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: https://ladygodivaandme.blogspot.com/2018/05/leslie-saunders-praise-song-for-pair-of.html

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
Fear
Envoy

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

Margaret Atwood's 'Marrying the Hangman'.

This is based on a true story.

According to the note on the poetry website at : https://www.poetryfoundation.org/poems/47789/marrying-the-hangman

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.

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.

Dylan Thomas' 'Lament'.

Does anyone still read Dylan Thomas? Other than ‘Do not go gentle into that good night?’ He was a significant literary figure when I was growing up. His collected poems was the first book of poems I bought, in 1976. Perhaps he was an antidote to the spare understated poetry that was so ubiquitous. And then like a lot of things that were important in adolescence he was left behind.

Today the alliterating, three adjectives to every noun and no verb without an adverb tub thumbing pulpit pounding style can seem overloaded, tortuous, and teter on the edge of meaninglessness, but, often as in this poem, his style is still a pleasure to read aloud.

A.D.Hope's 'The End of a Journey'

Homer's story of Ulysses has attracted numerous poets over the years. In a previous episode, I read Tennyson’s, perhaps the most well known, in which the aging hero sets out again, admirable, undaunted and defiant. But the return of Ulysses to Ithaca can be read in other ways. Even within Homer's version, his actions are troubling. The wholesale slaughter of the suitors and the execution of the maids seem excessive rather than heroic.

And more prosaically, after all those adventures what would the morning after his triumph feel like. A.D Hope’s version is less heroic, less hopeful, perhaps more realistic.

A.D.Hope (1907-2000) was an Australian poet, an austere formalist, a writer of satires, considered by some to be one of the best Australian poets of the century, but often overlooked except for the much anthologised ‘Australia’. ‘The End of A Journey’ is taken from his 'Collected Poems 1930-1970'.