of the platform and its democratic ethos. It’s been beset by controversy – sexual abuseproduct placement, and ghost-written books for example – but in each case the community has been swift to respond and dish out its own justice. This poem is a great example. It was written by then-17-year-old vlogger Savannah Brown in January 2014 in response to a particularly tasteless and offensive video posted by Vine star Nash Grier entitled “What Guys Look For In Girls”.

The poem passionately shreds the notions of other people’s expectations of attractiveness, inhabiting the slam form with its ebb-and-flow rhythms and poignant, personal epithets: “you’re worth so much more than your waistline.” It’s the best possible response to the mindlessness of patriarchal values. And it’s so appropriate that Brown chose poetry for her response, because the form lends weight to the words. In a poem, words have a heft, a gravity, a substance that no other form can give them.

I’ve said before that the reasons I’m in teaching are to help ensure that young people understand the world well enough to have something to say about it, and have the best possible voice to express their ideas. This poem captures all of that. Here is a teenager with heartfelt, considered ideas and a powerful, passionate voice to express them in. And what’s more, she has a platform to reach those who need to hear it the most – YouTube’s young audience.