All 29 entries tagged Favourite Poems

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November 01, 2010

Why Poetry Matters: Poetry and Pain —– October 2010

I recently joined the Nittany Valley Writer’s Network in Pennsylvania, and I have been trying to convince some of the other members of the wondrous nature of poetry. Consequently, they’ve asked me to write a column in the newsletter on “Why Poetry Matters”, the title taken from Jay Parini’s excellent book Why Poetry Matters.

“To write a poem after Auschwitz is barbaric.” This famous statement was made by the philosopher Theodore W. Adorno and it expressed his view of the valuelessness of writing after the unspeakable violence of the Holocaust. Adorno’s vision is bleak, yet poetry has a funny way of delving into pain and suffering and commemorating human endurance.

One of the poems that has moved me the most in all my years of reading poetry is John Berryman’s ‘The Song of the Tortured Girl’. Berryman himself had a colorful life as a member of the American Confessional movement – a group of writers who forced themselves to probe even their most disturbing thoughts. He committed suicide in 1972.

‘The Song of the Tortured Girl’ is wonderful because it looks unflinchingly at human suffering, and it is worth remembering that people all over the world are experiencing such violence at this very moment:

Often ‘Nothing worse can now come to us’
I thought, the winter the young men stayed away,
My uncle died and mother broke her crutch.
And then the strange room where the brightest light
Does not shine on the strange men: shines on me.
I feel them stretch my youth and throw a switch.

Berryman offers us a glimpse of the life of the girl – her family, the weather, her community – and then brings us back to the terrifying reality that she must now bravely face: the faceless torturers and her clinical cell. Most wonderful, however, is the end of the poem, which dwells not her current pain and suffering, but on a joyful memory of a better time that she returns to again and again:

High in a pass once where we put our tent,
Minutes I lay awake to hear my joy.
- I no longer remember what they want. -
Minutes I lay awake to hear my joy.

To read the full poem see this link at my blog, The Midnight Heart: Thanks to
George Ttoouli for introducing me to this poem.

September 27, 2010

Alun Lewis's poem 'The Way Back'.

Six days and two thousand miles
I have watched the shafted rain
Feminize the burning land,
Cloaking with a green distress
The cerulean and the ochre
Of the season’s ruthlessness.

Six days and two thousand miles
I have gone alone
With a green mind and you
Burning in the stubborn bone.
Soldiers quickened by your breath
Feel the sudden spur and rush
Of the life they put away -
Lest the war should break and crush
Beauties more profound than death.
I swam within your naked lake
And breasted with exquisite ease
The foaming arabesques of joy
And in the sarabande of trees
Of guava and papaya
And crimson brown poinsettia,
The millrace of my blood
Beat against my smile
And were you answering my smile,
Or the millrace of my blood?
But now the iron beasts deploy
And all my effort is my fate
With gladiators and levies
All laconic disciplined men
I pass beyond your golden gate.
And in the hardness of the world
And in the brilliance of this pain
I exult with such a passion
To be squandered, to be hurled,
To be joined to you again.

(p. 89-90, in Alun Lewis (1981) Selected Poems of Alun Lewis, ed. Jeremy Hooker and Gweno Lewis, London; Unwin.

'The Song of the Tortured Girl' by John Berryman.

After a little I could not have told -
But no one asked me this – why I was there.
I asked. The ceiling of that place was high.
And there were sudden noises, which I made.
I must have stayed there a long time today:
My cup of soup was gone when they brought me back.
Often ‘Nothing worse can now come to us’
I thought, the winter the young men stayed away,
My uncle died and mother broke her crutch.
And then the strange room where the brightest light
Does not shine on the strange men: shines on me.
I feel them stretch my youth and throw a switch.
Through leafless branches the sweet wind blows
Making a mild sound, softer than a moan;
High in a pass once where we put our tent,
Minutes I lay awake to hear my joy.
- I no longer remember what they want. -
Minutes I lay awake to hear my joy.

(p. 52 in John Berryman (1989) Collected Poems 1937-1971, ed. Charles Thornbury, London/Boston: Faber.)

Note: Thanks to George Ttoouli for directing me to this poem some years ago.

May 11, 2010

'Way', a Poem by Tristan Tzara.

What is this road that separates us
across which I hold out the hand of my thoughts
a flower is written out at the tip of each finger
and at the very end of the road is a flower which walks along with you


Translation by Michael Bendikt

Taken from The Poetry of Surrealism: An Anthology, ed. by Michael Benedikt, Boston and Toronto: Little, Brown and Company, p. 104.


Tristan Tzara (1896 -1963)
Keywords: Dada, the fountain and the crystal, freedom, clarity and majestic fullness, purity, transparency, evolution towards inner surrealism, poetry as a means of deformation leading to new knowledge, light versus dark images, poetic charge, the dramatic play of difference, deliberate bareness, understatement, spontaneity, the will to unite poetry and thought or the image and the mind.

May 05, 2010

‘ “Poetry Ought to Have a Practical Purpose” ’, a poem by Paul Eluard.

Portrait of Paul Eluard by Salvador Dali

For My Exacting Friends

If I tell you that the sun in the woods
Is like a belly carried away in a bed
You believe me you approve of my desires

If I tell you that the crystal of rainy days
Echoes forever in the laziness of love’s ecstasies
You believe me you draw out the duration of your loving

If I tell you that in the branches of my bed
A bird is nesting that never says yes
You believe me you share my distress

If I tell you that at the bottom of some stream
A river’s key turns like an overture to verdure
You believe me still more you can follow

But if I sing to you of my whole long highway with no detours
And my enormous countryside like a footpath unending
You give up on me you depart for the wilds

For you only wander aimlessly without recognizing that men
Have the need to hope and struggle
To explain the world and to change it

With one step of my heart I shall lead you
I’ve lived without power for a long time it’s the way I live now
But I’m amazed to hear you say that I speak to you just to delight you
When I would free you to unite you
As much as with algae and the reeds of the dawn
As with our other brothers creating their own daylight

Translated by Michael Benedikt

Taken from The Poetry of Surrealism: An Anthology, ed. Michael Benedikt (Boston & Toronto: Little, Brown and Co., 1974).


Paul Eluard (1895 – 1952)
Key interests: purity, spontaneity, intensity, the isolation of man, the irrational, things defined by the mind that sees them, the ability to transmute everything into everything else, paradox, the telescoping of images.

‘ “I’ll Reinvent the Rose for You”’, a poem by Louis Aragon.

Writing about web page

I’ll reinvent the rose for you
For you are that rose which cannot be described
These few words at least in the order proper to her ritual
That rose which only words distant from roses can describe
The way it is with the ecstatic cry and the terrible sadness which it translates
From the stars of pleaure above love’s deep abyss

I will reinvent for youth rose of adoring fingers
Which create a nave as they interlace but whose petals then suddenly fall away
I will reinvent for you the rose beneath the balconies
Of lovers whose only beds are their arms

The rose at the heart of sculpted stone figures dead without benefit of confession
The rose of a peasant blown to bits by a landmine in his field
The scarlet scent of a letter that has been “discovered”
In which nothing’s addressed to me neither the insult nor the compliment

Some rendezvous to which no one has come

An entire army in flight on a very windy day

A maternal footstep before prison-gates

A man’s song at siesta-time beneath the olive trees

A cock-fight in a mist-enshrouded countryside
The rose of a soldier cut off from his own home country

I’ll reinvent for you my rose as many roses
As there are diamonds in the waters of the seas
As there are past centuries adrift in the dust of the earth’s atmosphere
As there are dreams in just one childish head

As there can be reflections in one tear


Translated by Michael Benedikt

Taken from The Poetry of Surrealism: An Anthology, ed. Michael Benedikt (Boston & Toronto: Little, Brown and Co., 1974).


Louis Aragon (1897-1982)
Key interests: poetry of the real, the mystery of the everyday, simplicity, intellectual cruelty, poetry as a slap, the poetic shiver, collage, newspaper posters, black and white cinema, automatic crystallizations, remaking clichés, flat language, artistic distance from one’s audience, love and despair towards language, nominalism (no thought beyond words), verbal incapacity, contradictions, madness, the inexpressible.

A Poem, 'Free Union', by André Breton.

My wife whose hair is a brush fire
Whose thoughts are summer lightning
Whose waist is an hourglass
Whose waist is the waist of an otter caught in the teeth of a tiger
Whose mouth is a bright cockade with the fragrance of a star of the first magnitude
Whose teeth leave prints like the tracks of white mice over snow
Whose tongue is made out of amber and polished glass
Whose tongue is a stabbed wafer
The tongue of a doll with eyes that open and shut
Whose tongue is an incredible stone
My wife whose eyelashes are strokes in the handwriting of a child
Whose eyebrows are nests of swallows
My wife whose temples are the slate of greenhouse roofs
With steam on the windows
My wife whose shoulders are champagne
Are fountains that curl from the heads of dolphins over the ice
My wife whose wrists are matches
Whose fingers are raffles holding the ace of hearts
Whose fingers are fresh cut hay
My wife with the armpits of martens and beech fruit
And Midsummer Night
That are hedges of privet and resting places for sea snails
Whose arms are of sea foam and a landlocked sea
And a fusion of wheat and a mill
Whose legs are spindles
In the delicate movements of watches and despair
My wife whose calves are sweet with the sap of elders
Whose feet are carved initials
Keyrings and the feet of steeplejacks
My wife whose neck is fine milled barley
Whose throat contains the Valley of God
And encounters in the bed of the maelstrom
My wife whose breasts are of night

And are undersea molehills
And crucibles of rubies
My wife whose breasts are haunted by the ghosts of dew-moistened roses
Whose belly is a fan unfolded in the sunlight
Is a giant talon
My wife with the back of a bird in vertical flight
With a back of quicksilver
And bright lights
My wife whose nape is of smooth worn stone and white chalk
And of a glass slipped through the fingers of someone who has just drunk
My wife with the thighs of a skiff
That are lustrous and feathered like arrows
Stemmed with the light tailbones of a white peacock
And imperceptible balance
My wife whose rump is sandstone and flax
Whose rump is the back of a swan and the spring
My wife with the sex of an iris
A mine and a platypus
With the sex of an alga and old-fashioned candles
My wife with the sex of a mirror
My wife with eyes full of tears
With eyes that are purple armour and a magnetized needle
With eyes of savannahs
With eyes full of water to drink in prisons
My wife with eyes that are forests forever under the axe
My wife with eyes that are the equal of water and air and earth and fire


Translated by David Antin

Taken from The Poetry of Surrealism: An Anthology, ed. Michael Benedikt (Boston & Toronto: Little, Brown and Co., 1974).


Andre Breton (1896-1966)
Key interests: Openness to chance events, surprise for its own sake, the attitude of a child, presence and immediacy, a return to the full significance of language, poetry as electricity, word games, puns, anagrams, aphorisms, the play of images, shock, against logic, constantly destructive, lacking in unity.

June 26, 2007

Dylan Thomas, 'Fern Hill'

Now as I was young and easy under the apple boughs

About the lilting house and happy as the grass was green,

The night above the dingle starry,

              Time let me hail and climb

Golden in the heydays of his eyes,

And honoured among wagons I was prince of the apple towns

And once below a time I lordly had the trees and leaves

              Trail with daisies and barley

Down the rivers of the windfall light.


And as I was green and carefree, famous among the barns

About the happy yard and singing as the farm was home,

In the sun that is young once only,

              Time let me play and be

Golden in the mercy of his means,
And green and golden I was huntsman and herdsman, the calves

Sang to my horn, the foxes on the hills barked clear and cold,

              And the sabbath rang slowly

In the pebbles of the holy streams.


All the sun long it was running, it was lovely, the hay

Fields high as the house, the tunes from the chimneys, it was air

       And playing, lovely and watery

              And fire green as grass.

       And nightly under the simple stars

As I rode to sleep the owls were bearing the farm away,

All the moon long I heard, blessed among stables, the nightjars

                Flying with the ricks, and the horses

       Flashing into the dark.


And then to awake, and the farm, like a wanderer white

With the dew, come back, the cock on his shoulder: it was all

       Shining, it was Adam and maiden,

              The sky gathered again

       And the sun grew round that very day.

So it must have been after the birth of the simple light

In the first, spinning place, the spellbound horses walking warm

                Out of the whinnying green stable

       On to the fields of praise.


And honoured among foxes and pheasants by the gay house

Under the new made clouds and happy as the heart was long,

       In the sun born over and over,

                I ran my heedless ways,

       My wishes raced through the house high hay

And nothing I cared, at my sky blue trades, that time allows

In all his tuneful turning so few and such morning songs

              Before the children green and golden

       Follow him out of grace.


Nothing I cared, in the lamb white days, that time would take me

Up to the swallow thronged loft by the shadow of my hand,

       In the moon that is always rising,

                Nor that riding to sleep

       I should hear him fly with the high fields

And wake to the farm forever fled from the childless land.

Oh as I was young and easy in the mercy of his means,

              Time held me green and dying

       Though I sang in my chains like the sea.
Hear Dylan Thomas reading this poem at this link:
Thomas, Dylan. The Collected Poems. Ed. Walford Davies and Ralph Maud. London: J.M. Dent, 1988. 134 - 135.

R.S. Thomas, 'Judgment Day'

Yes, that’s how I was,
I know that face,
That bony figure
Without grace
Of flesh or limb;
In health happy,
Careless of the claim
Of the world’s sick
Or the world’s poor;
In pain craven—-
Lord, breathe once more
On that sad mirror,
Let me be lost
In mist for ever
Rather than own
Such bleak reflections.
Let me go back
On my two knees
Slowly to undo
The knot of life
That was tied there.

From Selected Poems: 1946-1968 (published 1986).

R.S. Thomas, untitled poems from The Echoes Return Slow

I have no name:

time's changeling.

Put your hand

in my side and disbelieve


in my godhead.

Her face rises

over me and sets;

I am shone on


through tears. Charity

spares what should be

lopped off, before

it is too late.

(p. 3)


Entered for life, failing

to qualify; understudied

for his persona, became identical

with his twin. Confronted

as the other, knew credit

was his for the triumph

of an imposture. Slipped easily

into the role for which

his double was cast, bowing

as low as he to appropriate

the applause. When volunteers

were called for to play

death's part, stood modestly

in the wings, preferring rather

to be prompter than prompted.

(p. 21).


And this one says to me:

               You are an occasion

merely; an event synchronous

with other events,

                        not caused by them.

I switch my attention.

There are voices supperannuating

              the Bible. I must learn,

they say, to believe in a presence

             without existence.

                                   Is it

the Orient infiltrating

             our science, or science bringing

a myth up to date?

                         In a dissolving

             world what certainties

for the self, whose identity

              is its performance?

                            You have no address,

says life, and your destination

is where you began.

                          But love answers it

in its turn: I am old now and have died

many times, but my rebirth is surer

                than the truth embalming itself

in the second law of your Thermo-Dynamics.

(p 33).

Thomas, R.S. The Echoes Return Slow. London: Macmillan, 1988.


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