Books of poems: gwallter’s top 10

December 8, 2023 6 Comments

For want of shelf space, I’m having to lay new books horizontally, on top of earlier books.  They threaten to warp and then turn solid, like sedimentary rocks.  Soon I’ll need to have another cull.  I doubt, though, whether the censor will make much of an impression on the three-shelf-long poetry collection.  Books of poems have a habit of gluing themselves to your mind, probably because their contents receive more attention than others.  It only takes one reading of a single poem for the volume it’s in to book its place on the shelf for a few more years.

But if you press me, I have to admit that some are more cherished than others.  Here are ten poetry books that I wouldn’t do without.  I’m not much of a poet – I can sometimes find the words, but only occasionally get them to dance – but I’ve always loved reading and listening to the poems of others, and my tastes are catholic.  (I’ve left out here poetry in Welsh, and in Latin and Greek, which belong to other, specialist ‘top tens’, and anthologies.)

Emily Dickinson, The complete poems

This is like a big box of toys.  Having managed with various ‘selecteds’ up to then, in 2004 I splashed out on the lot – a volume of regular height and width, but unusual depth, very nearly six centimetres.  The great thing about it is that you can pick it off the shelf, even late at night when the eyes are failing, read a single poem at random – most occupy half a page or less – and let the words roll around in your mind.  Emily Dickinson is the patron goddess of hyphens, and she uses them to atomise her thoughts and put them at your service.  The words, like sub-atomic particles, behave in often unpredictable ways.

The key to reading her, I think, is to forget about Dickinson myth, the silent New England recluse in her upstairs room and white dress, and listen to her conversation.  She’s sociable with her readers, and she’s often absorbed in having a verbal fight with herself.  And she almost always writes about things that matter.  Death being one of them.  No one, except maybe Philip Larkin, writes better about death.  Not that Emily is po-faced (another part of the myth).  She’s got plenty of humour, as in one of my favourites, about the fallacy of the public self:

I’m Nobody!  Who are you?
Are you – Nobody – Too?
Then there’s a pair of us?
Don’t tell!  They’d advertise – you know!

How dreary – to be – Somebody!
How public – like a Frog –
To tell one’s name – the lifelong June –
To an admiring Bog!

Basil Bunting, Briggflatts

I’ve written before about Brigflatts the place and Briggflatts the poem.  Both are special for me.  If you can, I’d suggest you get hold of the 2009 Bloodaxe edition, which contains not just the poem, but also several essays, including a summary of Bunting’s astonishing life, many striking photos, and a CD of the author reading Briggflatts in his native, but possibly burnished, Northumbrian accent (sound in poetry was all-important to him).  I’m also lucky enough to have a copy of the second (for all but a few, the first) edition of 1966, the year after Bunting, born in 1900, was ‘rediscovered’ by Tom Pickard and other members of the new wave of young Newcastle poets.

Briggflatts is the last long poem of British modernism.  It mixes scenes from Bunting’s early life (its subtitle is ‘an autobiography’) with characters from early Northumbrian history, like Cuthbert and Eric Bloodaxe, and meditations on nature, change and loss.  Loss is the main thread of the work – to begin (and end) with, the loss of a girl called Peggy, Bunting’s first love, fifty years before.  The tone is elegiac, despite the sinew and strength of the language:

The sheets are gathered and bound,
the volume indexed and shelved,
dust on its marbled leaves.
Lofty, an empty combe,
silent but for bees.
Finger tips touched and were still
fifty years ago.
Sirius is too young to remember.

Sirius glows in the wind.  Spark on ripples
mark his lure, lures for spent fish.

Fifty years a letter unanswered;
a visit postponed for fifty years.

Samuel Taylor Coleridge, Poems selected by James Fenton

At school we were force-fed William Wordsworth.   I never recovered, and still I find it a burden to read him.  Luckily, we were never taught Samuel Taylor Coleridge.  It’s only in recent years that I’ve got some knowledge of his sinuous, subtle, ever-changing mind.  His notebooks are full to bursting with observations on nature, philosophy and behaviour, jotted down by a quicksilver mind in motion.  Always in motion.  It was said that while Wordsworth plodded straight ahead, during their, to our minds, impossibly long walks together, Coleridge would skip around, getting in the way of others and always sharing his own darting thoughts.  On his 1794 walking tour of Wales, when he was still a student, he was already a shooting star.

The rime of the ancient mariner (James Fenton, a fellow-poet, prints two versions) is the obvious first stop in this slim selection.  Again, the sound is the thing; it’s no good just reading it silently.  I’d recommend Philip Hoare’s audio edition, spoken by a wonderful array of fine speakers, from Hilary Mantel to Iggy Pop.  But then there are all the rest: ‘Kubla Khan’, ‘Dejection’ and many others.  That so many works by Coleridge are fragmentary or unfinished endears him to our age, maybe, in a way that Wordsworth’s massive completism doesn’t.  Fenton includes quite a few fragments, some just a line long (‘a sumptuous and magnificent revenge’).  Many of them astonish.

‘Frost at midnight’, which is finished, begins:

The frost performs its secret ministry,
Unhelped by any wind.  The owlet’s cry
Came loud – and hark, again!  loud as before.
The inmates of my cottage, all at rest,
Have left me to that solitude, which suits
Abstruser musings: save at my side
My cradled infant slumbers peacefully.

On the cover of this edition is a detail from John Sell Cotman’s masterpiece ‘Greta Bridge’.  It was painted in 1810 – two years before Coleridge more or less gave up writing poetry for good.

The poems of Norman MacCaig

Any Scot, even half-a-Scot like me, needs a Scottish poet on hand.  My mother’s choice was Robert Burns, and I inherited from her the handsome Alloway centenary edition of his poems, published in 1959.  But my choice has always been Norman MacCaig.  This is another fat collection of over 500 pages, which could keep you going for years.  MacCaig lived all his life in Edinburgh, where he was a teacher, but every year he would spend time in his other spiritual home, Assynt.  Many of his most affecting poems are set in the western Highlands, like his wonderful series of short elegies for his friend A.K. MacLeod, ‘Poems for Angus’.

MacCaig’s poems are about celebration, often of commonplace things, events or people, and his tone is conversational.  There’s little that’s political in them, though he was a convinced pacifist throughout his life.  When my mother died, we chose ‘Climbing Suilven’ to read at her funeral.  Suilven was one of MacCaig’s favourite mountains.  It’s a simple poem about climbing, with a limited hiker’s view that, in its last line, suddenly lifts into another world:

I nod and nod to my own shadow and thrust
A mountain down and down.
Between my feet a loch shines in the brown,
Its silver paper crinkled and edged with rust.
My lungs say No;
But down and down this treadmill hill must go.

Parishes dwindle. But my parish is
This stone, that tuft, this stone
And the cramped quarters of my flesh and bone.
I claw that tall horizon down to this;
And suddenly
My shadow jumps huge miles away from me.

Kim Moore, All the men I never married

Another northern poet.  It was the cover that first took my attention, a starman covered in butterflies (Seren Books has a strong line in striking covers for its poetry books).  Then the title, as gripping as the poems inside.  This is Kim Moore’s second collection, and has a single theme, men.  Or rather, the problems that men cause to women who become entangled with them.  Kim Moore shows us quite a parade of men, dangerous and obnoxious in many different ways, whom she’s met at different stages of her life: some are plausible, creepy or insidious, others brazen, bigoted or violent.

This isn’t quite right.  The poems have a lot to say about men, but they really concern what women do about men, and what they should do about them.  In a taxi:

Although we’ve only just met, he’s already telling me
that no, my suitcase isn’t heavy at all, as he lifts it
with one hand into the boot.

He’s not even reached the end of the road
and he’s already telling me I have a crazy soul,
that he can tell me how crazy I am.

He asks do I know what he means, and I smile
and pretend that I don’t.  He says all the women
he knows who are artists or poets or musicians are crazy.

Crazy, crazy, crazy he says and I wish I’d told him
I was an accountant instead but on he goes,
taking his eyes off the road

The poems (and prose poems) are informal, artful, and as varied in form as they are in content, with a telling use of repetition. 

Guillaume Apollinaire, Selected poems

I took to the poems of Apollinaire when I was a student, and got to know them through an old Penguin collection of translations by Oliver Bernard.  That book’s disappeared.  I think it was a victim of the great dry rot disaster in Cardiff, when at lot of poetry books suffered a sad end.  But I replaced it with a revised and handsome Anvil Press edition of 1986, with the original French text (I can read French much better now) and woodcut illustrations by Raoul Dufy.

Apollinaire’s real name was Guillaume-Albert-Wladimir-Alexandre-Apollinaire Kostrowitzky.  He was in the vanguard of the Paris modernist movement before the First World War, in which he was badly injured (he survived the fighting but died of Spanish flu in 1918, on the day of the armistice).  His poems are as clear as glass: simple and lyrical, but also complex and innovative (he was a friend of the cubists and other visual artists).  His ‘calligrammes’, experiments in typography, were the first concrete poems to be written. 

‘Le pont Mirabeau’ is one of his celebrated poems (‘Sous le pont Mirabeau coule la Seine / Et nos amours’), but one of my favourites is ‘Annie’, from 1912.  It could have been written yesterday.

Sur la côte du Texas
Entre Mobile et Galveston il y a
Un grand jardin tout plein de roses
Il contient aussi une villa
Qui est une grande rose

Une femme se promène souvent
Dans le jardin toute seule
Et quand je passe sur la route bordée de tilleuls
Nous nous regardons

Comme cette femme est memnonite
Ses rosiers et ses vêtements n’ont pas de boutons
Il en manque deux à mon veston
La dame et moi suivons presque le même rite.

On the coast of Texas
Between Mobile and Galveston there is
A great big garden overgrown with roses
It was contains a villa
Which is one great rose.

Often a woman walks
In the garden all alone
And when I pass on the lime-tree-bordered road
We look at each other

Since this woman belongs to the Memnonite sect
Her rose trees had no buds and her clothes no buttons
There are two missing from my jacket
This lady and I are almost of the same religion.

Annie was a real person, Annie Playden, an English girl Apollinaire was besotted with.  He met her in Germany and visited London more than once to see her.  She, though, fearful of his jealousy and aggression (see Kim Moore above), emigrated to the US.  In 1951 an Apollinaire scholar, LeRoy Breunig, tracked her down in New York.  She had no idea he was among the greatest of French twentieth century poets.  Breunig noted that her eyes were cold and blue.

August Kleinzahler, Before dawn on bluff road: elected New Jersey poems / Hollyhocks in the fog: selected San Francisco poems.

Now this is an interesting book.   Or rather two books in one, because its two halves are arranged tête-bêche: you tip the volume over and turn it round to read the other half.  The split reflects the two halves of August Kleinzahler’s life, divided between the west and east coast of the US.  I know I’ve written about this very book before, but I don’t apologise for recommending it again as an introduction to the work of a fine poet.

For me US poets belong to the Other America, the older, polar opposite of Trumpists, money-idolaters and gun-worshippers.  Kleinzahler is as American and urban as they come, but he’s in the line of Walt Whitman, and behind his minutely observed detailing of the city and his vernacular language lie deep substrates of feeling: celebration, democracy, recollection and elegy.  He once studied briefly with Basil Bunting (above), who had a big influence on the sound of his poetry, and once said that the purpose of poetry is ‘to challenge one’s ideas about the world, to stimulate, to disrupt, to create new possibilities.’

‘Closing it down on The Palisades’ is a good example of what I mean.  It’s a poem about two visits in autumn to his parents’ old home (and his childhood home) in New Jersey, to ‘close it down’, for the last time.  There’s a grim humour to the clearance, with its obliteration of life, and of old knowledge:

The garbage truck compacter is grinding
all twenty-four volumes of the Encyclopædia Britannica,
1945 Edition, including Index and Atlas,
along with apple cores, bed linen, ashtrays,
and all that remains of an ailing begonia.

By the end of the poem the house is near bare, and in the dying coda there’s an ambivalence in the looking forward to spring:

There is hardly anything left to take –
lamps, a chair, bedspring and mattress.
The last roses still abloom out in the yard.
I can’t tell you what kind, pink and white,
the tallest of them six, seven feet high.

Then, that’ll be it till spring.
That’ll be it till spring.

Blaise Cendrars, La prose du Transsibérien et de la petite Jehanne de France

Another French modernist, and a friend and contemporary of Apollinaire (Cendrars, too, was badly injured in World War I, but lived on till 1961).  His real name was Frédéric-Louis Sauser.  I was first introduced to his work by a student friend fifty years ago, and every few years I come back to it.

Cendrars wrote novels as well as poems.  What unites them is a fantastical imagination and global compass (he was an inveterate traveller).  A good example is the long poem La prose du Transsibérien et de la petite Jehanne de France.  Cendrars printed just sixty copies on his own press, Éditions des Hommes Nouveaux, in 1913.  As the title suggests, it takes the form of a long, cold train journey, in the company of a woman named Jeanne.  As a physical object it’s a beautiful thing.  The text, printed in various fonts and typefaces on a single two-metre roll of paper, like an ancient scroll, is accompanied, in a parallel column, by a brilliantly coloured artwork by Sonia Delaunay.  Delaunay, whom Cendrars met through Apollinaire, also decorated the text, with washes of different colours and with a map of the railway line.  Cendrars called the complete work a ‘simultaneous poem’. and ‘a sad poem printed ion sunlight’.  My copy is an exact facsimile, published in 2008 by Yale University Press from a copy in the Beinecke Library, with an English translation by Timothy Young.

The (imaginary) train journey, from Moscow to Harbin, takes place in 1905, during the war between Russia and Japan and the Russian revolution of that year.  There’s plenty of ‘sadness’ in the poem, as the passengers see or hear of disorder, hunger, violence and death.  But, as happens on a train journey, there’s an interior, non-linear journey happening in parallel, a tour of the narrator’s memories, dreams, impressions, thoughts on art and music, and travels in other parts of the world.  Throughout, Jeanne interrupts with her repeated question, ‘Blaise, tell me, are we far from Montmartre?’ – the French equivalent of ‘Daddy, are we nearly there yet?’  And indeed. the poem ends with Cendrars’ and Jeanne’s home, Paris, ‘city of the singular Tower of the great / Gallows and the Wheel’.  Delaunay’s painting, too, comes to a halt with a picture of the Eiffel Tower.

This short passage gives a taste of Cendrars’ most attractive side, the mental globetotter:

Maintenant, j’ai fait courir tous les trains derrière moi
J’ai aussi joué aux courses à Auteuil et à Longchamp
Paris New-York
Maintenant j’ai fait courir tous les trains tout le long de ma vie
Et j’ai perdu tous mes paris
Il n’y a plus que la Patagonie, la Patagonie qui convienne à mon immense tristesse, la Patagonie, et un voyage dans les mers du Sud
Je suis en route
J’ai toujours été en route

Now, I make trains run after me
Basel to Timbuktoo
I played the horses at Auteuil
and Longchamps
Paris to New York
Now, I make the trains run the length of my life
Madrid to Stockholm
But I lost all of my bets
There was only Patagonia left, Patagonia
suited my immense sadness, Patagonia and
a voyage to the South Seas

I am en route
I have always been en route

Anne Carson, Autobiography of red

This is the life story of Geryon.  Geryon was an oversize monster who lived on Erytheia (‘the red one’), a mythical island in the far west.  The Greek poet Stesichoros said he had wings, six hands and six feet (other sources give him three bodies or three heads).  He was a fierce creature, who kept an equally fierce dog and a famous herd of red cattle.  Heracles, as one of his twelve ‘labours’, was required to steal his cattle, and in doing so, in true psychopathic fashion, he murdered Geryon.

Norman MacCaig wrote that ‘I disapprove strongly of people who make references – say to classical or Greek literature … when I write about classical figures, they are always very well-known ones like Hercules, Ulysses.’  Anne Carson, who is a Canadian professor of classics as well as a poet and translator, can’t have been listening, because in this long work she retells the story of the little-known Geryon, after giving him a time shift to the present day.

Autobiography of red is subtitled ‘a verse novel’.   To begin we find a lengthy ‘scholarly’ section on Stesichoros, and free versions of the fragments of his lost work on the monster.  The main, verse part of the book, labelled ‘a romance’ and prefaced by an Emily Dickinson poem, is divided into numbered sections.  Geryon begins as a ‘child monster’, aware of his limitations and abused by his older brother.  He finds comfort in his mother’s love and photography and then, as an adolescent, he falls madly in love with Herakles (smitten, then, in a non-fatal way).  But Herakles deserts him, though later the two meet again, in Argentina, and a third lover, Ancash, joins them.  The start of the second section, ‘Each’, shows Carson’s love of long, free-flowing lines, linguistic curiosity and super-concentrated thought:

Like honey is the sleep of the just.

When Geryon was little he loved to sleep but even more he loved to wake up.
He would run out in his pajamas.
Hard morning winds were blowing life bolts against the sky each one blue enough to begin a world of its own.
The word each blew towards him and came apart on the wind.  Geryon had always had this trouble: a word like each,
when he stared at it, would disassemble itself into separate letters and go.
A space for its meaning remained there but blank.
The letters themselves could be found hung on branches or furniture in the area.
What does each mean?
Geryon had asked his mother.  She never lied to him.

The cover of Autobiography of red is as striking as the words: all black, with a bright red disc in the middle.  Since discovering Anne Carson in 2005 I’ve collected more of her books, including another full-length myth-retelling, of the tragic figure of Antigone.

Tony Harrison, Selected poems

I bought this book in 1984, but I don’t recommend you try to get hold of it.  For one thing, it’s been superseded by a more recent Penguin edition.  For another, its pages are yellowed and its perfect binding ultra-brittle.  And third, rather than buy a ‘selected’, you really need to buy a whole shelf-full of Tony Harrison: his output is huge and he’s worked in so many media, including television (‘V’, in 1985, being his most controversial: a poem/film it’s inconceivable could be broadcast on mainstream TV today).

Harrison was born in Leeds, the son of baker, and won a place in Leeds Grammar School, where he studied classics.  Northernness, the class divide and the literature of the ancient world are constant themes in his poems.  His poems mix colloquial Yorkshire and world cultures.  Some, though, are sublimely simple and direct, including ‘Long distance II’, included in the volume that made his name, The school of eloquence (that title is derived from a quotation Harrison found in E.P Thompson’s The making of the English working class):

Though my mother was already two years dead
Dad kept her slippers warming by the gas,
put hot water bottles her side of the bed
and still went to renew her transport pass.

You couldn’t just drop in. You had to phone.
He’d put you off an hour to give him time
to clear away her things and look alone
as though his still raw love were such a crime.

He couldn’t risk my blight of disbelief
though sure that very soon he’d hear her key
scrape in the rusted lock and end his grief.
He knew she’d just popped out to get the tea.

I believe life end with death, and that is all.
You haven’t both gone shopping; just the same,
in my new black leather phone book there’s your name
and the disconnected number I can still call.

Comments (6)

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  1. Dafydd Pritchard says:

    Norman MacCaig

  2. Emyr Lewis says:

    Dwi wedi mwynhau hwn yn fawr iawn. Diolch.

    Cytuno’n llwyr am Emily Dickinson gyda llaw.

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