“And now here is my secret, a very simple secret: It is only with the heart that one can see rightly; what is essential is invisible to the eye.”
from The Little Prince by Antoine de Saint-Exupry
I’ve been asked to answer an excellent question about poems, books or poets who have influenced me, and I’m going to respond to that question with love! One way to interpret influence is to look at the things we love – those things we carry around in our hearts, sometimes without even knowing why. During the course of an editorial working year at Candlestick Press, I’m privileged to read and publish many wonderful poems in the hope that other people – many of whom are new to poetry, or even scared of it as a hangover from tough lessons at school – will read and love those poems too. The ‘Ten Poems about’ formula is popular, and recognisable – so in the spirit of that endeavour, here are ten poems I love and some of the reasons why.
1. ‘A corner of the road, early morning’ by Norman MacCaig
I could have included any MacCaig poem on this list as I’m a huge fan of his spartan narrative style and shrewd photographer’s eye for the natural world. This poem absolutely skewers its central message but with the lightest of touches, and I love the artful simplicity of the three-line stanzas with one short half line and two longer lines. And of course, it has goats in it, both actual and astrological.
2. ‘She-Goat’ by D. H. Lawrence
More goats! Such wonderful creatures, and it was great to discover that another poetry citizen of Nottinghamshire has been similarly captivated (caprivated?) by them. Lawrence uses his great storytelling abilities to set the scene, create dialogue and take us with him in his relationship with the old nanny goat, the present tense of the descriptions both immediate and beguiling. This long poem has been written by someone who really knows goats and their behaviour – not just observed, but felt. Those final three lines are fantastic.
3. ‘Old Books and Riverbanks’ by Tony Curtis
I’ve had the privilege of hearing Tony Curtis – ‘the Irish Tony Curtis’, as he always introduces himself – read many of his poems, and along with the rest of the audience I’m instantly moved by his words and cheered by his voice. I love this poem about a pony which works by descriptions of smell rather than of sight, and which is crafted in Tony’s uniquely irreverent and beautifully lyric way.
4. ‘On the farm’ by R. S. Thomas
One of the reasons I love poems by R. S. Thomas is their ability to simultaneously undercut and underline their spirituality. The opening of this poem has always made me chuckle – the audacity of writing those cruel, dry character assassinations of the farmers! Then that glorious paean to the girl in the final stanza.
5. ‘Feathers’ by Lorraine Mariner
Someone I admire hugely for their ability to tell it as it is about the human condition is Lorraine Mariner, her wry wit exposing the frailties of everyday people in everyday situations. There’s great humour and sadness in this poem, and all the while the believability of the relationship tangle is reinforced by all those finely spotted domestic details. What a fantastically unexpected way to pay homage to Emily Dickinson too.
6. ‘September 2’ by Wendell Berry
September 2nd is my mum’s birthday so this beautiful poem by Wendell Berry was always going to be on Loved List. This year at Candlestick we’ve been researching seasonal poems and I was immediately reminded of this evocative description of birds at night and the transition from summer to autumn, from youth to old age. There’s something visually haunting about the scene – it could be the open or closing to a film – and I love the idea of being like dissolving leaves as we grow older.
7. ‘Love and Sleep’ by Algernon Charles Swinburne
I’ve loved this sonnet since being taught about the decadent poets as an undergraduate. The insistent rhythm, the change of pace at the volta, the sensuality and sensuousness of the descriptions. I’ve never been able to forget the phrase “glittering eyelids of my soul’s desire” and whenever I’m asked about erotic poetry, this is always first to mind. It’s a perfect example of control of poetic form with wanton content – every word is deliberate and consummately timed.
8. ‘No Simple Thing’ by Stephen Dobyns
The title of this poem is very clever. The poem talks about one of the most difficult subjects we ever have to deal with – our own death – and although this is clearly no simple thing, the language of the narrator’s monologue is deceptively simple. This is Dobyns’ great gift, I think – to be able to talk through complex subjects in a way that is both emotionally and intellectually accessible, and also humorous. I love the detail here about the cat, and the stray bit of fluff.
9. ‘Say not the Struggle naught Availeth’ by Arthur Hugh Clough
I’ve kept a small green hardback notebook of poems that I’ve loved since I was 17, and although I’ve long since stopped handwriting them out (blame arthritic farming fingers!), this poem was one of the very earliest handwritten entries. I loved it then for its message of hope and triumph against adversity, and I love it for those things still. Like Swinburne’s “glittering eyelids”, Clough’s “westward, look, the land is bright” has always been part of my poetry memory.
10. ‘The Way We Go’ by Katharine Towers
I’m very lucky to work with the marvellous poet Katharine Towers in our day jobs at Candlestick. I think we make a good editorial team as our poetry choices and passions are different and this makes for a robust selection when putting together pamphlets that other people will want to buy. I admire Kathy’s ability to pin down the essence of the moment or emotion in few words and lines – this is a very special gift. And I love this particular poem for its ability to make me cry every time I get to the turn in that seventh line. It’s a joy to hear it read aloud here by Samuel West as part of his Pandemic Poems on Twitter.
So there we are: ten poems I love. But there are many more… What are yours?