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  • irishtimes.com - Posted: March 8, 2009 @ 8:21 pm

    Outside the black-and-white lines

    Fiona McCann

    A. A. Gill is not a writer I always admire. But he shone when he wrote on poetry in a piece that appeared in the Sunday Times today. “Most of us are gaffed, flayed, stitched up and stuffed by poems,” he said.  “We’re marked out and buoyed up by them. Even if we haven’t read a new one for a decade, still there are verses that are the most precious and dear cultural amulets we own, hidden in the dead letter boxes of our hearts. Ask anyone what’s right at the centre of their personal culture and it will be poetry. Snatches, lines of verse, we take them to our end. A poem is a thing that transcends its construction.” I don’t know if I agree that asking anyone will reveal that poetry is at the heart of his or her cultural matter,  but I know that’s true if you ask me. And now I’m asking you: what are the snatches, lines of verse that you will take to your end?

    • Where would you like me to start?

      There’s Pablo Neruda’s Body Of A Woman

      “Body of a woman, white hills, white thighs,
      you look like a world, lying in surrender,
      My rough peasant’s body digs in you,
      and makes the son leap from the depths of the earth”

      Or all of Yeats When You Are Old

      “When you are old and gray and full of sleep,
      And nodding by the fire, take down this book,
      And slowly read, and dream of the soft look
      Your eyes had once, and of their shadows deep;

      How many loved your moments of glad grace,
      And loved your beauty with love false or true,
      But one man loved the pilgrim soul in you,
      And loved the sorrows of your changing face;

      And bending down beside the glowing bars,
      Murmur, a little sadly, how Love fled
      And paced upon the mountains overhead
      And hid his face amid a crowd of stars.”

      Or there are those that chill me like Wilfred Owen

      “What passing-bells for these who die as cattle?
      Only the monstrous anger of the guns.
      Only the stuttering rifles’ rapid rattle
      Can patter out their hasty orisons.”

      Or Shelley

      “My name is Ozymandias, king of kings:
      Look on my works, ye Mighty, and despair!”

      Then there are those things that mean the most to me, regardless of quality

      “Hearts are square and lifeless,
      Like sinful origami paper,
      Folded back and forth, mis-shapen,
      Bent at violent angles, flat and crumpled,
      Twisted, battered to an endpoint,
      Where the smallest tug gives up a swan.”

      That’s why I took the name.

    • Fiona says:

      Ah, Sr Neruda. I’d go for “I remembered you with my soul clenched in that sadness of mine that you know.”

      Other favourites include “For us, there is only the trying. The rest is not our business.” (T.S. Eliot, East Coker from Four Quartets). Or Eavan Boland’s Atlantis, A Sonnet, which ends “the old fable-makers searched hard for a word
      to convey that what is gone is gone forever and
      never found it. And so, in the best traditions of / where we come from, they gave their sorrow a name / and drowned it.”

      Or Jack Gilbert’s Failing and Flying: “I believe Icarus was not failing as he fell, / but just coming to the end of his triumph.”

      Or e. e. cummings’ ‘somewhere i have never travelled’: “(i do not know what it is about you that closes / and opens; only something in me understands / the voice of your eyes is deeper than all roses) / nobody, not even the rain, has such small hands.”

      I could go on and on, through Edna St Vincent Millay’s Only Until This Cigarette is Ended: “in your day this moment is the sun / Upon a hill after the sun has set” but I’ll end with James Fenton’s The Ideal:

      This is where I came from.
      I passed this way.
      This shoudl not be shameful
      Or hard to say.

      A self is a self.
      It is not a screen.
      A person should respect
      What he has been.

      This is my past
      Which I shall nto discard.
      This is the ideal.
      This is hard.

    • The best looking man alive says:

      Alas poor tiger I knew you well
      Now an old rug where the world wipes her feet
      The ministers of gloom shuffle too and fro in the rooms ,under the grim recessionary bell

      Alas poor Bertie return return,You only can save us
      Wrapped in robes the colours of the Dubs
      A sky blue dream for what could have been
      Descending from the high of your lecture circuit

      Alas poor Brian,only yesterday,He was “Going Forward”
      Where is he going forward now? To the Bar I suppose
      For he well knows ,in times like these
      a pint of plain is yer only man

    • clom says:

      auden’s “under sirius” had a profound effect on me when I was a teenager and has lived within my mind ever since.

      “How will you look and what will you do when the basalt
      Tombs of the sorcerers shatter
      And their guardian megalopods
      Come after you pitter-patter?
      How will you answer when from their qualming spring
      The immortal nymphs fly shrieking,
      And out of the open sky
      The pantocratic riddle breaks -
      ‘Who are you and why?’”

    • Ramblin Jack says:

      Woody Guthrie Bard of the dust bowls and the last great Depression of the USA pened the poetic lines that sum up just as well the activities of Seanie ,Mc Evaddys ,Quinns etc and the corruption at the heart of Irish Banking

      Ive been all round this world my friends
      and Ive seen all kinds of men
      Some will rob you with a six gun and some with a fountain pen

    • John Self says:

      Ah. Poetry is a closed book to me, bar the odd Larkin or Eliot (actually bar quite a lot of Larkin), but I am enjoying reading others’ suggestions.

      I received a review copy of the collected poems of Michael Donaghy recently, to be published this month, and thought some of them very interesting. Here is one titled


      are shed, and every day
      workers recover
      the bloated cadavers
      of lovers or lover
      who drown in cars this way.

      And they crowbar the door
      and ordinary stories pour,
      furl, crash, and spill downhill -
      as water will – not orient,
      nor sparkling, but still

    • Quint says:

      In Memory Of My Mother by Patrick Kavanagh

      I do not think of you lying in the wet clay
      Of a Monaghan graveyard; I see
      You walking down a lane among the poplars
      On your way to the station, or happily

      Going to second Mass on a summer Sunday -
      You meet me and you say:
      ‘Don’t forget to see about the cattle – ‘
      Among your earthiest words the angels stray.

      And I think of you walking along a headland
      Of green oats in June,
      So full of repose, so rich with life -
      And I see us meeting at the end of a town

      On a fair day by accident, after
      The bargains are all made and we can walk
      Together through the shops and stalls and markets
      Free in the oriental streets of thought.

      O you are not lying in the wet clay,
      For it is a harvest evening now and we
      Are piling up the ricks against the moonlight
      And you smile up at us – eternally.

    • Brendan says:

      Poems do seem to be able to give you access to the core of an idea or feeling. For me, a Heaney amulet, first read on the sleeve of a Michael O’Suilleabhain record sleeve:

      ..it’s time to swim/ out on your own and fill the element/ with signatures on your own frequency,/ echo-soundings, searches, probes, allurements, / elver-gleams in the dark of the whole sea.

    • The best looking man alive says:

      Bar larkin! What a good idea,A miserable old git by all accounts,

    • Fiona says:

      Clom: Glad you included Auden. After all, he was the man who wrote “Now Ireland has her madness and her weather still, / For poetry makes nothing happen: it survives / In the valley of its making where executives / Would never want to tamper, flows on south / From ranches of isolation and the busy griefs,/ Raw towns that we believe and die in; it survives, / A way of happening, a mouth.”

      Quint: I love that poem. “Among your earthiest words the angels stray.”

      Brendan: I’d never read those Heaney words before, though the joy of the ever-gleams is palpable to me, and inspiring.

      The best looking man alive: I’d need some verification that you really deserve such an epithet.

    • clom says:

      there’s a marvelous essay in Clive James’ “Cultural Amnesia” about an Italian Dante scholar (the name escapes me!) who passionately argued for learning poetry by heart in education.

      The notion that really stuck with me was that it is “impossible to forget” good poetry. I thought it was a delightful evocation of how poetry works.

    • The best looking man alive says:

      In Memory of my father

      I do not think of you in that cold ground
      For your spirit sounds from fields and hills and winter whitened trees
      all these speak elequently of your love

      I see you in my mind
      Going to your land,on a spring morning
      with horses whinnying at your word,
      Flanks trembling at your touch

      Until at last you set them free
      In the mystery and ecstacy of an Acre
      Blooming with the joy you saved for me

    • brian says:

      Warning to Children by Robert Graves

      Children, if you dare to think
      Of the greatness, rareness, muchness
      Fewness of this precious only
      Endless world in which you say
      You live, you think of things like this:
      Blocks of slate enclosing dappled
      Red and green, enclosing tawny
      Yellow nets, enclosing white
      And black acres of dominoes,
      Where a neat brown paper parcel
      Tempts you to untie the string.
      In the parcel a small island,
      On the island a large tree,
      On the tree a husky fruit.
      Strip the husk and pare the rind off:
      In the kernel you will see
      Blocks of slate enclosed by dappled
      Red and green, enclosed by tawny
      Yellow nets, enclosed by white
      And black acres of dominoes,
      Where the same brown paper parcel -
      Children, leave the string alone!
      For who dares undo the parcel
      Finds himself at once inside it,
      On the island, in the fruit,
      Blocks of slate about his head,
      Finds himself enclosed by dappled
      Green and red, enclosed by yellow
      Tawny nets, enclosed by black
      And white acres of dominoes,
      With the same brown paper parcel
      Still untied upon his knee.
      And, if he then should dare to think
      Of the fewness, muchness, rareness,
      Greatness of this endless only
      Precious world in which he says
      he lives – he then unties the string


      something for everyone here – touches of e.e cummings and louis macneice, samuel beckett and lewis carroll. a defense and advocation of poetry’s elusiveness in this “only endless world” or “only, endless world” if you let the line have a breath at its end. (a great distinction that i cribbed from elsewhere on the net and a personal reminder that reading poetry is best done leisurely)

    • Helen says:

      the lines that stick are indelible and numerous…

      Heaney’s ‘Postscript’: And some time make the time to drive out west/Into County Clare, along the Flaggy Shore…As big soft buffetings come at the car sideways/And catch the heart off guard and blow it open

      ee cummings ‘maggie and millie and molly and may’: may came home with a smooth round stone/as small as a world and as large as alone./For whatever we lose (like a you or a me)/it’s always ourselves we find in the sea.

      or Derek Walcott’s ‘Love After Love’: The time will come/when, with elation,/you will greet yourself arriving/at your own door, in your own mirror,/and each will smile at the others welcome

      Raymond Carver’s wonderful ‘Happiness’, or ‘Hummingbird’, or ‘Late Fragment’: and did you get what/you wanted from this life, even so?/I did/And what did you want?/To call myself beloved, to feel myself/beloved on the earth

      but the one that’s been running round my head lately like a mind-worm is Roger McGough


      The politicians
      (who are buying huge cars with hobnailed wheels
      the size of merry-go-rounds)
      have a new plan.
      They are going to
      put cobbles
      in our eyesockets
      and pebbles
      in our navels
      and fill us up
      with asphalt
      and lay us
      side by side
      so that we can take a more active part
      in the road
      to destruction.

    • david says:

      “A four foot box, a foot for every year.”


    • Deirdre says:

      It strikes me as interesting that as while there are so many books and novels we identify with, stories that mark changes and ideas in our life it is the small and simple lines of poetry that we take with us.

      Translating an idea or a feeling into words isn’t easy, for some, say F Scott Fitzgerald or Murakami it takes 500 or 600 pages, but for those poets who have struck a chord with me – ee cummings and Tom Waits, it has taken 14 highly constructed lines or the verse of a song.

      For example It many not always be so, by ee cummings

      it may not always be so;and i say
      that if your lips,which i have loved,should touch
      another’s,and your dear strong fingers clutch
      his heart,as mine in time not far away;
      if on another’s face your sweet hair lay
      in such a silence as i know,or such
      great writhing words as,uttering overmuch,
      stand helplessly before the spirit at bay;

      if this should be,i say if this should be-
      you of my heart,send me a little word;
      that i may go unto him,and take his hands,
      saying,Accept all happiness from me.
      Then shall i turn my face,and hear one bird
      sing terribly afar in the lost lands.

      or the opening lines of Bad liver and a broken heart

      I have a bad liver and a broken heart
      I’ve drunk me a river since you tore me apart.

      These lines in both these works brought me to tears upon reading/hearing them. The ability of a poetry to construct words into sentences and translate such a volume of emotion over so few words is a great skill.

      Despite this poetry seems to be secondary in literature to novels, even though both forms are equally valuable. Maybe because each poem is a personal experience or creates a personal reaction unique to the reader, while novels can speak to more people and allow for more points of identification for more people makes this so.

    • TS Eliot’s “The Love Song of J Alfred Prufrock” is so beautiful (I should have been a pair of ragged claws/scuttling across the floors of silent seas), Paul Celan’s “Black Flakes” (one of the few of his that I can understand!) is heartbreaking, and fragments of Sappho are precious. Gerald Manley Hopkins’ “That Nature Is A Heraclitean Fire” is extraordinary, and showed just how a great poet can make words come alive! But there are so many great poems…

    • The Best Looking man alive says:

      This is all very nice talk and all. Yes poetry is great ,Yes its wonderfull,But I Have heard many times in my life ,people saying they dont get it or they dont like poetry or contemporary poetry turns them off etc etc.The truth is that like classical music ,Poetry as in real poetry and not doggerel ,is a minority and specialist taste and matters not a jot to vast amounts of sane intelligent people.Why this worthy tone in relation to poetry?Ireland is full of People writing awfull tenth rate poetry and Lord knows some of it is actually pubished! personally I wish these wordsmiths would take up gardening or Bus Driving and divest themselves of the delusion that the world needs to peruse the internal flotsam and neurosis of their lives,usually incomprehensable

    • Fiona says:

      Deirdre: I love that e. e. cummings poem, thanks for the reminder.

      A Doubtful Egg: Ditto the T.S. Eliot: “I grow old, I grow old, I shall wear the bottom of my trousers rolled.” Though I don’t have the same time for Manley Hopkins, I have to admit, though acknowledge it’s a personal taste thing.

      The Best Looking Man Alive: Surely bad bus drivers would cause more damage than bad poets?

    • clom says:

      Heaven forfend that someone would have the termerity to open up the portcullis to the rarified Chateaux of “real” contemporary poetry or classical music! You’ll actually find that there’s an increasing body of opinion within contemporary classical music that accessibility and melodies are critical for composers of new music.

      I attended a superb, illuminating and accessible talk with Don Paterson accompanied by my wife, she is one of these infernal dullards who complains they don’t “get” poetry. He spoke eloquently and engagingly about the two poems he had chosen (one by Heaney, one his own, both “ecological fables”). The wife asked a number of questions which a poetical gatekeeper would have taken for granted. Paterson answered them patiently and entered into a discussion with the group. A number of audience members thanked her for asking the questions as they wondered the same things but didn’t have the confidence to appear “stupid”.

      Sometimes the only way to take the temple is by storming it.

      Continuing my mission to crowbar contemporary Scottish Literature into every comment I make here I have to say that Edwin Morgan’s wonderful “Loch Ness Monster Song” repudiates the notion that poetry, proper, intellectual, big “P”, Poetry can be understood by the vast majority of readers.


      Visitors to Edinburgh should go along to the Scottish Poetry Library and have a wee look, a gorgeous wee contemporary building tucked into a close of the old town with friendly, unpretentious staff and shelf upon shelf of Big P Poetry for any and all to see.

    • The best looking man alive says:

      It is my experience that many people who are other wise bright and intelligent simply do not understand or indeed wish to understand the nuances of complex poetry or God Forbid the drivel dished out by the contemporary crew,Why should they? I did not say that they were dullards or that they were stupid in any way.I Also wish to repudiate the notion that Clom understands my point or indeed in reference to his comment what exactly he is trying to repudiate

    • The best looking man alive says:

      Comment for Fiona,A bad poet does not neccessarily make a bad bus driver ,if anything the opposite is the case, as emotional arty types are easily distracted

    • The best looking man alive says:

      comment for Clom,I spoke of classical music in general and contemporary poetry in particular.Why should poetry be easy? whats wrong with difficult? T S Eliot is often difficult as is Yeats and sometimes Heaney.Their poetry is difficult complex as is anything of high cultural value,Why this rush to dumb down?In reponse to those who speak of Ivory towers I will give them directions to the Taj Mahal

    • clom says:

      best looking man alive: I wish to repudiate your contention that poetry and classical music are small and minority tastes. and that you are the ultimate arbiter of what consitutes “real” poetry and doggerel/contemporary drivel.

      I didn’t necessarily say you consider intelligent and sane people to be dullards or stupid in any way, i was hinting that this (frequently mistaken) impression is given to people who aren’t part of the the small, self-appointed minority who “get” real poetry. It was phrased in a backhanded manner which was, i admit, a little intemperate and susceptible to misinterpretation. Begging your pardon.

      It is also entirely possible that i may not have understood your point, namely that the esoteric technical and theoretical aspects of Classical music and complex poetry are themselves what alienate the otherwise intelligent reader/listener.

      I made a glaring error in my post, the reference to Edwin Morgan should read “repudiates the notion that poetry, proper, intellectual, big “P”, Poetry CANNOT be understood by the vast majority of readers.”

    • The best looking man alive says:

      Why all of this nicey niceness? The powers that be are dumbing down our education systems by suppressing the teaching of great literary works as well as greek and latin,While at the same time promoting a second rate pop,poetry for all agenda which ends up by lowering standards to the point where some people consider Rita Ann Higgins or indeed Michael D Higgins to be serious poets, Please Drivel is Drivel.My father left school at 14 yet could recite Yeats and Shakespeare and appreciate them intellectually.

    • clom says:

      “Why this rush to dumb down?”
      Ah yes. that old chestnut!
      To what extent, by advocating a degree of glasnost on the part of poets/composers/ am i rushing into the arms of the mythical bogeyman of the arts world?!

      In my example, Don Paterson was good enough to talk through some of the technical and thematic aspects of his and Heaney’s poems for an hour, with a group of people who weren’t “schooled” in poetry. They went away with a better understanding of how to read a poem. The work opened up to people and they’re now more likely to allow difficult poems to give up their secrets slowly (as they often do). How is this dumbing down? Wasn’t this sociable discussion between a lauded poet and a bunch of enthusiastic if inexperienced clods a great example of smartening up? Or at least a very good beginning?

      Also, there’s a lot to be said for the appreciation of poetry as having subconscious elements to it. This is why poetry can be so evocative, that it’s still working away in your mind after you’ve put the book down. That your environment can trigger memories of the phrase. The evocation of poetry is surprising and exhiliarating, a simple human thrill.

    • The best looking man alive says:

      Yes Clom you have misunderstood my point,at least you are right about that,If nothing else.You are also right in correcting your glaring error, see you do the same with the others

    • clom says:

      “Why all of this nicey niceness?”

      I sense that is less of a question and more a prelude to a well polished diatribe of the guardian bookblog bunfight variety so I’ll prefer to refer you to a nice little piece in this very newspaper recently that seems to indicate that kids engage more readily with literature through pop culture than through school.


      There is also the argument to be made that it doesn’t really matter what teenagers read in their school years so long as they read widely and regularly. As a ferociously precocious (and obnoxious) teenager I devoured the works of Camus and Proust, smirking self-importantly to myself as the significance sailed over my tousled teenage head.

    • The best looking man alive says:

      Its a pity Clom cant understand or appreciate my point ,but rather continues on the same meaningless trivialitys without refuting a single fact,Dumbing down has been and is going on ,in the name of political correctness and false ideas of equality,Clom has been hoodwinked by these delusions

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