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/

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.