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POETRY SEASON 2009  :  PRESENTERS RECOMMEND POEMS

PRESENTER RECOMMENDATIONS

As part of Poetry Season, Radio 3 presenters share their poetry recommendations.

    Catherine Bott
    CATHERINE BOTT

    recommends
    INSIDE
    by Eleanor Farjeon

    First line:
    A bellyful and the fire,

    Catherine Bott writes:
    I have a lifetime poetry habit, and had an enjoyable weekend with my poetry books, which live in my bedroom. After much thought I’d like to suggest 'Inside' by Eleanor Farjeon: it’s from the first book of poetry I was ever given, when I was seven years old. It’s probably the first love poem that ever moved me (and still does). And its simplicity and truthfulness is something I’ve continued to seek in poetry ever since.

      Iain Burnside
      IAIN BURNSIDE

      recommends
      DYING
      by Emily Dickinson

      First line:
      I heard a fly buzz when I died;
       
      Iain Burnside writes:
      I love how modern this poem is. It verges on the surreal. It verges too on the cinematic, 100 years before its time.

      Dickinson is one of the great poets of death, dealing with it in a way that’s somehow both numinous and matter of fact. But then she abounds in paradox: how everyday words can be assembled into something so individual; how a life so severely limited - self-limited, indeed – should nurture such imagination; how a poem on such a serious subject can still raise a smile.

      Her blue uncertain stumbling buzz gets me every time. So does her last dash. She’s not finished.

        Rob Cowan
        ROB COWAN

        recommends
        DEATH
        by Emily Dickinson

        First line:
        Because I could not stop for Death—

        Rob Cowan writes:
        This always sends a shiver down my spine - death as a suitor, eerily drawn towards the poet ... I love the lines “We passed the Setting Sun -/-Or rather – He passed Us -” as if Dickinson is spontaneously reminding herself which way round things are.

        You get the impression of a momentary vision captured on the wing – suddenly knowing and having to share. And what verbal economy. Aaron Copland set the poem to music

          Philip Dodd
          PHILIP DODD

          recommends
          CUT GRASS
          by Philip Larkin

          First line:
          Cut grass lies frail,
           
          Philip Dodd writes:
          I chose this poem, Philip Larkin's Cut Grass to read at a young friend's funeral.

          It's a wonderful English poem, just about mown grass, about cut grass but it's also about cut grass in the Biblical sense, that we're all flowers cut down.

          It's a poem that also echoes poems of another marvellous Hull poet, Andrew Marvell who wrote poems about mowers. It's a poem about an English custom, about mown grass and also about the fragility of human life. It doesn't speak of 'Death' in some solemn, ponderous way - but with the lightness of an English summer day.

            Lucy Duran
            LUCY DURAN

            recommends
            SPANISH PEASANT BOY
            by Jane Duran

            First line:
            Perhaps you have sworn

            I confess to having a special soft spot for my sister Jane’s poems. “Spanish peasant boy” comes from her 2002 book of poems called “Silences from the Spanish Civil War”.

            They’re about our father, Gustavo Durán, a Spanish musician and composer. When he was only 29, with no military background, he enlisted in the Republican army to fight against Franco, and became its youngest general. At the end of the war he managed to escape to the UK, where he married my mother, and was never able to return to Spain.

            This year is the 70th anniversary of the end of the Civil War and the 40th anniversary of my father’s death, so it seems like a timely moment to share these thoughts on Radio 3's Poetry Season.

            “Spanish peasant boy” for me is a comment on the bitterness of exile.
            Like many other exiles from the Spanish Civil War, my father never talked to his children about his war experiences – hence the "silences" in the title of my sister's book.

            So we grew up in an atmosphere of deep but unspoken nostalgia for Spain. This was especially powerful when he sat at the piano, playing his own compositions and arrangements of Spanish folksongs, like “Mal de l’amor” (you can hear a version of it on Yasmin Levy’s album Mano Suave). I think Jane’s poems have a similar effect on me.

            Stephen Johnson
            STEPHEN JOHNSON

            recommends
            SEPTEMBER 1, 1939
            by W.H.Auden

            First line:
            I sit in one of the dives

            Stephen Johnson writes:
            This is a poem written in confused, fearful times. It faces the worst, reflects courageously, then somehow transcends it all.

            I've taken this poem out many times when, like Auden, I've felt 'uncertain and afraid'. Eventually you begin to realize that it's really a prayer - to whom exactly isn't clear, but that hardly matters.

            And like so many great prayers, it contains its own answer.

              James Jolly
              JAMES JOLLY

              recommends
              MUSÉE DES BEAUX ARTS
              by W.H.Auden

              First line:
              About suffering they were never wrong,

              James Jolly writes:
              In his characteristically humane, but also forensically inspired way, Auden illustrates the role of Art in society.
              Life must go on, he says: the mundane alongside the sublime, ambitious acts alongside the day-to-day. He crystallises so much into just a few words: “the torturer's horse / Scratches its innocent behind on a tree” is a timeless image.

              From our own time, the concentration-camp guard, perhaps, has a life to live whatever horrors he may inflict. Beauty sits alongside horror, death alongside the re-creative act of tilling the soil.

              And always there is Auden’s familiar, friendly voice.

                Mary Ann Kennedy
                MARY ANN KENNEDY

                recommends
                THE CONFIRMATION
                by Edwin Muir

                First line:
                Yes, yours, my love, is the right human face.

                Mary Ann writes:
                People say there’s no such thing ‘the one’, but I firmly believe that for some people, there is. This sums up for me everything that is redeeming and uplifting in finding that ‘one’, all the more so for the utter humanity of recognising and embracing imperfection.

                It’s easy to understand that Edwin Muir himself regarded his own marriage as ‘the most fortunate event’ of his life. 

                  Suzy Klein
                  SUZY KLEIN

                  recommends
                  ON FIRST LOOKING INTO CHAPMAN'S HOMER...
                  by John Keats.

                  First line:
                  Much have I travell'd in the realms of gold,

                  Suzy Klein writes:
                  Keats's first major poem, it was written after staying up all night reading George Chapman's then-brand new and earthily robust translation of Homer.

                  For Keats, Chapman's Homer was a revelation: as he puts it, like a new planet swimming into one's vision.

                  For me, the poem conjures up brilliantly the frontier-mentality, the vast sense of discovery one feels when introduced to a great painting, book or film that you've never known before - and the barely-contained excitement of telling everyone you know about it!

                    Rana Mitter
                    RANA MITTER

                    recommends
                    DE PROFUNDIS
                    by Federico Garcia Lorca

                    First line:
                    Los cien enamorados (The hundred lovers)

                    Rana Mitter writes:
                    This poem, De Profundis, is a section from a longer poem by the great Spanish poet and playwright Federica Garcia Lorca called Poem of the Deep Song (Poema del Cante Jondo). I first encountered it more than twenty years ago in its setting by Shostakovich as the first song in his Symphony No 14.

                    The music remains my favourite piece by my favourite composer, but the poem itself is deeply effective without the need for any musical accompaniment. Its power lies in its spareness. The words are plain, almost like prose, and could run the danger of sounding banal ("Andalusia has wide red roads"). The fact that they don't is tribute both to Lorca's immense ability to get the most out of a very few words, and to the landscapes of the parched, desperately poor region of Andalusia that inspired him. The poem was written years before the outbreak of the Civil War in which Lorca was killed, but it's hard to read it now without connecting the "crosses" hiding the "lovers" under the dry earth with the dead of the conflict that tore Spain apart.

                    In the years after I first encountered the poem, I became a historian of modern China. Although it seems a long way from Spain, in the mid-twentieth century the Spanish Civil War and the war between China and Japan were associated in many people's minds as two parallel fights between freedom and fascism, and as I write about the war in China, I often find myself coming back to Lorca's poem about an equally impoverished and conflict-wracked society.

                      Sara Mohr-Pietsch
                      SARA MOHR-PIETSCH

                      recommends
                      PEACE
                      by Gerard Manley Hopkins

                      First line:
                      When will you ever, Peace, wild wooddove, shy wings shut,

                      Sara Mohr-Pietsch writes:
                      I have this poem scribbled in the back of my diary, which I carry everywhere - it's there for me to reach for when I'm in need of some comfort.

                      Of course, this is Hopkins, so he doesn't make it easy! Most of the time I don't have the faintest idea what he's on about. But I love the image of Peace as an untamed dove, and the poem says something to me about the ambiguity of living with imperfection, a very human struggle.

                      The first two lines are deliciously musical in their syntax - a most beautiful composition.

                        Jez Nelson
                        JEZ NELSON

                        recommends
                        THE NEGRO SPEAKS OF RIVERS
                        by Langston Hughes

                        First line:
                        I've known rivers: I've known rivers ancient as the world and older than the flow of human blood in human veins.

                        Jez Nelson writes:
                        I first heard this poem set to music on a 1970s album by the saxophonist Gary Bartz. It's a powerful piece which set the standard for "jazz poetry". Bartz's version somehow makes perfect sense - I can't read the poem without hearing the music. The great vocalist Cassandra Wilson has also recorded a version with Courtney Pine.

                        A main player in the Harlem Renaissance, Hughes would have a profound influence on Gil Scott-Heron who in turn was the "Godfather of Rap".

                          Chi-chi Nwanoku
                          CHI-CHI NWANOKU

                          recommends
                          STILL I RISE
                          by Maya Angelou

                          First line:
                          You may write me down in history

                          Chi-chi Nwanoku writes:
                          A poem that resonates for me is one by a woman whom I've always been inspired by. Maya Angelou.

                          She's an inspiration to many, I know.

                          And there's no doubting her commitment combined with her astonishing charisma and powers of delivery gives hope to many.

                            John Shea
                            JOHN SHEA

                            recommends
                            STRANGE MEETING
                            by Wilfred Owen

                            First line:
                            It seemed that out of the battle I escaped,

                            John Shea writes:
                            I can remember what I’d call my first adult encounter with poetry quite clearly. Earlier memories are shared between the Irish poems my mother constantly recited to us as children and the standards I was made to learn at school – but Wilfred Owen’s Strange Meeting has haunted me since I first came across it at the age of 14.

                            The circumstances were prosaic (if you can say that of a poem): I sang in the children’s choir in Britten’s War Requiem in 1977 in Westminster Cathedral, in a Royal College of Music concert marking the first anniversary of Britten’s death, and “Let us sleep now” was our cue. But we were out of sight in a side chapel, and so heard the words coming from some distant place that could have been anywhere; in fact, even then, I remember wondering whether I was hearing them or imagining them. That’s still how I experience them to this day.

                              Alyn Shipton
                              ALYN SHIPTON

                              recommends
                              THANK YOU FOG
                              by WH Auden

                              First line:
                              Grown used to New York weather,

                              Alyn Shipton writes:
                              It's a brilliant evocation of the way a blanket of fog can isolate us in a wintry landscape and force us to listen even to obscure birds we normally don't recognise like the merle and the mavis.

                              It catches the damp drippy nature of fog to perfection, but for me it's particularly important, because it was written during the winter of 1972-3 (Auden's final year) while he was in residence in Oxford and I was in my first year reading English (and studying him!)

                              I used to meet him almost every morning as he shambled into the tobacconist next to my rooms at St Edmund Hall while I was buying my newspaper, and I always think of him now, nodding the time of day to me as he loomed out of the fog, only later to discover his description of newspapers in the poem as "vomiting in slipshod prose the facts of filth and violence".

                                Lucie Skeaping
                                LUCIE SKEAPING

                                recommends
                                OLD ENGLAND GROWN NEW
                                by Thomas d'Urfey

                                First line:
                                You talk of old England I truly believe,

                                Lucie Skeaping writes:
                                We often hear people moan about how 'life was so much better in the olden days’ so it's comforting to see from these verses that, almost 300 years ago, our ancestors evidently felt exactly the same way; indeed, almost all the complaints could apply today!

                                D'Urfey (1653-1723), of French Huguenot descent, was a familiar and distinctive figure in London society. As a humorous entertainer and author of innumerable comedy plays, he was on friendly terms with royalty, known to many as 'Charles II's favourite poet and drinking partner'.

                                D'Urfey prints music alongside the poem - a version of the 'Greensleeves' tune, to which I have frequently sung it.

                                  Ian Skelly
                                  IAN SKELLY

                                  recommends
                                  THE WORLD
                                  by Kathleen Raine
                                   
                                  First line:
                                  It burns in the void

                                  Ian Skelly writes:
                                  I had the privilege of knowing Kathleen Raine in the last ten years of her long life (1908 - 2003) and she was very wise and very witty. She wrote many a beautiful poem – there’s a long one called the Marriage of Psyche which, in the second section, contains perhaps her most famous line about the ring of bright water, but I'd like to recommend a seemingly very simple poem, The World, which so moved John Tavener he set it to music.

                                  Its efficiency and innate balance have always fascinated me. I can happily turn it around in my mind like a jewel in the light, pondering the subtle shift of emphasis in each stanza. She told me that it came to her directly and that the ‘nothing’ in each verse refers to the “insubstantial source of the original wonder.” It also echoes with those lines in the Upanishads on the unfettered nature of the spirit, “In freedom it arises, towards freedom it moves, in freedom it rests.” If ever I feel the torpor of deep despair dragging me down when I see the way we so recklessly destroy the natural wonders of the world I turn to this poem and others by Kathleen. They repeat the approach she told me often to follow: to balance the distractions of the finite world with the benign presence of the eternal.

                                    Geoffrey Smith
                                    GEOFFREY SMITH

                                    recommends
                                    THE WINDHOVER
                                    by Gerard Manley Hopkins

                                    First line:
                                    I caught this morning morning's minion, kingdom of daylight's dauphin, dapple-dawn-drawn Falcon, in his riding

                                    Geoffrey Smith writes:
                                    A true tour de force, “The Windhover” stunningly unites ecstasy and virtuosity.

                                    Hopkins’ rapture at the bird’s flight inspires a complex vision of natural beauty and sacrementality expressed in a rush of words which stretches imagery and syntax to the breaking point.

                                    Yet it’s superbly realized, a celebration of the magnificence of life and language.

                                      Fiona Talkington
                                      FIONA TALKINGTON

                                      recommends
                                      XLVII
                                      by Edna St. Vincent Millay

                                      First line:
                                      Well, I have lost you;

                                      Fiona Talkington writes:
                                      I'd loved to have known Edna St. Vincent Millay. Growing up in the early years of the 20th century in a musical house in Maine she was steeped in the arts: music, theatre and poetry. A trunkful of books, and relatives with spare rooms helped her mother bring up her three daughters, and, in her 20s, the one who insisted on being known as "Vincent" won the Pultizer Prize for Poetry.

                                      It's not her vast travels, nor even her journey through Albania on horseback which draws me to her, but her down to earth expression of heartbreak whether through the end of a relationship or he death of a loved one. My well-thumbed copy of her sonnets usually falls open at a poem which is so dignified in the face of loss, and so ulimately kind to one who has clearly hurt her, the sonnet form a perfect vehicle for this dignity.

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