Rhymes With Orange: My Love/Hate Relationship With Poetry
A recent query wondered why there were no blog posts on poetry. The first poem I was ever heard was ‘Naming of Parts’ by Henry Reed. It needed one simple line of explanation from our primary school teacher; soldiers are sitting outside a summer’s day and being taught how to load a rifle, but the attention of one pupil keeps drifting.
To-day we have naming of parts. Yesterday,
We had daily cleaning. And to-morrow morning,
We shall have what to do after firing. But to-day,
To-day we have naming of parts. Japonica
Glistens like coral in all of the neighboring gardens,
And to-day we have naming of parts.
This is the lower sling swivel. And this
Is the upper sling swivel, whose use you will see,
When you are given your slings. And this is the Piling swivel,
Which in your case you have not got. The branches
Hold in the gardens their silent, eloquent gestures,
Which in our case we have not got.
This is the safety-catch, which is always released
With an easy flick of the thumb. And please do not let me
See anyone using his finger. You can do it quite easy
If you have any strength in your thumb. The blossoms
Are fragile and motionless, never letting anyone see
Any of them using their finger.
And this you can see is the bolt. The purpose of this
Is to open the breech, as you see. We can slide it
Rapidly backwards and forwards: we call this
Easing the spring. And rapidly backwards and forwards
The early bees are assaulting and fumbling the flowers:
They call it easing the Spring.
They call it easing the Spring: it is perfectly easy
If you have any strength in your thumb: like the bolt,
And the breech, and the cocking-piece, and the point of balance,
Which in our case we have not got; and the almond blossom
Silent in all of the gardens and the bees going backwards and forwards,
For to-day we have naming of parts.
For my teacher it was modern poetry, and it was to this that I was drawn. I was shocked when we went back to Byron and Wordsworth; it felt like being forced to read Mills & Boon romances aloud. I quickly came to hate declamatory classical poetry, and it took me many years to find anything that I remotely liked. Part of the problem was that I simply didn’t relate to those breathless descriptions of swooning love and spring awakenings. Modern poetry spoke in a clearer voice.
Oddly enough, the eye-opener for me was a poem in translation; Goethe’s ‘Faust’, translated by Philip Wayne. The earliest forms of the work, known as the Urfaust, had been developed between 1772 and 1775. There were 22 scenes, mostly (1,441 lines) in verse. Faust, a Fragment, was published in 1790. Part One came in 1806. Goethe finished writing the second part in 1831, then carked it.
Of the many translations I found (not counting Coleridge’s lost version), the choice largely came down to Philip Wayne or David Luke. I have to say that Luke still sounds too modern to my ears, and I prefer the Wayne. Perhaps neither really captures the Germanic meanings accurately, and it’s worth comparing the various versions.
Well, I started on ‘Poetry, General’ and seem to have become specific. The nation’s favourite poem, apparently, is the mawkish ‘If’ by Rudyard Kipling, which says a lot about who votes in these polls. Here are the top ten national faves;
1 If –-, Rudyard Kipling 1865–1936
2 The Lady of Shalott, Alfred, Lord Tennyson 1809–92
3 The Listeners, Walter de la Mare 1873–1956
4 Not Waiting but Drowning, Stevie Smith 1903–1971
5 The Daffodils, William Wordsworth 1770–1850
6 To Autumn, John Keats 1795–1821
7 The Lake Isle of Innisfree, W.B. Yeats 1865–1939
8 Dulce et Decorum Est, Wilfred Owen 1893–1918
9 Ode to a Nightingale, John Keats 1795—1821
10 He Wishes for the Cloths of Heaven, W.B. Yeats 1865–1939
I suppose the wettest of these is ‘The Daffodils’, while the strongest is Owen’s, which contains the lines;
There will be more to say on the subject. Consider this a start.