Ivor Gurney's 'First Time In'.

Ivor Gurney (1890-1937)

There’s a fascinating study waiting to be done comparing David Jones with Ivor Gurney.

Like David Jones, Gurney served as a private in the First World War. Like Jones, he has an established reputation in another field of the arts: in Gurney’s case, music. He was a composer of ‘art songs’ and considered, by those who know, to have been a good one.

Like Jones, Gurney was traumatised by his experiences, though in his case he spent from 1922 to his death in institutions.

Like Jones, as a poet, Gurney is perhaps not so well known. Neither of them is easily conscripted into the prevailing, ‘if it’s good it’s anti war’ mentality. His poems, while recording the horrors, also evoke the shared experience and community. Here, in ‘First Time In’, he records a memory of meeting Welsh soldiers, and his delight in their singing.

This poem is taken from ‘Collected Poems of Ivor Gurney’ (p 69). edited by P.J.Kavanagh. There is another, longer version of this poem, or another attempt to describe the same incident, on page 85

Miroslav Holub's 'Napoleon'.

Miroslav Holub (1923-1998)

Holub lived in Prague, and worked as an immunologist. He wrote a paper called ‘The Immunology of Nude Mice’. His obituary appeared in the New York Times.

He also wrote wonderful poems. This one works like a pebble dropped into a still pool. If you let it, both the wit and the critical point will make themselves apparent.

This translation is taken from ‘The Poetry of Survival; Post-War Poets of Central and Eastern Europe’, edited by Daniel Weissbort. (Anvil 1991)

If you think your interest in 20th century poetry is serious, especially if you’re an English speaker, i cannot reccomend this book too highly. It is worth whatever it costs. As an introduction to a wealth of great poets and poems it is priceless.

Chidiok Tichborne's 'My prime of youth is but a frost of cares'

Chidiok Tichborne (1588-86)

This poem is also known as Tychborne/Tichborne’s elergy.

Little is known about the author except that he was executed for plotting to assassinate Queen Elizabeth. And that he wrote this poem in the Tower before his execution.

It probably survives in anthologies for two reasons: Firstly the tag ‘Written with his owne hand in the Tower before his execution’ does grab the attention,, and secondly as an example of Elizabethan poetry written by educated young men. It takes the kind of antithesis and paradox someone like Sydney or Shakespeare could use effectively and runs it into the ground. Compare it with Raleigh’s last poem. ‘What is our life? A play of passion’ and …

On the other hand, before we get too critical, if the poem is genuine the poet was looking forward to being hung, drawn and quartered, so perhaps this elegant metrical balancing act was an effective way of focussing his mind on other things.

Tichborne has a wikipedia page (of course) which contains a contemporary response to this poem.

This version is taken from Seven Centuries of poetry in English, 4th ed. (Ed) John Leonard.

B.H.Fairchild's 'Keats'

B. H. Fairchild (1942-)

I know nothing about B. H. Fairchild except that he’s an American, and I own a copy of his ‘Blue Buick: new and selected poems’.

I admire the man’s art. The poems are deceptively conversational, like this one celebrating Keats as craftsman The poet as maker, working at his art like a man at a lathe, wrapped up in the pleasure of making.

If you’re hurrying, you’ll miss the unobtrusive skill that went into the poem.

This is taken from ‘The Blue Buick’ Norton, 2016

Louis MacNeice's 'Bagpipe Music'.

Louis MacNeice (1907-1963)

Whether you think this is a piece of entertaining nonsense or a ‘satirical elegy’ for traditional culture, it’s a great piece to read aloud.

First published in MacNeice’s ‘I Crossed the Minch’, a ‘travel book’, where this poem has a chapter to itself he later wrote ‘the bad feminine rhymes’ were meant to mimic the wheezing of the pipes. His biographer, Jon Stallworthy claimed that ‘their air of hasty improvisation suggests a new culture that has no time for the civil harmonies of the the old, the full rhymes of the traditional ballad.’ He also thought the ending ‘growls to a halt on a doom-laden note, the quintessential expression of Thirties despair.’

I’ve always imagined this being recited by a group of drunks at a ceilidh, with the stomping crowd joining in on ‘it’s no go’. Not having a drunken chorus I tried reading it a different way.

John Keats' 'The Eve of Saint Agnes'

John Keats (1795-1821)

Given what’s acceptable today, it’s difficult to imagine how shocking this poem was when it was being written.

It almost lead to a falling out between Keats and his Publisher.  John Taylor, who was convinced Keats was a genius, had stood with him despite the financial failure of Endymion, But he was shocked by the goings on in Madeline’s chamber. After all, they are not married!  He didn’t like the last verse either. He wanted Keats to change the poem so that it wouldn’t shock his (female) readership or give hostile critics a new stick with which to beat Keats.

This lead Keats to write:

‘‘I shall ever consider them (people) as debtors to me for verses, not myself to them for admiration-which I can do without’.

For someone who was trying to make a living as a poet it was an untenable position. For a publisher investing in a writer it was too self destructive to be acceptable.

The argument was smoothed over. Changes that made the ‘solution sweet’ more explicit were dropped.

I’ve always thought this poem is like a play where the characters are not as believable as the setting and the props.

D.H.Lawrence's 'Bavarian Gentians'

D.H. Lawrence. (1885-1930)

Perhaps better known as a noveliist, Lawrence wrote a lot of ‘poetry’, and a lot of it is forgettable. Spontaneity can be theorised and might be liberating, but it doesn’t always produce lasting works of arts. Reading his complete poems you can be forgiven for wishing he had known a better editor or had a better relationship with his waste paper bin.

But I have liked this poem since I found it in a school text book, amongst all the other poems we weren’t ‘doing’ as fifteen year olds. I didn’t know what a gentian was, nor was i entirely sure how to pronounce it. But it seemed far more interesting than his poems about snakes and tortoises which we were struggling to 'appreciate' in clumsy essays.

It’s an interesting antidote to the idea that you must vary your vocabulary.

This is taken from 'Last Poems’ which contains the equally memorable ‘The Ship fo Death’.

T.S.Eliot's 'The Waste Land'

T.S.Eliot (1888-1965)

I’m not going to write an essay about this most written about of poems.

It’s almost a hundred years since The Waste Land was published and it’s still strange and beautiful and nowhere near as dated as some more recent poems. 

Imagine someone spinning an old fashioned tuning dial on a radio, they said. Flicking idly between the different stations.  It’s one way of thinking about the poem because sound is so important to the world Eliot created. But ‘thinking about’ this poem is only one way of dealing with it. Get yer hat and coat and wander through the landscape it creates, preferably by reading it aloud for yourself. It’s a masterclass in sound and rhythm.   

Part of its power stems from Eliot’s undeniable skill in organising words. It contains some of my favourite lines in English poetry. Like him or loathe him, Tom was a great poet.  

But like all great works of art, the maestro is on stage pulling a rabbit out of a hat, and like all magic tricks this one carries a faint whiff of a con job. You can object. Many others have done. Surely ‘Jug jug jug jug jug jug’ cannot be taken seriously as a line of poetry? Surely, as some of the early critics said, Mr. Eliot is not being serious. 

But (#2) Pound’s famous editing of what was originally to be called ‘He do the Police in Many Voices’, (famous once the manuscript resurfaced), was brilliant and idiosyncratic. His suggestion was to cut without attending to logic, coherence or continuity. Just chop out the dead wood: lines, images, passages. 

This fragmented an already fragmentary text.  But because Eliot was as good as he was, it’s hard to escape the feeling that these fragments do fit together: If only you could find the key.  You! Hypocrite lectuer! -Mon semblable!,- mon frere!.  

A generation of literary critics went looking for the key that would unlock The Waste Land. Forests of trees died to provide the necessary paper. One key turned and turned out to be as inadequate as the next. So the poem became famously ‘difficult’, and because it was then there was a need for professional explainers. It became Eliot’s unintentional gift to the developing industry of academic criticism.  

But it’s so much more interesting and enjoyable and entertaining than some Thing you have to write an essay about.  You don’t need an explanation, you just need to take your hat and coat, and go….

(And who would have thought there were so many parrots in this wasteland. My apologies, I can’t do anything about it. The chiming clock on the other hand was tongue in cheek deliberate).

Geoffrey Hill's 'Funeral Music'

Sir Geoffrey Hill (!932-2016)

A sequence of eight sonnets, though the form is handled so skillfully you might miss the fact. Hill claimed he was attempting a ‘florid grim music broken by grunts and shrieks’. The ‘Subject matter’ or the background, is the Wars of the Roses linked by the executions of the three men named at the beginning.

Hill was the only poet whose books I bought immediately they were published. I’ve never understood my fascination with his work, but it began when I read (silently) the last sonnet in Funeral Music and realised I was holding my breath.

Reading favourite poems aloud is an educational experience. Sometimes, after several attempts, the result is so far from what I thought it should be that it seems worth preserving no matter how wrong it feels..

A longer attempt to explain the fascination is here: https://ladygodivaandme.blogspot.com/2016/07/sir-geoffrey-hill-1932-2016.html

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: http://mdrout.webspace.wheatoncollege.edu/category/caedmons-hymn/