As a way to commemorate World Poetry Day I have been trying to think of a list of my favourite poems but I’m struggling. It may be tiredness, I’ve been narrating a really long book this week. It may be indecision, I am often to be found staring at shop shelves unable to pick what I want. It may be a lack of willingness to commit, what if I choose one and then discover another I like better tomorrow? Somehow choosing my favourite poems feels a bit like choosing my favourite child, something I’d just prefer not to do.
But that isn’t to say I don’t have my favourites. Some are born out of a childhood connection or a moment when the poet seemed to speak to me across time and distance to let me know they had felt as I did. I was not alone. And that seems to me to be the most powerful thing about poetry. It is where we turn when our emotions are in tumult. It is the language that expresses the things that our usual prose cannot handle.
Many poems I love address love, death, war, despair, hope, bewilderment, awe and wonder. But they can also be whimsical and wistful, taking me back to when my children were small and we read Julia Donaldson, T.S. Eliot’s “Cats” or Edward Lear’s “Nonsense poems”. These touched me not just for the pleasure I could share with my children in these wonderful collections of words but also for the memories of having them read to me by my own parents or grandparents. Poetry speaks through the ages.
None has been so successful at that as Shakespeare and his Sonnets are rightly a treasure trove for anyone grappling with the bewildering joy that is falling in love. The one I have most connected with of his is one about the unchangeability of love in a constantly shifting world “Love is not love which alters when it alteration finds, or bends with the remover to remove.” It spoke to me at a time when I was changing and wondered what it would mean for my marriage, one I am still celebrating.
Poetry has also calmed me at times of grief with William Blake’s or Emily Dickinson’s gorgeous words singing to me and finding a way of holding me when I craved comfort. Their wisdom and humanity reaching across the divide between us and letting me know I am not alone in how I feel.
I also love the robust poetry of Ted Hughes, his “Birthday Letters” tearing me with the pain of loss he felt over his relationship with Sylvia Plath and taking me back to my own “can’t live with you, can’t live without you” relationship.
The rise of spoken word poetry is really exciting and I had shivers listening to Kate Tempest’s “Brand New Ancients” as it explored the human condition. I adopted it as part of my vocal warm up for a while and thrilled at the way the words felt as I chewed them with my voice, discovering their meaning as I released them on my breath.
That for me is the joy of poetry. Prose can be a great way to communicate but it does not delve into the fundamental difficulty of being human and it is not always written to be spoken. Poetry is meant to be spoken aloud. It is meant to be felt and expressed in our bodies. It is meant to be heard. It is music made of language and like music it delves into the fundamental paradox of being human. As a species we have a sense of being infinite but are trapped in finite bodies, an awareness of the endlessness of time in a life that must come to its conclusion, the desire to connect with others while also needing to retain our essential individuality.
Poetry cannot remove this but it can soothe our souls and let us know we are not alone and that there is a way to express this thing we feel that is just too big for our bodies. It is all around, it is for everyone, and it is deeply pleasurable containing no calories or alcohol units. It also doesn’t take much time. So pick a poem, say it, enjoy it, share it, savour it or if you don’t like that one, pick another, there are plenty!