“Poetry is what gets lost in translation” – Robert Frost
As today is National Poetry Day and the theme is Remember, I thought it might be a good time to take a quick trip down my “poetry memory lane”
I was never much of a one for school but did always love English. When I went up to senior school, I had a great teacher, Mrs. Stanley. She introduced me to Shakespeare and to poetry, both of which I still love. It was probably no surprise with poetry – I already spent many an hour absorbed in the lyrics of my favourite songs trying to figure out exactly what they meant, and a good song is – I think – poetry set to music.
The first poem Mrs. Stanley had us read was Dulce Et Decorum Est by Wilfred Owen.
Bent double, like old beggars under sacks,
Knock-kneed, coughing like hags, we cursed through sludge,
Till on the haunting flares we turned our backs
And towards our distant rest began to trudge.
Men marched asleep. Many had lost their boots
But limped on, blood-shod. All went lame; all blind;
Drunk with fatigue; deaf even to the hoots
Of tired, outstripped Five-Nines that dropped behind.
Gas! Gas! Quick, boys! – An ecstasy of fumbling,
Fitting the clumsy helmets just in time;
But someone still was yelling out and stumbling,
And flound’ring like a man in fire or lime . . .
Dim, through the misty panes and thick green light,
As under a green sea, I saw him drowning.
In all my dreams, before my helpless sight,
He plunges at me, guttering, choking, drowning.
If in some smothering dreams you too could pace
Behind the wagon that we flung him in,
And watch the white eyes writhing in his face,
His hanging face, like a devil’s sick of sin;
If you could hear, at every jolt, the blood
Come gargling from the froth-corrupted lungs,
Obscene as cancer, bitter as the cud
Of vile, incurable sores on innocent tongues,
My friend, you would not tell with such high zest
To children ardent for some desperate glory,
The old Lie; Dulce et Decorum est
Pro patria mori.
The first book of poetry I ever bought is also one of my favourite books. I found Poets of the Nineteenth Century, published in 1892, in a secondhand book shop when I was 13, many, many years ago. It cost £1, which seemed like a lot of money back then, but I wanted it as soon as I saw it.
I loved how old the book felt, the pages are thin and slightly fragile, the engravings raised. The inscription in the front dated 1894 seemed to the teenage me to make it extra special, providing a direct connection to the past.
For the first time, I read Byron, Shelley, Wordsworth and Keats, whose poems I fell in love with. Of all the poems, one stuck with me more than others To Mary by Charles Wolfe, a not that well known Irish poet. I don’t know why this poem (it’s not the most cheery) but I have never forgotten the opening lines.
If I had thought thou couldst have died,
I might not weep for thee;
But I forgot, when by thy side,
That thou couldst mortal be:
It never through my mind had past
The time would e’er be o’er,
And I on thee should look my last,
And thou shouldst smile no more!
And still upon that face I look,
And think ’twill smile again;
And still the thought I will not brook,
That I must look in vain.
But when I speak–thou dost not say
What thou ne’er left’st unsaid;
And now I feel, as well I may,
Sweet Mary, thou art dead!
If thou wouldst stay, e’en as thou art,
All cold and all serene–
I still might press thy silent heart,
And where they smiles have been.
While e’en thy chill, bleak corse I have,
Thou seemest still mine own;
But there–I lay thee on thy grave,
And I am now alone!
I do not think, where’er thou art,
Thou hast forgotten me;
And I, perhaps, may soothe this heart
In thinking too of thee:
Yet there was round thee such a dawn
Of light ne’er seen before,
As fancy never could have drawn,
And never can restore!
See, told you it wasn’t that cheery.
I returned to Keats when I did my English A Level, when I spent many an hour trying to understand just what he was saying in his Odes. Thankfully, I had the sense to use a paperback to make notes, not the secondhand find.
Partly because I spent so much time reading his works, and Ode on a Grecian Urn was the first poem I learnt by heart, Keats will always be a favourite. He said of poetry:
“Poetry should be great and unobtrusive, a thing which enters into one’s soul, and does not startle it or amaze it with itself, but with its subject”
I don’t read anywhere near as much poetry as I would like. For me, reading a poem takes time, no distractions and a quiet room. As I tend to read poetry out loud, a room with no one else in it is also a must! Still, in quiet moments, I do still find myself picking up a book and, The Poetry Foundation have a great app for reading favourite poets and finding new ones I recently discovered and which I have been using a lot. It definitely makes new poets easier to find. Do you read poetry? What poets and poems have stayed with you?