Rhymes With Orange: My Love/Hate Relationship With Poetry

The Arts

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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;

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.

There will be more to say on the subject. Consider this a start.

19 comments on “Rhymes With Orange: My Love/Hate Relationship With Poetry”

  1. Ken Mann says:

    I too had “Naming of Parts” at school. It wasn’t until years afterwards that I realised that Henry Reed had written other poems. An obvious fact of course, but somehow my schoolboy memory treated the poem as a single thing that just existed rather than having been written.

  2. Brian Evans says:

    What about “Albert and the Lion”?

    “There’ a famous seaside town called Blackpool
    That’s noted for fresh air and fun
    Where Mr and Mrs Ramsbottom,
    Went there with young Albert their son………”

    I should be done with a broad Lancashire accent. Our school biology teacher used to break into it at the drop of a hat.

  3. brooke says:

    The list is scary…it can’t possibly be. It’s a put-on.

  4. Adam says:

    Poetry is an odd beast; a lot of it can come over as pretentious, dull or just plain rubbish, but occasionally it can really resonate. It is also a very broad church; I’m firmly in the camp that song lyrics are poetry. I could read the lyrics of someone like Richard Thompson and be transported without ever hearing the song.

  5. admin says:

    No, it’s real – but it was a BBC poll conducted through its viewers, who are mostly in their mid-sixties.

  6. Peter Tromans says:

    Exactly, what is poetry?

    In my final year at school, I’d happily and very effectively reduced my studies to maths and physics. Then we were forced to spend a couple of hours per week in the ‘headmaster’s English’ lessons. He told us to write an essay on the difference between poetry and prose. An essay! I couldn’t make more than four sentences. Even the mighty and generally verbose Encyclopaedia Britannica managed only a paragraph. This was the point when it became absolutely clear that he and I were from different planets and always would be. I duly re-worded the piece from Britannica and the headmaster added my name to his list of idiots and failures.

  7. Peter Tromans says:

    … After writing the above I couldn’t resist googling ‘difference between poetry and prose’ (something far from existing in my schooldays). There’s still not much written on the topic, but one site gave the perfect explanation:

    In poetry, the author largely determines the line breaks. In prose, they are largely determined by the page margins.

  8. Ken Mann says:

    Dulce et Decorum Est was taught at my school too. This is why when I pass a sign saying Dolce & Gabbana my brain replies “bent double like old beggars under sacks”.

  9. Martin Tolley says:

    My dad who was born in the 1920s had to learn poetry off by heart at school. As a result he could, and did, recite swathes of Kipling, particularly “If” and “The Garden of England”. He loved the rhythms and the rhymes. Saying poems aloud brought a massive and unforgettable smile to his face and gave him the most immense pleasure for all his life.

  10. Martin Taylor says:

    Wilfrid Owen was without doubt the best of the war poets. As a relatively naive 15 year old I did “Dulce et decorum est” rapidly followed by “Strange Meeting” and others, I have never forgotten them though I am a relatively aged 51.

  11. Martin Taylor says:

    I should add that growing up in Rochdale in the 70s and early 80s an Imperialistvlike Kipling was never going to impress us.

  12. Roger says:

    “If” is hardly mawkish – sententious, yes, and far from Kipling’s best.
    Stevie Smith’s poem is “Not waving but drowning”. I think you were listening with only half an ear. It’s a good poem too.
    However, any favourite poetry list that doesn’t have Larkin’s “This be the Verse” is almost certainly doctored.

  13. kevin says:

    Hi Chris,

    Thank you so much for this post! I’d never heard of “Naming of Parts.” Perhaps because I’m an American. To my ear, it doesn’t sound like a “proper” English poem but I like it anyway. You’ve also given me some poems to investigate – 1,4,8, 10. So thank you again.

    Was Spoken Word Poetry very popular in Britain? For a time it was huge here in the States. I detest Spoken Word because it seems to be, at least in the places I’ve lived – CA, TX, DC, too much about performance and not language. I agree that lyrics can indeed be poetry.

  14. Rachel Green says:

    I struggle with Romantic poets, but many of the modern breed really rock my boat.

  15. Tony Walker says:

    All real poetry should begin with, “There was a young man from……”

  16. Vivienne says:

    I did ‘Naming of. parts’ and most of the others on the top ten list at school. The list probably represents what we were all taught as people rarely read poetry outside of school, so these are all they would know.

    There was someone held captive (Terry Waite perhaps) who said they stayed sane by reciting poems, which led me to try to memorise some favourites. Can probably do Osymandias

  17. Bill says:

    I initially thought the heading photograph was of Mr. Henry Reed. Odd, I thought, the photography looks early twentieth century, not mid-century. Then I googled Henry Reed, and I thought, golly, Henry Reed must have turned ugly fast. Then I googled Wilfred Owen, and imagine my surprise!

    Whatta good-looking man! Golly, I can imagine why Siegfried Sassoon thought he was such an armful!

    Also, I liked the photo you recently published of your Mayor. So pleasant on the eyes, such an improvement over that Boris fellow!

    Now, I’ll tell you a secret: I vote only for men I find attractive. Guess how many years since I’ve voted?

    UGLY AMERICANS!

    I did like Mr. Reed’s poem.

  18. Helen Martin says:

    My husband says he remembers “Naming of Parts” vaguely. I remember it vividly and wrenchingly. How about “To the woodlands I will go to see the cherries hung with snow?” We’ve recited that at Moses Jackson’s grave (in our local cemetery) at Easter. How did Not Waving but Drowning get in that list?
    In a literature seminar I was destroyed during a discussion of that “Out of the night that covers, dark as (whatever) from pole to pole” where you can read the poem as it is, an arrogant, self congratulatory piece of ego stroking, or if you are “in on it” as a piece of satire. I maintained that a piece that does not indicate that it is satire in some way that any reader can recognize should be accepted as presented. I was in tears by the time the discussion was done. The interpretation of poetry is the tricky part, often a result of the need to rhyme or fit a rhythm. Once we were freed of those forms we were free to make poetry say in the tersest of ways what really hits our hearts.
    Memorising poetry is useful in that it trains the memory, provides you with those terse sayings when you cannot create a satisfactory one for yourself. I’m fond of 17th century stuff myself and had a prof who wrote in that style. (Also WW1 poets and the late 20th century poets a friend is force feeding me – not Elizabeth Bishop, however. She’s a good poet – was – but we have a thing about her.)

  19. Ian Luck says:

    I was trying to explain ‘Albert And The Lion’ to a bloke at work. When I hand over, at the end of a shift, I’m usually asked: “Anything I should know about?” My reply is usually, as I work at a port facility: “No wrecks, and nobody drowning.” A holiday relief thought it hilarious, and I told him that it came from an ancient comedy monologue, most famously popularised by the actor, Stanley Holloway, whom you might remember from the movie version of ‘My Fair Lady’, although I prefer him as the gravedigger in the delicious ‘The Private Life Of Sherlock Holmes’. Getting back to ‘Albert And The Lion’, it’s an important life lesson we all should learn; if confronted by a bored Lion called Wallace, never, under any circumstances, poke it in the eye with a Horse-headed stick.

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