Books: Poetry Notebook — Poetry Archive Tour |
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Poetry Archive Tour

‘Mayflies’ by Richard Wilbur

After he came back to the US from the fighting in Europe, Richard Wilbur set a standard for post-war American lyric poetry which nobody else could quite match. Some had the sense of form, some the originality of imagery, but he had both. His stanza forms, many of them invented by himself, can be analysed forever, but his details can be enjoyed instantly. In the little poem ‘Mayflies’ there is a moment I love, when the tiny creatures, rising and descending in the air, are called ‘the fine pistons of some bright machine’. How did he think of that?

‘The Whitsun Weddings’ by Philip Larkin

Otherwise hard to criticize in his poetic greatness, Philip Larkin was sometimes called a dull reciter of his own poetry, but in fact he was good at that too. His unexciting looks were matched by an unexciting voice, but unlike almost all professional actors he knew how to observe his line endings, and never made the mistake of trying to put extra emotion into lines that already had, packed within them, all the emotion they could take. He must have known that ‘The Whitsun Weddings’ was a great poem, but he read it out with deliberate matter-of-factness, reminding us that it largely is a matter of fact. As the everyday details succeed each other, the story is built up which comes to its magnificent climax in the final image of the arrow shower — one of great poetic moments of modern times, a coup on a level with Shakespeare, and, when read out by its author, all the more effective for being merely said, and not declaimed.

‘A Subaltern’s Love Song’ by John Betjeman

In this recording, it is only appropriate that Betjeman, on being asked to recite ‘Joan Hunter Dunn’, has to search for it in his book, unable to find it because it isn’t called that. The heroine of the poem, the most dominating of the poet’s long line of strapping sports girls, became so famous she stepped out of the shrine he had built for her and took on a new, permanent life. Betjeman’s poems got into the national consciousness like nobody else’s, and they did so at every level of class: it wasn’t just the gentry who relished his music. Some of the critics hated it because they thought poetry should sound harder to come by, but if they had known more about poetic technique they would have seen Betjeman to be the dedicated craftsman that Philip Larkin so much, and so rightly, admired.

‘Jerusalem’ by James Fenton

As a reciter of his own work, James Fenton has the precious double gift of speaking with unaffected naturalness while retaining all the rigorous construction of his verse forms. The exemplary counterpoint comes in especially handy when he recites ‘Jerusalem’, which is composed of verbal fragments, and would easily seem to fall apart if his voice failed to match the control of tone that holds it together. Many of the phrases come out of those areas of contemporary experience that unsettle us all by threatening to bring us into the firing line. ‘Who packed your bag?’ Fenton, who has actually seen the firing line from close up, is very generous in supposing that his readers might be as concerned as he is about a world in conflict, and his poetry in general can be said to arouse the disturbing possibility that history will give us a poetry more interesting than serenity.

‘The Red Sea’ by Stephen Edgar

Stephen Edgar is the Australian poet who most convincingly, and most rewardingly, continues and enriches the line of the orderly lyric that was established after the Second World War by Richard Wilbur and Anthony Hecht, but Edgar has a range of pinpoint registration exceeding even theirs, mainly because he doesn’t hesitate to avail himself of a scientific vocabulary. In ‘The Red Sea’, the poem is into its second stanza before we realize the yachts are toys, and there is a new revelation at least once per stanza until, in the end, the threat of the real world arrives in the form of Macbeth’s bloodlust. The vast scale of argument packed into small melodic stanzas is typical, as is the quiet voice, which reminds us that only a carefully schooled detachment could possibly see so much.

‘Machines’ by Michael Donaghy

The late Michael Donaghy was a renowned reader of his own work. He had his poems by heart and recited them without a hint of histrionics, relying always on the natural music of the colloquial American voice. As a consequence there was an often striking contrast between the ease of the delivery and the intricacy of the construction. ‘Machines’ is an artefact at least as well built as either the harpsichord or the bicycle celebrated in the narrative, the two miracles of construction being brought together in marriage in the final lines, which are understated in the writing, and even more so when he reads them aloud. As his fine critical writings continually emphasize, Donaghy was a great believer in the formal element, but he always left room for the reader to discover it.


When talking about Michael Donaghy’s poem ‘Machines’ I made the large assumption that a poem’s form can be appreciated while the work is being recited. My own view is that if the recital is careful enough, it can; but the contrary view is easier to hold, because bits of the poem, unless we already know the poem well, will snag the attention and divert the concentration. Such diversions, indeed, can be called a key requirement. What is a poem whose single moments do not arrest you? It sounds as if it might be pabulum. Nevertheless, no matter how brilliant the fragment, we are not likely to attribute poetic virtue to its author until we get some structural evidence that he or she is not writing prose. Usually, for evidence, we need a stanza; and it has always been my own conviction that you need the ability to build a stanza if you are to get into the game. A stack of stanzas would be better; but failing that, one stanza is the necessary minimum. By that measure, the author of the scurrilous ‘Ballad of Eskimo Nell’ was a poet but Jack London was not. They both wrote poems about the deadly rigours of the frozen North, but Jack London, though he longed for success as a poet, never wrote a stanza that anyone wanted to remember: his whole gift was for prose. Thus, poor guy, he was condemned to fame and wealth: a fate that most poets avoid.

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