Hope you all had a good weekend, and took the opportunity to think about favourite poems. When it came to writing them down, I found it quite hard to limit myself to just the five. I haven’t tried to give anything terribly intellectual in the way of explanation for my choices either.
John Donne, A Valediction Forbidding Mourning
I fell in love with this poem at High School. I can still remember the amazement in the room when our teacher informed us that yes, that was exactly what the poet wanted you to think about. (Even more so in poems like The Cannonisation.) But it was the way the imagery in this one worked – the fact that the circle was a symbol of perfection, and also the alchemical symbol for gold (itself considered the ‘perfect’ element) … and that last stanza still makes tears come. It’s a bit like a Fabergé egg – a made thing, perfect, intricate, and very beautiful.
Samuel Taylor Coleridge, Frost at Midnight
Another great love from High School days. We studied Coleridge just after a term on Donne and the Metaphysical poets, and this was the first poem that I sat down to unpick on my own. I think the thing I love the most about it is how restrained it is, how quiet and still. After the bravura of Donne (and the drama of STC’s own poems like Kubla Kahn and Rime of the Ancient Mariner), this one showed me another way of doing things. How powerful understatement could be. And how much skill could be hidden in plain sight.
Banjo Paterson, The Man from Snowy River
It used to be the case that you could walk up to virtually any Aussie school kid, say the words “There was movement at the station” and you’d get the response “For the word had passed around that the colt from old Regret had got away …” It’s such a part of growing up in Australia. Plenty of people sneer at it in public, but would easily be able to fill in the details, if not remember the actual words. I love it for lots of reasons – I grew up in the bush, so the world it talks about is something I know and love. (And miss.) As a poet, I love it because of the way it moves though the story – the pacing is superb, and the rhythm changes in all the right places. And the final stanza is simply beautiful:
And down by Kosciusko, where the pine-clad ridges raise
Their torn and rugged battlements on high,
Where the air is clear as crystal, and the white stars fairly blaze
At midnight in the cold and frosty sky,
And where around The Overflow the reed beds sweep and sway
To the breezes, and the rolling plains are wide …
Carol Ann Duffy, Prayer
I could have picked any one of a dozen Duffy poems, but this was the first of hers I met. The way the stanzas echo each other, the way it moves through despair to acceptance and out the other side into peace. (Every few years I go through an insomniac phase, so I’m well aware of what the backside of morning feels like.) Having lived in the UK I can now understand a bit more what the final couplet is doing, with its shipping-forecast litany. But in some ways that’s overlooking the point – the idea that solace can be found anywhere, in anything, regardless of what it ‘means’ or what you ‘understand’.
Wendy Cope, Two Cures for Love
I know a lot of people sneer at Wendy Cope’s poetry, but more than she’s given credit for is well written and intelligent. (So why do so many people have trouble accepting her work on its own merits? It’s too well crafted to be doggerel, surely!) And this is such a perfect little poem. Earth shattering? Maybe not. But not every poem has to try to change the world. As an example of an epigram, as the economical, efficient embodiment of “Ouch. Yes, absolutely, but ouch” this one is hard to top.
So there you have it. My list of five poems that I wouldn’t want to be without. I could have easily added dozens more, and maybe the list would be completely different if I did it again tomorrow.
Now it’s your turn. Helens? Other lurkers? Five favourite poems; five touchstone poems; five poems that you love, and why they’re important to you. It doesn’t have to be a lit crit dissertation: just an explanation of why these particular poems matter.