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.

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.

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.

Louis MacNeice 'Cradle song for Eleanor'

This is one of the first poems I memorised, a very long time ago. Louise MacNeice is often overlooked or undervalued in histories of English poetry where he is overshadowed by his friend W. H. Auden. But he was one of the great lyric poets writing in English in the twentieth century. To mark the centenary of his birth in 2007 Peter McDonald edited a beautiful collected for Faber. McDonald also contributed an excellent discussion of Cradle song to 'Incorrigibly Plural: Louis MacNeice and his legacy' essays edited by Fran Brearton and Edna Longley (Carcanet 2012). (An essay is excellent when it makes you revist a poem you’ve known for forty years and see things you hadn’t previously noticed…)