Category: poetry appreciation

beside the seaside

I am lucky enough to be retreating from Real Life for a while: a week (ish) away near the Galloway coast in a house where there’s no internet and only a very feeble, intermittent phone signal. So this column will be on holiday along with me, though back as usual in a fortnight’s time. To give you a virtual visit to the sort of place I’ll be, and a vision of the sorts of creatures I hope to be gazing upon, here’s the vivid and wonderful ‘Rhu Mor‘ by Norma MacCaig. (Unfortunately I can’t find this anywhere on the internet with the poet’s own layout on the page, so we’ll have to make do with this. As consolation, you can hear MacCaig himself reading it here.)

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an unlikely trio

It’s very often time for Mary Oliver, I find, though I know those who do not agree. For those readers, best pass by. Today I wanted to read ‘Wild Geese‘, so I am. I know most people have already read it. I know that (like other Oliver texts) it’s been plundered for Pinterest posts and self-help-seminar titles and many, many Inspirational Items (posters, mugs, t-shirts, who knows what). Still, its beauty and wisdom persist—just as the Mona Lisa survives being a jigsaw. So: enjoy ‘Wild Geese’ all over again (with the plus of hearing Oliver read it).

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tenderness

One of the many weird, sad things about living during this time of pandemic is what it does to how we look on other people: suddenly everyone is threat, or potential threat, and connection is something to be avoided, not sought. I’d like to offer a little antidote to this—a reminder of connection as protection—in the shape of ‘Shoulders‘ by the deeply gifted Naomi Shihab Nye.

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the nearest thing to life

In an essay written just before her first published venture into fiction, Eliot claimed that ‘The greatest benefit we owe the artist, whether painter, poet, or novelist, is the extension of our sympathies’. She continues: ‘art is the nearest thing to life, it is a mode of amplifying experience and extending our contact with our fellow-men beyond the bounds of our personal lot’. It feels worth remembering this at the moment, when so many arts organisations and institutions seem to be staring down the twin barrels of Covid and being insufficiently valued/funded anyway (don’t get me started on what happened to the humanities when Literacy Hour and the National Curriculum came in…). And Eliot’s line rings round my head as I think about this week’s poem, ‘A Litany for Survival‘ by Audre Lorde. (You can find a tantalising trailer for a film about Lorde here.)

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triumph and honour

I was wondering why ‘To a Friend Whose Work Has Come to Nothing‘ swam to the surface this week. Then I sat down and thought about it and wondered no longer. A poem about shamelessness? about the difficulty of honour in a time when Might is Right? Hmm, not so difficult to fathom, perhaps, after all.

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peine forte et dure

Apparently that’s the name for the torture whereby a board was placed on top of you and weights gradually added until the life was crushed out of you (or you made a plea in relation to the crime of which you were accused). “Pressing”, as it was also known, comes to my mind every now and then these days when I turn on the news or check out The Grauniad website and hear what the latest Thing is. I have a distinctly physical sense of another weight being added, another piece of bad news and difficulty on top of what already felt like a crushing load. Thus half an hour ago I was to be seen sitting with my forehead on the desk trying to summon the energy and will to sit upright. I’m sure this is a common experience. What works, apart from coffee, chocolate or a walk in the wood, is acknowledging to myself what I’m actually feeling; and so I give you ‘Talking to Grief‘ by Denise Levertov.

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just say it

I’m very partial to a sonnet and was delighted, when teaching a course on Renaissance literature some years ago, to have the chance to indulge in some of my favourites. Marking the end-of-course essays, though, I was more dismayed than I can tell you when confronted with the datum that “Orsino puts Olivia on a pedal stool”. In at the ears and out at the pen without having passed through the brain… Think about pedal stools, then, as you read today’s poem, Astrophil and Stella I or ‘Loving in truth, and fain in verse my love to show‘ by Philip Sidney.

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