Samuel Taylor Coleridge's 'The Rime of the Ancient Mariner'

STC, Samuel Taylor Coleridge (1772-1834).

Hundreds of thousands have written and published poetry over the centuries, and very, very few of them wrote poems that are still worth reading. An even smaller number might be justifiably called ‘original’. STC was one of these, and he produced a body of work that is unlike anyone else’s. Before he wrecked his talent on an excess of Drugs and Wordsworth which both had a disasterous effect on his lack of self-confidence, he produced some of the outstanding poems in English.

It’s hard to believe now that Wordsworth was embarassed by The Rime and even tried to drop it from later editions of ‘Lyrical ballads’, claiming it had been ‘an injury to the volume’. But this was the man who dumped the first part of Christobel.

It’s even harder to believe the reaction to the poem amongst some of the critics: ‘A poem of little merit’ said one, another, Charles Burney, in the Monthly Review, wrote ‘..the strangest story of a cock and a bull that we ever saw on paper; yet, though it seems a rhapsody of unintelligble wildness and incoherrence, (of which we do not perceive the drift, unless the joke lies in depriving the wedding guest of his share of the feast) there are in it poetical touches of an exquisite kind’.

This is taken from Coleridge, sellected poems, Edited by Richard Holmes.

Anyone interested in Coleridge should read Holmes’ 2 volume biography, which is one of the great literary biographies.

Lesley Saunders' 'Praise Song for a Pair of Earrings'

This is taken from ‘Nominy-Dominy’ (Two Rivers Press-2018)

For once the blurb on the book is right: ‘Nominy-Dominy is a praise-song for the Greek and Latin literature Lesley Saunders grew up with as a schoolgirl’. It’s also well-written, enjoyable and thought provoking even for people like me with precious little Latin and absolutely no Greek.

In this poem, Anchises sleeps with the Goddess. According to the Matter of Britain, which I do know, their son will found Rome and his grandson, or great grandson, will found Britain.

I’ve written at length about this particular poem and you can read why I think it’s so good here:

Josephine Balmer's 'The Librarians' Power'.

This is taken from ‘Paths of Survival’ (2017). You can read what I’ve written about this excellent book by clicking here. Modern knowledge of the Classical past, of the ‘foundations of European civilisation’ owes so much to the Arab scholars who preserved, translated and transmitted the literature of Greece and Rome. WIthout the librarians, scribes, translators and patrons who move through Balmer’s book, there would be so much less. After the destruction of the National Library of Baghdad, some of those precious books looked like this:

Photo by Roger LeMoyne

Photo by Roger LeMoyne


Mahmoud Darwish's 'Lesson from the Kama Sutra'.

Mahmoud Darwish (1941-2008) was born in Galilee and spent his writing life as a ‘Palestinian poet’. Or perhaps ‘The Palestinian Poet’. Most of his life is so far beyond my experience, but his poetry is not.

This is taken from ‘Unfortunately, It Was Paradise’. Selected poems, translated and edited by Munir Akash and Carolyn Forche. It’s a unique collection of poems.

Ciaran Carson, five sonnets from 'The Twelfth of Never'.

Ciaran Carson (Born 1948).

When I started doing this podcast, I knew there were some poets I had to read, and Carson was one of them. But what to read? And then how to read it. His characteristic long lined poems which mimic speaking voices are superb, but whenever I tried to read them I could hear myself drifting into a faked Belfast accent which made me sound exactly like someone trying to do a Belfast accent and failing.

So here are five of the 77 sonnets in the playful, lunatic, inventive 'Twelfth of Never'.

Tib’s Eve
Catmint Tea
The Horse’s Mouth

Acutely sensitive listeners will realise these sonnets are written in Alexandrines, not Iambic pentameter.

Anon: 'Dom Niperi Septoe' or 'The Dairy Maid'.

I first heard Seamus Ennis tell this on the LP ‘Forty Years of Irish Piping’ where it serves as an elaborate introduction to ‘The Smoky House’ reel. It’s a strange story. It could be going anywhere, including towards something nasty, but when it gets to its extraordinary ending, it feels as though it could not have gone anywhere else.

It also dictates its own pronunciation which is also strange.

It’s printed in Ciaran Carson’s magnificent ‘Last Night’s Fun’, which is a book riding the same immaginative currents Ennis was sailing on. It is the only book I’ve ever read that captures what it’s like to play traditional music.

The printed version has a tail that reads:

Now, I knew that little girl years later
said Seamus Ennis,
and whenever we’d be playing music
we’d have to be careful
not to play ‘The Smoky House’.
Becuase if we did, she’d run a mile.
So we never played it,
after we found out that she was allergic
to this reel.
He took up a whistle and he played a reel he called ‘The Smoky House’ or ‘Whatever you Please’.

C.P. Cavafy's 'Ithaka'.

Ulysses again. But this time a celebration of the long and difficult journey, its pleasures and necessities. Without such a journey, Ithaka is just another rock. Without Ithaka, the journey is a random collection of terror and pleasure.

C.P. Cavafy (1863-1933) wrote in Greek and lived in Alexandria. He may well be one of the most interesting poets of the twentieth century. This poem is taken from C.P. Cavafy Collected poems (revised ed) translated by Keeley and Sherrard, edited by George Savidis. It’s a book full of unique magic.

Sam Daniel's from 'To Delia'. The first sonnet.

Samuel Daniel (1562-1619). The first sonnet in the sequence ‘To Delia’.

It’s been estimated that between 1530 and 1650 in Italy, France, Germany and Britain some 3,000 writers produced about 200,000 sonnets. Most of these are conventional and uninteresting. While ‘To Delia’ isn’t equal to the standard set by Sidney, most of the sonnets in it are well-written, intelligent but conventional Tudor Pine: the lover discovers there’s only so many ways in which he can bemoan his lover’s indifference and exhausts them and the reader’s patience.

But I think this first sonnet has one of the best opening images of any sonnet or poem: ‘Unto the boundless ocean of your beauty/runs this poor river…’

Margaret Atwood's 'Marrying the Hangman'.

This is based on a true story.

According to the note on the poetry website at :

Jean Cololère, a drummer in the colonial troops at Québec, was imprisoned for duelling in 1751. In the cell next to his was Françoise Laurent, who had been sentenced to hang for stealing. Except for letters of pardon, the only way at the time for someone under sentence of death to escape hanging was, for a man, to become a hangman, or, for a woman, to marry one. Françoise persuaded Cololère to apply for the vacant (and undesirable) post of executioner, and also to marry her.

—Condensed from the Dictionary of Canadian Biography, Volume III, 1741-1770

What I admire most about this piece is the way it makes its point by leaving it to the reader to work out what the point might be. In a perfectly pitched declarative language, Atwood tells a strange and unforgetable story, drawing the readers in, inviting them to imagine the situation. Then having suggested more is happening here beyond the biographical details, the story seems to shrug, put its hands in its pockets, and walks off, whistling, leaving the audience to unwrap the parcel. It’s an effect I like very much.

from the Old English 'The Dream of the Rood'.

Inanimate things speak in Old English poetry, often in ways that are ambigious and thought provoking.

in this case, the Cross manages to convey the painful ambiguity of its response. It wants to crush the enemies of Christ. it wants to bend and break. Instead it does its duty, stands fast and allows the eager hero to mount his gallows.

The poem begins with a speaker anouncing that he will tell us ‘The dream of dreams!’. He tells us how he dreamt about the Rood, the Cross on which Christ was crucified. He describes how the Cross appears, and his descripiton acts as a fame or at least an introduction before the Cross itself begins to speak. The passage I’m reading contains the last four lines of the intial dream description and then the opening portion of the Rood’s story of itself.

This is Michael Alexander’s translation from ‘The Earliest English Poems’ published by Penguin Classics, which has recently been reissued as ‘The First Poems in English’. You can hear the whole poem read in Old English by Micheal Drout at


The modern title is ambigious. The Poem is not the dream belonging to the Rood, it’s the dream about the Rood.

Bruce Dawe's 'And a Good Friday Was Had By All'

This is taken from Bruce Dawe’s ‘Sometimes Gladness’ a book I’d recommend to anyone.

When I first came to Australia, I knew nothing about a thing called ‘Australian Poetry’. But as an English teacher of English dropped into an Australian high school mid semester I discovered I was supposed to be teaching a unit on Australian Poetry. I raided the school’s stack of poetry books and took them home and read them with a desperation tinged with panic. This poem was the first one I found that I admired.

You could spend a lot of time turning this poem over to consider how you as reader are meant to react to the speaker. He is a soldier doing his job. On this particular Friday his job is to crucify people: ‘Nothing personal you understand….’. or what the title implies about all the people mentioned in the poem.

Michael Longley's 'Laertes'.

Ulysses/Odysseus again. This time one of Michael Longley’s superb reimaginings of Homeric episodes. That magnificent final line, ‘‘And cradled like driftwood the bones of his dwindling father’ with all its humanity and compassion, can be offset against ‘The Butchers’ in which Longley describes, unflinchingly, the brutality of Odysseus’ treatment of the Suitors and Maids.

David Jones' 'The Hunt'.

David Jones (1895-1974) has been described as ‘the forgotten British Modernist’. But he was a genre all to himself, a modernist who loved Malory, a catholic who was fascinated by the Matter of Britain and the symbolism and litergy of the mass. No one blurred the distinction between poetry and prose, or calls the distinction into account more thoroughly than he did.

'In Parenthesis' is probably unique, certainly my vote for the best book to come out of the first world war, but whether it’s prose, or poetry or poetic prose I don’t know and honestly don’t care.

The Hunt is taken from ‘The Sleeping Lord and Other Fragments’. Jones notes, at the end, that is part of an incomplete attempt based the Medieval Welsh tale Culuwch and Olwen…a significant part of which tells of the hunting of the great boar Twyrth by all the war bands of the Island led by Arthur.

Ezra Pound's 'Canto II'

Ezra Pound (1885-1972) is possibly both the most influential and the most controversial poet of the twentieth century. Love him or loathe him, there’s a lot to learn from his poetry even if all you want to do is explain why you think it’s terrible. As an adult in any democracy you can make up your own mind about his politics and how it affects his poems and your reading of them.

I’ve read the Cantos through twice. So to say they are unreadable is obviously false. But they contain great swathes of boring, badly written prose; page after page littered with Chinese symbols and/or bits of Greek, and Canto after Canto of tedious attempts at ‘history’. They also contain jaw dropping moments of beauty.

This is the second Canto and it swings. I know no Greek so my pronunciation of Greek words and names is probably inaccurate.

Basil Buntings' 'Villon'

Basil Bunting (1900-1985) is one of the great English poets of the 20th century. Briggflatts, which for many people is the poem that substantiates that claim was written at the end of a long writing life, and tends to overshadow his earlier poems.

Villon is the first of his ‘sonatas’, the name he gave to his longer poems. Published when he was in his mid twenties, it tangles his interest in Villon the medieval poet with his own experiences in gaol as a conscientious objector and his more recent run in with the French police.

Seamus Heaney's 'The Given Note'.

In 2009 RTE issued a box set of Heaney reading all this poems, and once you’ve heard him read his own work, it never sounds right spoken by anyone else. But I like this poem. It evokes the traditional musicians and singers I’ve known over the years and suggests something more general about the creation of art.

You can also hear Heaney read this on the Cd ‘The Poet and the Piper’. As he approaches the end of the poem, Liam O’Flynn’s pipes bleed in to play a slow air. It’s perfect.

From ‘Opened Ground’…(1998/2013)

Derek Mahon's 'Everything is going to be alright'

Some poems stick in the memory, sometimes the whole poem, sometimes a phrase or phrases and resurface at the appropriate time. In this case ‘The poems flow from the hand unbidden/And the hidden source is the watchful heart.’ and ‘There will be dying, there will be dying/but there is no need to go into that.’

Sometimes the world is just too ugly to deal with and you have to find a reason for getting out of bed to face the day.

This particular poem, taken from Mahon’s ‘Selected poems’ (1991) is almost an invocation or prayer for the morning, but a complex one I’m not going to simplify by attempting to summarise in prose. Though I think the final line is more wish than prediction.

Liam Guilar 'Laȝamon remembers Ireland'.

This time a poem about Laȝamon rather than an extract from his poem.

This is taken from A Presentment of Englishry. Some scholars have suggested Laȝamon had been to Ireland though the evidence is less than circumstantial. But this section of A Presentment of Englishry is speculation about one of the first named poets writing in English after the conquest. and while there’s no proof Laȝamon knew Gerald of Wales, or went with Gerald and Prince John to Ireland, a tri-lingual clerk would have been a useful addition to anyone’s household. Gerald is the source for John’s historical Irish expedition and the equally historical beard pulling.

This poem first appeared in Meniscus