Posts Tagged ‘poetry’

Unusually I’m reviewing two books in one post – something I don’t think I have ever done before. Partly, this is an attempt to catch up at least a tiny bit and partly, because the second of the books is poetry – which I find so much harder to write about. Thematically the books work together well, focussing as they do, though in different ways on WW2 and I was actually reading them side by side for at least part of the time.

Human Voices by Penelope Fitzgerald is the seventh of her nine novels that I have read – though it is seven years since I last read her at all. I’ve no idea why I had waited so long – this novel must surely be one of her best. Atmospheric, funny and hugely readable, due in no small part to the wonderfully vivid characters, Fitzgerald’s world is immediately relatable.

“As an institution that could not tell a lie, they were unique in the contrivances of gods and men since the Oracle of Delphi. As office managers, they were no more than adequate, but now, as autumn approached, with the exiles crowded awkwardly into their new sections, they were broadcasting in the strictest sense of the word, scattering human voices into the darkness of Europe, in the certainty that more than half must be lost, some for the rook, some for the crow, for the sake of a few that made their mark. And everyone who worked there, bitterly complaining about the short-sightedness of their colleagues, the vanity of the news readers, the remoteness of the Controllers and the restrictive nature of the canteen’s one teaspoon, felt a certain pride which they had no way to express, either then or since.”

London during the early years of World War two – and the men and women who make their living in Broadcasting House are committed to recording and sharing the voices and experiences of wartime Britain. Their mission always to tell the truth on air. The war has brought changes for all of them, with blackouts, bombs falling, and a dormitory set up in the concert hall for those working late. As the war progresses, little anxieties creep in, as the professional interests of different departments clash. The BBC have decided that truth must never be sacrificed for the sake of consolation – that people must know exactly what is happening in the war, must have all the information they require. There is a fabulous set piece when a French general arrives at Broadcasting House to address Britain – it very nearly leads to disaster.

Sam Brooks the RPD spends very long hours at Broadcasting House, barely leaving it. He likes to confide his worries to the young female assistants he surrounds himself with, pushing plates of cheese sandwiches under their noses as he talks. Annie and Lise are two recent recruits finding their way in the confusing world of broadcasting. Lise spends a lot of time talking about her French boyfriend. Needing somewhere to live she is briefly befriended by Vi – a more experienced member of the team and is taken home to lodge with Vi’s family. Lise seems like a troubled young woman, and drifts in and out of BH, appearing and disappearing without word.

“‘All my energies are concentrated, and always have been, and always will be, on one thing, the recording of sound and of the human voice. That doesn’t make for an easy life, you understand.’”

There is no doubt that Sam is a perfectionist, his work an obsession. Jeff Haggard is the DPP – he and Sam have been working together for more than a decade. Whenever Sam gets himself into a bit of a fix it’s generally Jeff who has to sort him out – they make a pretty good team. Both men have marital difficulties in their fairly recent past – acknowledged briefly though not talked about. Sam takes new girl Annie under his wing, the daughter of a piano tuner from Birmingham, Sam wants to teach her all he knows about sound and is more than a bit non plussed when she corrects him on a matter of pitch.

Fitzgerald was writing from her own experience of working for the BBC during the war, and that comes across strongly in the atmosphere she reproduces here.

Virginia Graham’s volume of world war two poems Consider the Years turned out to be a wonderful companion to Human Voices. Originally, I began reading it for the Persephone readathon a few weeks ago – only reading half of it during that weekend, I continued to dip in and out throughout the following week.

These war poems are thoroughly delightful, many of them loosely structured they are in fact written in a variety of styles. Arranged chronologically by the year they were written; they allow us to see the changing nature of war. Virginia Graham uses her poetry to chronicle her war – and her poetry is, suggests Anne Harvey, writing the preface to this edition, quite close to that of Betjeman.

There is a narrative to many of the poems which one could quite easily see as mini short stories. We have debutantes at a country hunt ball, air raids over Bristol, wartime food, soldiers on leave, the changed atmosphere of everyday life, so many aspects in fact of life during wartime.

One of my favourite poems from 1939 is Somewhere in England – in which I can really imagine people harking back to happier times, when there was less urgency in their daily routines.

“Somewhere there must be women reading books,
and talking of chicken rissoles to their cooks;

But every time I try to read The Grapes of Wrath

I am sent forth

On some occupation

Apparently immensely vital to the nation.

(‘Somewhere in England’)”

I don’t read much poetry these days, but this one was a real treat. Virginia Graham is warm and humorous, her social commentary witty and well observed. A truly fabulous little collection.

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the worlds wife

This is the second poetry collection that I have reviewed this year, The World’s Wife was chosen by one of my two book groups as our May book. I already knew that I really liked Carol Ann Duffy’s work, although I hadn’t really read that much before – and never an entire collection in one go. This collection, first published in 1999 was Carol Ann Duffy’s first themed collection. In these wonderful poems Carol Ann Duffy takes traditional stories, tales of historical figures and myths which traditionally focus on a male character or perspective. Turning these stories on their head then, we see them from the perspective of the invisible women behind those men.

“Teach me, he said –
we were lying in bed –
how to care.
I nibbled the purse of his ear.
What do you mean? Tell me more.
He sat up and reached for his beer”
(from Delilah)

Duffy plays around a little with these stories with clever little twists and turns. Some of the poems tell a recognisable story from history that we think we know already, but from the perspective of the woman in that man’s life – as in the poems Mrs Quasimodo and Mrs Aesop. While other poems turn the male characters and their stories into stories of women as in the poem Mrs Krays. In the opening poem – and one of my favourites, Duffy changes the message of the original story of Little Riding Hood in her poem Little Red Cap. Here the woods represent the transition out of childhood, as Little Red Cap falls in love with the wolf, later taking revenge and using her experience of him as guidance for the rest of her life. I have read that the poem is also viewed as an autobiographical account of Carol Ann Duffy’s relationship with the poet Adrian Henri. I particularly loved the imagery in this poem, the streets of childhood, factories and allotments giving way to the unknown woods of an unexplored adult world.

“At childhood’s end, the houses petered out
into playing fields, the factory, allotments
kept, like mistresses, by kneeling married men,
the silent railway line, the hermit’s caravan,
till you came at last to the edge of the woods.
It was there that I first clapped eyes on the wolf.

He stood in a clearing, reading his verse out loud
in his wolfy drawl, a paperback in his hairy paw,
red wine staining his bearded jaw. What big ears
he had! What big eyes he had! What teeth!
In the interval, I made quite sure he spotted me,
sweet sixteen, never been, babe, waif, and bought me a drink,”
(From Little Red Cap)

These poems written very much from a feminist perspective cover such themes as birth, bereavement, sexism and equality. In this collection female characters are able to speak out for themselves no longer silenced by male dominance. A number of the poems remain set in their original historical period, while others are given an updated modern setting. Duffy also shows flashes of brilliant humour such as in Mrs Icarus.

“I’m not the first or the last
to stand on a hillock,
watching the man she married
prove to the world
he’s a total, utter, absolute, Grade A pillock.”
(Mrs Icarus)

In her poem Anne Hathaway Duffy was apparently inspired by the passage in William Shakespeare’s will which refers to his second best bed – this according to Duffy would have been the couple’s marriage bed – the bed not reserved for guests. The poem, a sonnet is a celebration of their love. This is a gently flowing poem, the language and imagery perfect and in a way a little Shakespearean, reminding us of Hamlet, The Tempest and other great works.

“The bed we loved in was a spinning world
of forests, castles, torchlight, clifftops, seas
where he would dive for pearls. My lover’s words
were shooting stars which fell to earth as kisses
on these lips; my body now a softer rhyme
to his, now echo, assonance; his touch
a verb dancing in the centre of a noun.
Some nights, I dreamed he’d written me, the bed
A page beneath his writer’s hands. Romance
and drama played by touch, by scent, by taste.
In the other bed, our best, our guests dozed on,
dribbling their prose. My living laughing love –
I hold him in the casket of my widow’s head
as he held me upon that next best bed.
(Anne Hathaway)

There is in fact so much to explore in this collection, so much to think about there are some quite complex and even controversial ideas in these superb poems, some of which I suppose are more accessible than others, though I found them all very readable and could have easily quoted far more than I have.

carol ann duffy2

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emilydickinsonI have been dipping my toe back into the poetry water a little this year and so it was I signed up for a poem to be delivered each Friday into my email inbox. Many of you will already be aware of this – but hadn’t heard of it until the end of last year. For anyone who doesn’t know you can sign up at Picador – and you will have a poem sent to you each week. Over the months I have had poems of Carol Ann Duffy, Walt Whitman, Tennyson and Emily Dickinson among others – and what a lovely thing it is – I only regret that I only recently started to save the poems in a folder on my computer – many of the ones from the last few months have been consigned to the email dustbin.

I loved this poem from a couple of weeks ago.

The Moon was But a Chin of Gold by Emily Dickinson

The Moon was but a Chin of Gold
A Night or two ago –
And now she turns Her perfect Face
Upon the World below –
Her Forehead is of Amplest Blonde –
Her Cheek – a Beryl hewn –
Her Eye unto the Summer Dew
The likest I have known –
Her Lips of Amber never part –
But what must be the smile
Upon Her Friend she could confer
Were such Her Silver Will –
And what a privilege to be
But the remotest Star –
For Certainty She take Her Way
Beside Your Palace Door –
Her Bonnet is the Firmament –
The Universe – Her Shoe –
The Stars – the Trinkets at Her Belt –
Her Dimities – of Blue.

clivejamesRecently this poem Japanese Maple by Clive James – stopped me in my tracks – beautiful, sad and for me very surprising – I had not known Clive James wrote poetry looking at his Wikipedia page I really should have known that.

Japanese Maple by Clive James

Your death, near now, is of an easy sort.
So slow a fading out brings no real pain.
Breath growing short
Is just uncomfortable. You feel the drain
Of energy, but thought and sight remain:
Enhanced, in fact. When did you ever see
So much sweet beauty as when fine rain falls
On that small tree
And saturates your brick back garden walls,
So many Amber Rooms and mirror halls?
Ever more lavish as the dusk descends
This glistening illuminates the air.
It never ends.
Whenever the rain comes it will be there,
Beyond my time, but now I take my share.
My daughter’s choice, the maple tree is new.
Come autumn and its leaves will turn to flame.
What I must do
Is live to see that. That will end the game
For me, though life continues all the same:
Filling the double doors to bathe my eyes,
A final flood of colours will live on
As my mind dies,
Burned by my vision of a world that shone
So brightly at the last, and then was gone.

2015-04-16_20.26.45A few weeks ago I bought a number of the little black penguins – one of which is the deliciously titled The Night is Darkening Round me – by Emily Bronte. This small volume of about thirty of Bronte’s poems is number 63 of 80 little black penguins – which I am trying hard not to start collecting. These poems are passionate, powerful and often poignant, depicting nature and the passage of time. I have to admit it is very many years since I read Emily Bronte’s famous Wuthering Heights – but I have never before read her poetry – and although I haven’t quite read them all yet – it is actually making me want to return to that novel for which I have such mixed feelings.

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Back in December I pledged my intent to bring poetry back into my life. Poetry was something I read much more of in my late teens and early twenties, but it is a habit that I grew out of somewhere along the line. Perhaps because of my own youthful flirtation with poetry part of me associates it with grumpy teenagers wallowing unsociably in back bedrooms.

Back then, still living at home, typically monosyllabic and unimpressed by life, I read Sylvia Plath’s autobiographical novel The Bell Jar, following that up with Johnny Panic and the Bible of Dreams – I may have to revisit these books one day – they made an enormous impression on me at the time. I went on naturally enough to read some of Sylvia Plath’s poetry – I always found it challenging – but there was so much in the imagery of her language that spoke to me back then, that Sylvia Plath has remained somewhere at the back of my mind ever since. A couple of months ago – I treated myself to a lovely little hardback copy of Ariel – I suspect I once had a paperback copy at some time but where these old books disappear to nobody knows.

I am very aware that I haven’t a clue how to review collections of poetry – I have never done so before. Perhaps all I can do is share some of Sylvia’s beautiful imagery – and some of my own thoughts about it.

Ariel; published posthumously in 1965, two years after Plath’s suicide – was her second collection of poetry – and it is deeply personal, often intimate, and frequently challenging. Her themes are those of marriage and motherhood, sexuality, depression, death and suicide. Plath’s poetry is lyrical and though often dark there is a strange luminosity to many of her images.

“The tulips are too excitable, it is winter here.
Look how white everything is, how quiet, how snowed in
I am learning peacefulness, lying by myself quietly
As the light lies on these white walls, this bed, these hands.
I am nobody; I have nothing to do with explosions.
I have given my name and my day-clothes up to the nurses
And my history to the anaesthetist and my body to surgeons.

They have propped my head between the pillow and the sheet-cuff
Like an eye between two white lids that will not shut.
Stupid pupil, it has to take everything in.
The nurses pass and pass, they are no trouble,
They pass the way gulls pass inland in their white caps,
Doing things with their hands, one just the same as another,
So it is impossible to tell how many there are”
(from Tulips 1961)

Hospitals feature several times, not surprisingly – and I do love how Plath captures the white, stillness and other worldness of a hospital room. The speaker has yielded her identity to the nurses and doctors, the violent colour of the tulips – presumably a gift – interrupting the white calmness of the hospital environment.

One of her most famous poems ‘Daddy’, with its images of war and holocaust appears an angry railing against her father, a Nazi sympathiser who died when she was a child – scholars apparently differ on just how biographical it is.

“Daddy, I have had to kill you.
You died before I had time ”

(From Daddy)

Probably her most famous poem in this collection is Lady Lazarus, a poem I must have read dozens of times in my teens. It is a poem that talks about Plath’s own previous suicide attempts, and her subsequent resurrections, it is also another poem containing images of the holocaust – looking back I find myself a little disturbed at my seventeen year old self’s fascination with it.

“I have done it again.
One year in every ten
I manage it –”
(From Lady Lazarus –

I particularly discovered, how one reads poetry entirely differently to prose – I hadn’t thought about that much before, but it is inevitable though; poetry is such a different art form. I enjoyed dipping in and out of this collection, most of the poems I had to read over and over – allowing the language and the imagery to wash over me. I realise I probably chose a quite challenging collection to begin my renewed poetry reading – but I enjoyed the challenge, although I don’t pretend that I understood completely every word – sometimes I suspect I only gained a vague sense of what lies behind Plath’s words. I have to admit that the title poem Ariel remained a frustrating enigma – despite re-reading it countless times – I looked it up on Wikipedia for some enlightenment – it’s about a horse.

One of my favourites – another one concerned with death – is Edge – it isn’t cheery stuff, although strangely perhaps I don’t find it depressing – but the imagery is perfect, the lines flow into each other effortlessly.

The woman is perfected.
Her dead

Body wears the smile of accomplishment,
The illusion of a Greek necessity

Flows in the scrolls of her toga,
Her bare

Feet seem to be saying:
We have come so far, it is over.
(From Edge -1960)

Sylvia Plath was a complex, intelligent, damaged woman, and this is very much reflected in her poetry.


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Poets Corner


Recently a couple of blog posts have popped up in my reader about poetry of one kind or another, unfortunately I can’t remember who posted them, but they really got me thinking. When I was much younger; in my late teens and early twenties I loved poetry, I can’t say I read it obsessively, but I did read it, and, I blush to admit, wrote it for a while. As time has gone on I have very much neglected poetry, and now find I own hardly any, most of the few collections I had having been callously culled from my overcrowded shelves. So when I consider the kind of beautiful poetic prose that I so admire in the fiction I read, I have to ask myself why on earth I am reading so very little poetry. One of my favourite writers as many of you will know is Thomas Hardy a man who dedicated the latter years of his life to his great love for poetry, yet I could quote only a couple of lines of Hardy poetry, my fear is I won’t like it as much as his novels and stories. This will change, poetry is coming back into my life – I even went out and bought some the other day.

20141220_200856I bought – Ariel by Sylvia Plath, a classic and maybe an odd choice in some ways – but I have been meaning to re-read The Bell Jar and I remember being impressed by Lady Lazarus when I was young and angst ridden, (I may have owned this collection before – certainly read some of it before) Lady Lazarus is included in the collection, those first few lines still give me goose bumps for some reason.



“I have done it again.
One year in every ten
I manage it –
A sort of walking miracle, my skin
Bright as a Nazi lampshade”

(From Lady Lazarus by Sylvia Plath)

I can’t say I find Sylvia Plath an easy poet or novelist to read, yet there is something about her that makes me want to read her still.

My second poetic purchase was something very different, something absolutely gorgeous. Picador have brought out some absolutely beautiful little stocking filler sized books by Poet Laureate Carol Ann Duffy; they are small square books, beautifully illustrated they would make a wonderful gift, so I bought one, for myself. Dorothy Wordsworth’s Christmas Birthday, illustrated by Tom Duxbury is a little gem.  20141220_200551



“First frost at midnight –
Moon, Venus and Jupiter
named in their places

Ice, like a cold key,
turning its lock on the lake;
nervous stars trapped there.

Darkness, a hand poised
over the chord of the hills;
the strange word moveless

The landscape muted;
soft apprehension of snow,
a holding of breath

(From Dorothy Wordsworth’s Christmas Birthday by Carol Ann Duffy)

christmastruceOne of the Carol Ann Duffy books on the table in Waterstones was a larger picture/poetry book, also more expensive, tempted though I was I didn’t buy it – it is called The Christmas Truce – a poem about the famous truce of WW1 – I later left the shop with a small book shaped regret in my heart – I may yet go back and buy it. Later that day, I was tweeting about Dorothy Wordsworth’s Christmas Birthday, and Picador alerted me to a link; a way of getting a poem sent to my email inbox – I signed up. The Christmas Truce poem arrived in my inbox complete with a few lovely little illustrations. It rather made my day.

Christmas Eve in the trenches of France,
the guns were quiet.
The dead lay still in No Man’s Land –
Freddie, Franz, Friedrich, Frank . . .
The moon, like a medal, hung in the clear, cold sky.

Silver frost on barbed wire, strange tinsel,
sparkled and winked.
A boy from Stroud stared at a star
to meet his mother’s eyesight there.
An owl swooped on a rat on the glove of a corpse.

In a copse of trees behind the lines,
a lone bird sang.
A soldier-poet noted it down – a robin
holding his winter ground –
then silence spread and touched each man like a hand.

(From A Christmas Truce – Carol Ann Duffy)

So then, one of my reading resolutions for next year will be to read more poetry. I don’t feel very knowledgeable about poetry, I certainly don’t feel very confident about talking about it, but I just (apologies – shudderingly awful phrase coming up) know what I like. As far as what I like – well I think I like a variety of different things – I think I rather like Robert Frost – well what little of his poetry I have read, and I want to read more Hardy poetry, I like many of the war poets, and John Clare. However there is a lot of poetry that still leaves me rather cold, and I’m still not sure what it is that makes me like what I like, and not like other things so much, that I suppose, is what I need to explore. You can assume that I will write occasionally about the poetry I have been reading, and no doubt will acquire more, so if you have recommendations for me I’d love to have them.

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National Poetry Day

It’s national poetry day – and I want to share a couple of my favourites. The first poem by Robert Frost – has a final stanza which reminds me of my dear Dad who died in 2007 – he often quoted it.
Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening

Whose woods these are I think I know.
His house is in the village, though;
He will not see me stopping here
To watch his woods fill up with snow.

My little horse must think it queer
To stop without a farmhouse near
Between the woods and frozen lake
The darkest evening of the year.

He gives his harness bells a shake
To ask if there is some mistake.
The only other sound’s the sweep
Of easy wind and downy flake.

The woods are lovely, dark, and deep,
But I have promises to keep,
And miles to go before I sleep,
And miles to go before I sleep.
Robert Frost

This second poem is I am by John Clare – a poet who I discovered as an angst ridden teenager and this poem particularly appealed back then – I still rather love it.

I Am

I am: yet what I am none cares or knows,
My friends forsake me like a memory lost;
I am the self-consumer of my woes,
They rise and vanish in oblivious host,
Like shades in love and death’s oblivion lost;
And yet I am! and live with shadows tost

Into the nothingness of scorn and noise,
Into the living sea of waking dreams,
Where there is neither sense of life nor joys,
But the vast shipwreck of my life’s esteems;
And e’en the dearest–that I loved the best–
Are strange–nay, rather stranger than the rest.

I long for scenes where man has never trod;
A place where woman never smil’d or wept;
There to abide with my creator, God,
And sleep as I in childhood sweetly slept:
Untroubling and untroubled where I lie;
The grass below–above the vaulted sky.
John Clare


Which is your favourite poem – or the one you remember best?

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