Austin Clarke's 'The Planter's Daughter'

Austin Clarke (1896-1974)

A man with a prodigious output over a long life: he wrote verse plays, novels, memoires and about twenty collections of poetry. Perhaps, like a lot of Irish Poets, he is understandably overshadowed by Yeats, though why he might also be overshadowed by Paddy Kavanagh is a more interesting question.

His Collected Poems, published by Carcanet in 2008, is a fascinating book. I bought it because I had heard this poem, recited at a concert. It is probably not representative of his work as a whole.

It might be worth pointing out for those under ‘a certain age’ that when this poem was written, Sunday was the day on which no work was done, no shops were opened, and once they had been to mass, people had the day off.

Thom Gunn's 'Black Jackets'

Thom Gunn (1929-2004)

Gunn’s ‘Collected poems’ is a record of almost fifty years of poetry, from the early attempts to be the twentieth century’s most Elizabethan poet to the Californian requiems of ‘The Man with Night Sweats’.

My first encounter with Gunn’s poetry was a frustrated inability to write an analysis of this poem. I was 14 at the time and It was ‘homwework’ and I remember being baffled, utterly, completely baffled, by the first word of the second line; ‘Rawly’. It slithered around refusing to behave. At the time I doubt I even knew what an adverb was. I hated the poem, the task, and my inability to make sense of English words.

Now ‘Rawly’s’ not a problem, but it’s a reminder that learning how to read poems is a life long process. I don’t think that writing essays or ‘analysing’ them according to whatever process is currently fashionable is the best way do this.

Henry Lawson's 'Up the Country'

Henry Lawson (1867-1922)

Lawson is ‘the other’ famous Australian writer from the late 19th century. He’s the darker twin. He almost ticks all the boxes: born poor, deaf, an alcoholic suffering from depression , unhappy marriage, brief fame before decline into poverty etc etc.

These days he’s perhaps more famous for his short stories than his poems. One editor of an Australian anthology claimed that only a small proportion of his prodigious output ‘rises above conventional versifying’.

'Up the Country' is Lawson’s response to poets like Banjo Paterson. It was published in ‘The Bulletin’. Paterson replied, defending ‘the Bush’, Lawson responded. How much the opposing views were sincerely held and how much they were literary affectation is an obvious and unaswerable question. Whether ‘Up the country’ is more accurate or just as one sided is another. But If you read something like Paterson’s ‘Clancy of the Overlow’ (or listen to it on The Poetry Voice) you’ll see Lawson’s target.

A.B. Paterson's 'Clancy of the Overflow'

'Banjo' Paterson (1864-1941)

As one editor of an anthology of Australian Poetry wrote: ‘Although critical opinion does not rate Paterson’s poetry highly, as the author of ‘Clancy of the Overflow’, ‘The Man from Snowy River’ and ‘Waltzing Matilda’ …he holds an unchallenged place in the popular view of Australian culture’.

Which is a sniffy way of saying a lot of people like his poems.

Born a year before Kipling, and outliving him by five years, it’s difficult not to make comparisons between them. But it’s also worth remembering that T.S.Eliot wrote most of his major poems in Paterson’s lifetime.

I first heard Clancy of the Overflow as a song, long before I’d heard of Banjo Paterson.

And if you're wondering, A. B. stands for Andrew Barton... 'Banjo' was the name of a favourite horse which he took as his pen name...

Caedmon's Hymn

The oldest dateable poem in ‘English’. Not the first English poem, and not composed by the first English poet, just the oldest dateable poem, and the oldest poem in English with the author’s name attached to it.

It was composed sometime before 680, while Hild was still alive and abbess at Streanaeshalch.

You can read my general introduction to Caedmon and the poem here:

Bede tells the story of the Hymn’s creation in Book 4, chapter 24 of his Ecclesiatical History of the English Church and People. Caedmon, a cowherd, slips out of the feast to avoid having to take his turn at singing, because he can’t. He is visited in his dreams by a figure who demands that he sing about the creation of the world. He does so. Waking up, he finds he can still remember his song, so he goes and sings it to the authorities. They question him; not all dream visitors are devine. But accepting this one was, they pass him on to Hild.

Bede wrote in Latin, and he paraphrased the Hymn in Latin. There’s a strand of scholarship that argues that the version we have in Old English is a back formation from Bede’s Latin, not Caedmon’s original words.

Whether Bede and his contemporaries thought it was a good song is an unaswerable question. It’s not the most exciting of poems though it does sing.

With Old English I am never convinced by my pronunciation. If you want to hear it read ‘properly’ I recommend Michael Drout’s magnificent ‘Anglo-Saxon Aloud’ web site.

You can find his reading and translation here:

W. B. Yeats' 'Sailing to Byzantium'

William Butler Yeats (1865-1939)

When i was at school in the 1970s my poetry text book could casually identify Yeats as ‘The Greatest Poet of the Twentieth Century’. If the claim seems premature, given there was a quarter of a century yet to run, changing fashions in academic approaches to poetry in that final quarter meant the claim took a battering. This isn’t the place to point out how limited and limiting those approaches were, but the poems have been resilient.

For me Yeats is the unavoidable English language poet. He was so very good at what he did. He wrote better lines, better images, better stanzas and better short poems than almost anyone else, and he did it more often. He also had the unusual capacity to go on getting better at what he did, thoughout a long writing life.

You can learn a great deal about writing poetry by reading Yeats carefully. But he’s also an enjoyable poet to read. If you have a copy of his collected that prints the poems in chronological order, you can start at the beginning and read through to the end as though you were reading a novel.

There will be much more of Yeats on future podcasts, the real problem he poses is which poems to read.

If you're interested in Yeats the man, he is the subject of a superb two volume biography by Roy Foster: 'W.B. Yeats a life'. Vol I: The Apprentice Mage, Vol 2 The Archpoet.

Rudyard Kipling's 'Mandalay'

Rudyard Kipling (1865-1936)

I did say I did requests, and this was one.

My Copy of Kipling’s ‘Complete Verse, Definitive Edition’ ends with this short request:

The Appeal

If I have given you delight
By aught that I have done
Let me lie quiet in that night
Which shall be yours anon

And for the little little span
The dead are borne in mind
Seek not to question other than
The books I leave behind.


So perhaps readers can forget what they think they know about the man’s politics, and take each poem on its own merits.

Sir Thomas Wyatt's 'They Flee From Me'

Sir Thomas Wyatt 1503-1542

The First great English poet? The first writer of great English lyric poems?

If you look behind Wyatt, it’s hard to find much that is worth reading between him and Chaucer. Since most modern readers don’t share Chaucer’s assumptions about poetry, Wyatt’s poems do feel like a new start. They are amongst the first English poems that can be read, as poems, by any literate reader for the pleasure they offer.

No matter how conventional or artificial the voice is, reading Wyatt is an encounter with a voice. Reading Wyatt’s collected is a depressing wade through forests of Tudor Pine, but there are gems and this is one of them. The idea that the woman in the second verse is Anne Boleyn is probably a critic’s fantasy.

Recently Wyatt was the subject of two excellent biographies, which complement each other. Nicola Shulman’s ‘Graven with Diamonds’ (2011) is very good on the poems and their place in the Court. Susan Brigden’s ‘Thomas Wyatt, the Heart’s Forest’ (2012) is a fine, detailed scholarly biography.

There will be more Wyatt on The Poetry Voice.

John Masefield's 'Cargoes'

John Masefield (1878-1967)

Does anyone still read Masefield? He was very popular in his own life time. He was the Poet Laureate for over thirty years. He may also be the only poet laureate to have been shanghaied.

But some poems are sufficient unto themselves, and this is one of them. It’s a pleasure to read. And a mini lesson in how to control rhythm.

It’s taken from ‘The Collected Poems of John Masefield’ . The publication details attest to his popularity…first published in 1923, it was reprinted 12 times before 1930, a new and enlarged edition, published in 1932, was reprinted four times before another ‘new and enlarged edition’ was printed in 1938. This was republished twice, the last time in 1942 which is the date of my copy.

Gerald of Wales 'Three stories from The Journey through Wales'.

Gerald of Wales (1145-1223)

My versions of three stories Gerald tells in ‘The Journey through Wales’. These are published in ‘A Presentment of Englishry’ (Shearsman 2019)

Gerald of Wales, or Gerald the Welshman (1145-1223), is one of the more fascinating characters of the twelfth century. A highly-educated, nobly born cleric, he made a career out of annoying people. He lectured Kings and Prelates undeterred by the fact they weren’t listening to him and he was witty, curious and an insatiable collector of stories. His ‘The Journey through Wales’, written in Latin Prose, can be read for pleasure, partly because Gerald takes breaks from telling the reader how brilliant he is, and how wrong everyone else is, to tell stories like these. 

The first ‘The scene of sorrows’ is a brutal miny tragedy, the second baffling, the third quietly humorous. They are curious artefacts from the past, to turn over and consider.

These poems first appeared as ‘Three Poems by Gerlad of Wales’ in a translation special edition of ‘The High Window’.

Liam Guilar's 'Two stories from Bede'

These poems are from ‘A Presentment of Englishry’ (Shearsman Books, 2019) where they form the first of two ‘interludes’ between the three major narratives in the book.

Bede’s ‘Ecclesiastical History of the English People’ was written in 731 AD.

Story One: Recovering Oswald’s Relics.

Oswald, King of Northumbria was defeated by Penda of Mercia in 642. Oswald’s body was dismembered and his head and limbs displayed on stakes. A year later, Oswald’s brother and successor, Oswiu, lead what modern media would describe as a ‘daring raid deep behind enemy lines’ to recover his brother’s head, hand and arm. The story about the raven is told by Reginald of Durham in the twelfth century.

I am intrigued by the reality of this story, hence the poem.

Story Two. The Death fo King Sigbert of East Anglia

The details of Sigbert’s story are basically as told by Bede. He was another of Penda’s victims. Or of his upbringing. Or circumstance. How much choice do you have?

Jacqui Rowe's 'Done'

This is taken from Jacqui Rowe’s ‘Blink’ Published by V. Press in 2017.

Some background:

When John Donne married Anne Moore in 1601, he did so in secret and offended both her uncle, Sir Thomas Egerton who was Donne’s employer, and Anne’s father, who was ‘Lieutenant of the Tower’. They welcomed Donne into their family by throwing him in prison, along with the officiating priest and the marriage witness.

When released, and knowing his secular career was probably gone, Donne is supposed to have quipped: ‘John Donne, Anne Donne, Undone.’

John Donne's 'Song'

John Donne (1572-1631)

 Really John? Not one woman, anywhere?

I think most of Donne’s poems were published posthumously, and it may be that Donne never intended this particular piece to be printed. But it was, and I think it’s a fine example of a writing problem.

It’s easy to imagine someone who is hurt, feeling betrayed, confused and humiliated by someone he or she had trusted.  You wouldn’t expect them to be thinking clearly for a while.  They might say things they’d later regret.

It’s also easy to imagine someone in that situation turning to poetry as a form of catharsis.

But when you’ve expressed your bitterness and confusion, after you lashed out at whoever hurt you, what do you do with the end product?

Show it to a few friends, who understand your situation and sympathize, without taking your exaggerations seriously or as representing what you normally believe?

Show it to the individual who hurt you? As a form of revenge?

Publish it?

The modern fashion for selfie poems would seem to approve the last choice. But once the poem is published and available to strangers, it shifts the way it asks to be read. It goes from being a private, contingent howl, a statement of an emotion the poet should grow out of, to a public statement of considered fact that’s going to be around long after the emotion that inspired it has been reconsidered.

And once published readers have every right to feel that there is something wrong with this poem. The beautiful opening line, the obvious metrical control, the inventive images, the obvious skill of the maker, all seem strange vehicles for such an obviously out of control argument. 


Liam Guilar's 'Prologue to the stories of Vortigern'

It’s the week the podcast turns fifty, so something unusual to celebrate. This is from ‘work in progress’. I needed to hear how it sounded.

A Presentment of Englishry (Shearsman 2019) ends in the ruin of Roman Britain and points forwards to the story of Vortigern, Hengist and Rowena.

I’m currently working on that story. The ‘historical background’ is set out on under ‘The Legendary History’.

This Prologue is set in Britain in the mid sixth century. A small group of survivors are fleeing west and north. They seek shelter from a storm in a ruined villa, where they find a solitary old man living in the rubble.

To pass the time, they tell a story. It’s a familiar one; the story of Vortigern. It’s so well known everyone contributes. The old man claims he was a participant. No one believes him.

This prologue, if it’s ever finished, will provide a narrative overview which will be contested, confirmed or denied by the story that follows it.

A ‘Latimer’ was a translator. Vortigern’s translator was called Keredic.

Liam Guilar's 'Lute Recitals'

The Poetry Voice is fifty! And here is something different to celebrate.

This poem was inspired by a contrast; Allan Alexander’s ‘Castles In the Sky’, a Cd that alterted me to the pleasures of the lute, and a bizarre conversation with a lutenist, who derided ‘Castles in the Sky’ for not being ‘Authentic’. Apparently everything has to be ‘authentic’. I started wondering what an authentic Dowland performance would have been like.

The music i’m playing in the background is Allan’s ‘Dance of the Washerwoman’….his guitar arrangement of a Renaissance lute piece.

‘Lute Recitals’ first appeared in the journal 'Southerly' and then in my book, "I'll Howl before you bury me'.

Edna St. VIncent Millay's 'Bluebeard'.

Edna St. Vincent Millay (1892–1950).

This sonnet first appeared in ‘Renascence and Other Poems’. (1917). It’s a version of the Bluebeard story., perhaps best known in Perrault's tale from the 17th century.

By the twenty-first century the rewritten fairy tale has become a genre of its own. Angela Carter aside, few attempts are as interesting as Millay's original use of this story.

Christina Rossetti's 'A Chilly Night'.

Christina Rossetti (1830-1894)

At some stage i will get round to reading her ‘Goblin Market’ which is a poem I admire very much. But it requires a day when no dogs bark, no one rings the door bell, the wind isn’t rattling the windows and the traffic is muted or slient. Until such a day, this strange piece.

It’s not in my copy of ‘Selected Poems’, but in a fascinating anthology called ‘Poets on Poets’ (1997) edited by Nick Rennison and Michael Schmidt and published by Carcanet.

Paula Meehan's 'My Father perceived as a vision of St. Francis'

Paula Meehan 1955-

I first heard Meehan’s voice when she was being interviewed on ABC Radio, back in the day when the ABC had its token one hour poetry program. She had the kind of voice I wanted to borrow and bring home. I would invite it to stay and ask it to read bulky instructional booklets for long lost appliances. I would be attentive to every syllable the voice uttered no matter what it was reading.

Some voices are like that.

I scrambled to find her poems. it’s a poetry of Dublin domestic, and that is more compliment than description. You can sometimes be forgiven for thinking all British and Irish poets were born wearing cloth caps, and grew up on farms speaking obscure but ancient dialects. While writing odes to vegetables, they can effortlessly help a cow calve, skin rabbits with their teeth, and name the fifty two different species of flowers growing on the family dung heap.

Meehan’s is an urban poetry of streets and small houses, gardens, markets, meetings. The view from the upstairs window to the fields beyond. Flecked through with humour and rage and non-sentimental compassion. I come from Coventry. It makes sense.

This poem is the first in the collection ‘Pillow Talk’, Gallery Press 1994

Percy Bysshe Shelley's 'Ozymandias'

Percy B. Shelley. (1792-1822) A close tie with Wordsworth for my least favorite Romantic Poet. But this is one of the classic poems in English, and since it was requested by a friend, here it is.

A few posts back in the notes to the Rime of the Ancient Mariner I mentioned Richard Holmes’ superb biography of Coleridge. He also wrote a superb biography of Shelley. Didn’t make P.B.S sound like someone I’d like to meet, but it is an excellent biography.

And yes, if you wish to hear a poem read, send suggestions via the website and I’ll see what I can do.

Charlotte Mew's 'The Farmer's Bride'

This poem is taken from ‘Modern Women Poets’ edited by Deryn Rees-Jones (Bloodaxe 2005). It’s an excellent anthology, as is the companion volume of analysis, ‘Consorting with Angels’.

I know very little about Charlotte Mew (1869-1928) despite my attempts to learn more. But I admire this poem because it creates the Farmer’s Bride through the incomprehension of the farmer. A modern writer would probably be more stident, condemn the farmer as an animal, and bore the reader.

But Mew suggests his incomprehension is genuine. His feeling that something unnatural is happening is grounded in his version of what is natural which is reflected in the animals and changing seasons around him. The poem both accepts this and criticises it as limited.

The poem allows the reader to sympathise with both characters.

This makes it far more interesting, and thought provoking, than something which beats the reader with slogans.