I can’t claim to very well read in poetry or have any understanding of any deeper meaning it might have but I just enjoy reading it. I enjoy finding a particularly elegant turn of phrase or a poem that puts into words far more eloquently than I ever could something that I have at one time felt.
As a bit of background, if you’re interested, this blog post has been partly inspired by this tweet…
…which kind of cut through all my worrying that no one was ever going to read my blog because it was all about stuff that only I could relate to. It reminded me (if I needed reminding four posts in) that I wasn’t really writing it so people would read it and that it’s totally ok for everything I post to be completely self-indulgent. So that’s what this post is; a self-indulgent look at why I like poetry, how I started liking poetry and some of my favourite poetry.
It was also a little inspired because I’ve been doing the seasons reading challenge by Penguin Books on Instagram and yesterday’s was a book of poetry (I chose a rather lovely copy of The Ballad of Reading Gaol by Oscar Wilde, as seen in the header).
My love of poetry started from just as embarrassing a source as my love of reading – One Tree Hill. In the early episodes of One Tree Hill some episodes used to end with a line of poetry or famous quote. Then the writers decided they could do a better job than Shakespeare, Robert Louis Stevenson, Tennessee Williams, John Steinbeck and started writing their own. And I stopped watching. But before that point they used some brilliant ones – a favourite of mine being, ‘Every normal man must be tempted, at times, to spit upon his hands, hoist the black flag, and begin slitting throats’ (E L Mencken). The one that actually sparked my love of poetry though was ‘Invictus’ by William Ernest Henley. It prompted me to track down the poem and read it. Now that I think about it I find it hard to believe this was the first time I had come across this poem because it crops up everywhere. But at the time I was entirely ignorant of almost all poetry.
I don’t just read poetry though; I like to learn it off my heart. The postscript of one of my favourite collections of poetry, The New Dragon Book of Verse, written by John Betjemen, says,
Learning a poem by heart is the best way of liking it, but you have to like it at first glance to want to learn it by heart. You also need to have heard it read out loud or read it out loud yourself before you take on learning it.
Well that’s totally true for me. I scan through collections looking for poems that catch my eye. Nothing too long and preferably about love or death rather than landscapes. Then I’ll read the first line, the last line and then read it out loud to myself to see if I like the rhythm of it. And once I’ve done that I’ll just keep coming back to my favourites until I know them off my heart.
As a side note, it is actually helpful to me knowing them off by heart. I often struggle to get to sleep and to keep my mind occupied instead of wandering into upsetting thoughts I’ll recite poetry to myself. I came across a quote (from a book, not a poem, but it sort of fits with the theme) that perfectly summed that feeling up – ‘everything seems blacker in the middle of the night’ – and to some extent reciting poetry can nip that in the bud.
There’s a great quote from The History Boys about those wonderful moments when a poem resonates with a thought that you’ve had:
The best moments in reading are when you come across something – a thought, a feeling, a way of looking at things, that you’d thought special, particular to you, and here it is, set down by someone else. A person you’ve never met, maybe even someone long dead. And it’s as if a hand has come out and taken yours.
So here’s a list (because I love a list) of the poetry and verse that I know off by heart:
- Stop All the Clocks – W H Auden
- Five Ways to Kill a Man – Edwin Brock
- Jabberwocky – Lewis Carroll
- There is a pain – so utter – – Emily Dickinson
- Parting – Emily Dickinson
- Stopping by the Woods on a Snowy Evening – Robert Frost
- The Road not Taken – Robert Frost
- Invictus – William Ernest Henley
- The Man He Killed – Thomas Hardy
- Drummer Hodge – Thomas Hardy
- Finis – Walter Savage Landor
- Hamlet’s Soliloquy – William Shakespeare (and quite a lot of other bits and pieces from Shakespeare’s plays)
- Sonnet 116 – William Shakespeare
- Sonnet 130 – William Shakespeare
- Requiem – Robert Louis Stevenson