I wasn’t alerted to the fact that yesterday was World Poetry Day until it was nearly over! But I hope you will forgive me if I celebrate it a day late.
There are so many superb poets, men and women who have written in English, that it seems invidious to single out half a dozen. Those of us who love poetry could list scores if not hundreds but I have tried to restrict my list to the ones I have admired the most. And top of my list has got to be our superlative Shakespeare, although trying to sort out which of his many poems I want to quote here is like taking my pick from a gigantic box of chocolates. Perhaps Sonnet 116:
Let me not to the marriage of two minds
Admit impediments. Love is not love
Which alters when alteration finds
Or bends with the remover to remove:
Oh no! It is an ever fixed mark
That looks on tempests and is never shaken.
Read to the end oh gentle readers, it’s well worth it.
And here’s our lovely, passionate Blake, crying out against the injustices of his time.
A robin redbreast in a cage
Puts all heaven in a rage
A dog starved at his master’s gate
Predicts the ruin of the State
A horse misused upon the road
Calls to heaven for human blood.
Each outcry of the hunted hare
A fibre from the brain does tear.
And here’s Elizabeth Barrett Browning, writing from the heart to the man she loved.
How do I love thee? Let me count the ways.
I love thee to the depth and breadth and height
My soul can reach, when feeling out of sight
For the ends of being and ideal grace.
I love thee to the level of every day’s
Most quiet need, by sun and candle-light.
A loving woman and an admirable man, her poet husband. His dramatic monologues take us into the minds of a whole variety of characters, from a libertine monk to a murderer, but this is the character I think I like best.
One who never turned his back but marched breast forward,
Never doubted clouds would break, never dreamed, though right were worsted, wrong would triumph,
Held we fall to rise, are baffled to fight better,
Sleep to wake.
And now the moderns are crowding into my mind. Jenny Joseph’s ‘Warning’ us in her idiosyncratic way.
When I am an old woman I shall wear purple
With a red hat which doesn’t go, and doesn’t suit me.
And I shall spend my pension on brandy and summer gloves
And satin sandals, and say we’ve no money for butter.
I shall sit down on the pavement when I’m tired
And gobble up samples in shops and press alarm bells
Read on, I dare you and see if it doesn’t make you laugh out loud in sympathy. I’ve got my purple dress ready and my red hat!
And here is Dannie Abse, who was a doctor and wrote this poem about the amazing smile that a newly delivered woman gives to her baby.
He called it ‘The smile was’.
that effulgent, tender, satisfied
smile of a woman
who, for the first time
hears the child crying the world
for the very first time
That agreeable, radiant smile—
no man can smile it
no man can paint it
as it develops without fail
after the gross, physical, knotted,
granular, bloody endeavor.
Such a pure spirituality, from all that!
I could go on forever about one poet or another – the Mersey poets who are rough, tough and funny. Robert Frost who takes you to an ordinary world and makes you see it in a completely new way. Robert Graves who survived the first world war to write superlative lyrics and Wilfred Owen who wrote during the war and was killed by it, who wrote:
My subject is war and the pity of war. The poetry is in the pity.
But I will let my last word come from Shelley, who spoke powerfully to the downtrodden poor of his generation and speaks equally pertinently to the downtrodden poor of ours.
Rise like lions after slumber,
In unvanquisable number –
shake your chain to earth like dew
which in sleep had fallen on you
Ye are many – they are few.