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.

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.

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.

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.’

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.

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

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.

Lesley Saunders' 'Ephemera'

This is the second reading from ‘Nominy Dominy’ Two rivers press, 2019.

I love this because it celebrates something I care about.

Whether you call it culture, or civilisation, it’s the result of a fragile paper trail, and it relies on the saints and scholars and scribes, and the anything but saintly students of the word, whether the word is Greek or Latin or Arabic, whether the religion is Christian or Muslim, Hindu or Bhuddist, whether sacred text or medical treatise, this thing called culture relies for its survival on the humans who often stuffed a book in their pocket or their bag before they ran, and on the men and women who spent lifetimes translating, copying, deciphering, who were curious and cared for something both precious and fragile in their own varied ways.

And despite the barbarians and their barbaric indifference, there have always been those who cared.

‘The infidel tribe of philologues’ doesn’t make the history books that often. But without them there are no books, and no history.

Saunders dedicated ‘Ephemera’ to Jo Balmer.

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.

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.

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.