It’s National Poetry Day, so here at Standard Issue we’re waxing lyrical about some of our favourite poets.
Carol Ann Duffy
Carol Ann Duffy’s poetry offers us a fragment of her complex soul in a handful of words, her experience crystallised and distilled to make it part of ours. She binds her verse with internal rhyme and half rhyme and once you learn she selects her words to ‘chime’ it’s impossible not to hear the music in her work.
And she knows her stuff; from Greek myths, to Shakespeare’s sonnets to Now Voyager, she loads her poetry with allusion. As Poet Laureate she’s at the heart of the literary establishment, but she’s an anti-Establishment rebel: a single mother, a lesbian, a socialist – a woman.
She’s prolific, so it’s hard to pick favourites, but I’ll give it a go: Rapture is the lyrical account of a doomed love affair, joyful, lustful, heartbreaking. The World’s Wife is the feminist flip side to the story of every iconic man; Duffy’s cynical wit turns heroes into slightly unsatisfactory husbands. But the final poem in The World’s Wife, tucked in at the end, is Demeter. Utterly unsentimental, yet deeply moving, it’s a love song to her daughter with “the small shy mouth of a new moon”.
Shamefully for a spoken word poet, I don’t read a huge amount of poetry. It’s dense. And studying literature means that, to me, a poem looks like a delicious, tantalising puzzle begging to be decoded. But there are exceptions to everything, and old Robbie Frost is mine.
Frost’s poems feel like they’ve been carved into trees. They read like autumn. They’re as American as grits. My favourite, The Silken Tent, is a neat little box of text that somehow contains ageless, transcendent romance. She is “loosely bound by countless silken ties of love and thought to everything on earth the compass round”. She is so loved, so respected, yet so independent. It is everything a love poem (never mind a relationship) should be, without the sentiment we all confuse with actual love.
Frost’s poems refuse to be puzzled at; they bare their hearts from the first to the last.
One pauses to use any word too glibly when describing a poet, but TS Eliot was a genius. To say he was a pioneer for Modernism is to undersell him, and Modernism irreversibly changed the face of art and culture the world over. Whether you’ve read him or not, Eliot has irrevocably affected your life, your emotions and everything you can know and touch.
You may well be familiar with The Love Song Of J Alfred Prufrock, even without realising. The man who has “measured out my life with coffee spoons” is our crumpled hero, and that line, first published in 1915, could not be closer to our middle-class existential crises in 2015. The shared internal monologue is of a person pained by isolation, his stream of consciousness both alienating and befriending to the reader. The character might be trapped in the problems of his own society but could not be more familiar to us even now.
Frightened, paranoid, awkward, tortured, haunted by unrequited romantic feelings and an impotent inability to act in all things, this poem displays more anguish than The Cure’s entire back catalogue. It’s more of a howling than a love poem in the traditional sense, and reading it will leave you ragged.
The Waste Land – written subsequent to Prufrock and Eliot’s best known masterpiece (among so many that should also be named as such) – is so rich in material I actually wrote my thesis at university on just two stanzas of it. And solely about the treatment of women in those two stanzas. To say it’s a fairly dense poem is like calling James Joyce’s Ulysses ‘a good romp’.
Eliot paints pictures of women he knows from literature, from the pub, from his bed, from opera, from university, from books, from religions, from paintings, and they all have a voice that dwarfs his own. He’s terrified and mesmerised, brutalised and repulsed, and above all things, in love. And all of those women are more real in a few brief flickering images than in a 700-page novel with their name emblazoned on the front. If you want to see women – all women – read TS Eliot. Oh. And he likes cats.
“I love Emily Dickinson’s poetry because it’s in those gaps, in the spaces she ripped open, where I feel like I have an insight into a remarkable way of seeing the world.”
I was 13 when I discovered Wendy Cope. I’d just started properly fancying boys and being ignored by them, so I had teenage angst, but always had a healthy sense of humour about it. And then I read Valentine and thought, “This is it, this is how I feel.” Sad but funny.
So I bought Serious Concerns and although I didn’t smoke and I’d never told someone I loved them on Waterloo Bridge, I knew that here was someone who understood me, who got me. When I was 17, I invited Cope to come and speak at my school society. She came. She talked, she read some poems, she drank port with us afterwards. She was quiet, and polite and quite shy, and I LOVED her (which may have been why she was shy – teenage adoration is intimidating).
She said she didn’t ever think of herself as a funny poet, just as a poet. I think of her as my poet. My first boyfriend used to write me poems, as well as sending me famous ones. He gave me Ruth by Thomas Hood. It’s great. But Wendy Cope’s He Tells Her spoke more to me. And I’ve always liked to think it’s written for me. After all, it’s for Ruth B… and I did meet her once…
Boy, could Alfred rock a beard! Seriously, check out that face wig. It was the stuff to make skinny-jean-wearing hipster boys weep.
But I digress… Tennyson stands as one of my favourite poets due to the beauty of his verse and his endearing love for his best friend, Arthur Henry Hallam, who tragically died at just 22 years old.
Born in Somersby, Lincolnshire (a ‘yellow belly’ like me), Alfred Lord Tennyson, Britain’s longest serving Poet Laureate, wrote some of the most famous poems and lines in English literature, including the powerful The Charge of the Light Brigade, which praises and mourns the fateful Brigade, sent to their demise because of a tactical error from their superiors.
My personal favourite poems from Tennyson though are those that sadly focus on the shock and grief surrounding the death of Hallam, including Break Break Break, composed upon Mablethorpe Beach in Lincolnshire as he pondered on just how to write the obituary for his friend he had lost so suddenly. From this, and possibly the poem which caused TS Eliot to claim that Tennyson was “the saddest of all English poets”, was the heartbreaking In Memoriam A H H, a requiem for his beloved friend which includes the eloquent and immortal lines: “Tis better to have loved and lost / Than never to have loved at all.”
Often misattributed to romantic love, spare a thought next time you hear these and think about Tennyson: a fine Lincolnshire fellow who stood up for the tragic heroes of the Crimean war, who loved his best friend till the day he died and had a cracking beard too.
“Cut, written in 1962 in the depths of depression, is breathtaking, bloody and urgent and a little bit terrifying.”
Nobody really knew about Emily Dickinson’s poetry during her life. She’d gone from a bright, sociable young woman, who’d enjoyed a relatively liberal education, to a total recluse. After she died, bucketloads of her poetry were found, published and loved.
Sometimes, I think about the fact she’ll never know that earnest young things read her melancholy, broken, heartbreaking poetry and stare out of windows and sigh. But then, would she have written the same words? Her unique, isolated viewpoint might have been ruined by admiring fans.
There’s been speculation that her sometimes detached verses could have been a manifestation of a form of epilepsy, which might have been what led to her voluntary hermitage. Whatever the reason, I love her poetry because it’s in those gaps, in the spaces she ripped open, where I feel like I have an insight into a remarkable way of seeing the world.
Being a literate woman and loving Sylvia Plath is SO awkward. It ALWAYS feels like you’re lying. “Do you? Or do you just have a tote bag with her name on it? Name one of her fucking poems then.”
OK then, I will. (Now, how to make this not sound like York Notes). Cut, written in 1962 in the depths of depression, is breathtaking, bloody and urgent and a little bit terrifying. I can’t even tell you how good Daddy is (“I made a model of you / A man in black with a Meinkampf look“); you’ll just have to read it. The fact is that Plath is held up as a sort of tragic poet-wife and feminist heroine and that’s grand and all but the words on the page (or, really, in the mouth) are far sexier than the iconography.
Look, I can’t make you love her here. Just settle yourself down (ideally in a rocking chair with a crocheted blanket on your lap), read all of her poems in this order: Cut, Daddy, Lady Lazarus, The Arrival of the Bee Box and then all the others. And then have a cuddle of a kitten or something.
Some of Standard Issue's brilliant women's carefully crafted words for your reading pleasure.