Recently, Paul Johnstone wrote an article in The Spectator about his ten favourite poems. I liked it so much I bought the company...no, just kidding, and if you didn't understand that last crack ask your teacher. I liked it so much I posted links to Johnstone's favourite poems in a side panel.
I'm not very good at poetry. Growing up in a working-class area in the 1970's and early '80's that was inexorably sinking was a prosaic experience in every sense. But I was priveleged to have a sense of the poetic - although unfortunately not a poetic sensibility - injected into my life by my Mum.
Her favourite poem was Trees by Joyce Kilmer, which she learnt at school in the '30's, and which popped up briefly in Superman II. It was also recorded in song form by Arthur Tracy, the "Street Singer", in the 1930's; in the next decade, Tracy stole a march on the likes of Led Zeppelin by distancing himself from the music industry because he was unhappy with the compromises that fame entailed.
Mum lived in New York in the early '60's, where she became acquainted with the works of Longfellow. In his 1841 poem Excelsior, he tells the story of a noble youth who feels compelled to climb an Alpine mountain in spite of an old man's warning and a maiden's offer of comfort. As is the unfortunate lot of noble youths in poetry he dies, but by his ascent above fear and comfort he transcends also the bleak lot of the übermann to be propounded by Nietsche, who was born in 1844:
There in the twilight cold and gray,
Lifeless, but beautiful he lay,
And from the sky, serene and far,
A voice fell, like a falling star,
There is much dross in modern music, but much poetry also hides in plain sight there. I have always been struck by the subtletly of The Beatles' In My Life, particularly as it seems to be predeminantly a Lennon composition. I think he must have been still talking to Paul at that stage. Dire Straits' Brothers in Arms paints a poignant portrait of a fighting man, far from home, who knows he must wage war but yearns for peace.
A hero of mine, Enoch Powell, started the Second World War as a Private in the Royal Warwickshire Regiment, and and ended it a Brigadier. He wrote a little-known poem during WWII about the experience of feeling trapped under fire called The Net. I would make it required reading for all politicians who play a part in putting Forces personnel in harm's way.
The output of Scotland's national poet, Rabbie (Robert) Burns, was so prolific that no one label, eg romantic, political, comic, can capture his essence. My favourite Burns love poem is My Luve is like a Red Red Rose, which has been interpreted in song in different ways, for example by Eddi Reader and Andy M Stewart. My favourite Burns poem of all, which contains the lines "the best-laid schemes o' mice and men gang aft agley" - story of my life! - is To a Mouse or, to give it its full title, To a Mouse on Turning Her Up in her Nest with the Plough, November 1785. Sometimes, as the mouse found, we're not as in control of our lives as we'd like to think.
Another of my favourite poems is one that Johnstone rejects for the purpose of his essay, Milton's On My Blindness. Written long before political correctness made being "differently able" a lifestyle option, this work lays out the dignity of those many of us who struggle with a disability to make a decent fist of a normal life.
My favourite poem of all is that which was chosen by the British people in the BBC poll of 1996,when Auntie lapsed in her programme of force-feeding us her dross to let us choose our own dross. Except we didn't choose dross. Despite commissioners' fears - or perhaps even hopes - that Pam Ayres' I wish I'd looked after my Teeth would top the poll, the British people in fact chose a quintessentially British piece as their favourite poem: Rudyard Kipling's If.
My last poem is again a song. Working as a secretary in the Sacred Heart Church in New York, Mum was dating a German man when Breakfast at Tiffany's came out. She had been wandering, Dvořák-like, on the shores of the Atlantic, wondering if she should stay and marry her beau, or return to Glasgow, where her mother's health was declining. I'm not sure what exactly about the film changed her mind, but after seeing the bittersweet saga of lost souls she broke her boyfriend's heart and came back home. She married my Dad, who had pursued her fruitlessly for many years. After eight years of marriage he died of cancer, and as one of a long string of low-paid jobs she took on to support herself and me, Mum got a job as a receptionist using one of the earliest mass-produced computers. She saw that these were the future but, unable to teach me to type due to the mounting pain of rheumatoid arthritis, bought me a metal Underwood typewriter from the Barras - it felt heavier and heavier as I carried it home: being dearer than she had expected, she spent our bus fares on it. She also got me a teach-yourself-to-type book, and told me to get on with it. I think of all this every time I hear Moon River, and present this touch-typed offering to you as the fruit of that long line of twists and turns that started with a little girl learning Trees.
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