Wednesday, 7 December 2016

Insomnia / Insomniac's Moon

I've always been a massive fan of Carol Ann Duffy. The World's Wife was the first of her collections that I encountered and remains my favourite for its wit, humour, and feminism. Shortly after beginning this slight obsession I was given Answering Back, an anthology edited by Duffy in which contemporary poets respond to poems of the past. It's a wonderful anthology and I loved discovering new to me contemporary poets alongside old favourites.

Insomniac's Moon is Ruth Fainlight's response to Elizabeth Bishop's poem Insomnia. Elizabeth Bishop was an American poet and short story writer who received the Pulitzer Prize for poetry in 1956. Shamefully, I hadn't heard of Bishop before reading this anthology, but as more than one contemporary poet chose to respond to her works I have some understanding of her popularity and impact.

Insomnia is a poem I find hard to attach any adjectives to. I adore it, I adore the message, I adore the imagery and the description of the moon. As a teenager my nights were ruled by insomnia, but it was a fraught, fearful sleeplessness. This poem describes a more thoughtful and quietly passionate, if lonely, sleeplessness.

Insomniac's Moon by Ruth Fainlight takes again this image of the watchful moon at night and adds an element of harshness. The lack of sleep in this poem is much more negative, and almost brutal in a way. There is a sense of always being on the edge of something, of just missing out - on sleep, on dreams, on life.

These two poems are quite different, but I find them both equally compelling. I'm a sucker for moon imagery anyway and Bishop and Fainlight use the moon in innovative ways.

Side note: so I've already missed a few days, but I'm going to keep on going and posting poems as often as I can until Christmas Day. I'm really enjoying rediscovering old favourites.

Saturday, 3 December 2016

The Sick Rose || William Blake

There are very few poems I can recite by heart, but Blake's The Sick Rose is one that I can. The Songs of Innocence and Experience have always been some of my favourite poems - I think I prefer the Songs of Experience, but don't tell Innocence - and The Sick Rose stands out in its brevity, apparent simplicity, and all round blatant innuendo (the invisible worm?! Come on!).

I've always loved Blake's deceptive simplicity and this poem is a shining example. It can be read and interpreted in so many different ways and many of the key symbols - the rose, the worm - can be understood in various ways, both literally and metaphorically. I have a fondness for poems which will inevitably mean different things to different people and this is certainly one of those.

Reciting poetry in anxiety-inducing situations is one of my coping mechanisms and this one is particularly good for relieving stress and anxiety. In part because it makes my immature self giggle uncontrollably! I had a hip MRI this year and I am supremely claustrophobic, but I repeated The Sick Rose over and over for the time it took and managed to survive. It was only after that I realised the MRI technicians could hear everything going on in the room - oops.

Can you recite any poems from memory?


Friday, 2 December 2016

Fragment || Rupert Brooke

Rupert Brooke is most well known for his patriotic poems from the First World War, some of which are fantastic. However, my favourite of his works is one that doesn't always show up in various collections: Fragment.

Fragment was written on the journey to Gallipoli, shortly before Brooke's death from septicaemia in April 1915. It marks a change in his war poetry and has a much more sombre tone, yet still maintains his typical lyricism. The final stanza I think is particularly beautiful, but read retrospectively with the knowledge of his death, it is also extremely sad.

The whole poem has an eerie feel, from the 'cloudy moonless sky' to the 'perishing things and strange ghosts' of the final stanza. He alludes to the randomness of war, the brutality and the futility of it: 'thought little of, pashed, scattered...' Perhaps the overriding thing I feel when reading this poem is loneliness and that feeling of being alone in a crowd of people. Brooke is on the outside looking in, having had a realisation that war does not allow idealism, and slowly coming to terms with the knowledge that he, or his fellow soldiers may, or will, die.

A long time ago I read Jill Dawson's brilliant novel The Great Lover which is a fictional exploration of the rumours that Brooke fathered a child in Tahiti. I'd barely come across him before this and had misguidedly dismissed him as a somewhat uninteresting war poet, but Dawson's novel opened up a different side of him for me and introduced me to his Grantchester poems. I've had various conversations with writers and readers alike about Brooke and I always find myself defending him. I think it's important to read literature in the context of its own time, not in the context of now, and I often feel that Brooke gets judged harshly on the basis that he was a staunch patriot and perhaps naive and idealistic. I'll always call on this poem as my evidence that things perhaps changed for him on that boat heading for Gallipoli.

What do you think of this poem?

Thursday, 1 December 2016

Invictus || William Ernest Henley

I first came across Invictus by William Ernest Henley a short while after my sixth form English Lit teacher helped me fall back in love with poetry by way of William Blake. I'd suddenly included the poetry section in my local Waterstones into my weekly browsing ritual, but didn't know where to begin, so I started with a classic anthology: Poetry Please. It was a neat little hard back book, almost pocket size, with a lavender coloured spine. I read it cover to cover, engaging with some poems more than others, and rereading and rereading.

Invictus gets a bad rap I always think, for such a powerful poem. It is perhaps simplistic or lacking in subtlety, but I'd argue that its blatant in-your-face-ness is another way of imparting the message. He is the master of his fate and he shows you that with the unrelenting force of the poem as well as through the words themselves.

It's a significant poem throughout history and has come to represent Britishness, the 'stiff upper lip' mindset, and Victorian stoicicm. It is widely quoted both in fact and fiction, from Churchill's wartime speeches to Dorothy L Sayers's detective-hero, Peter Wimsey.

For me, the significance is wholly personal. My sister was very ill at the time I first came across the poem, having also been very ill as a child, so it soon morphed into a poem that represents her and her unconquerable strength. Sometimes the simplest of poems can root you to reality and act as a beacon of hope. Invictus did that for me in those uneasy sixth form days and continues to do so now. A couple of years after I first read it I showed it to my sister and tried to describe what it means to me in relation to her. She now has the title tattooed on her foot and the final two lines on her leg.

I think my experiences with this poem, found by chance just when I needed it, is testament to the power of poetry.

Have you ever had a similar experience with a poem?

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