I always have a book open while I eat my breakfast, and it’s always non-fiction. This week, and not for the first time, I am determined to read more poetry. I studied a lot of poetry at university. I love words and their origins and am fascinated by how we pronounce them but until this week I had barely looked at a poem for years. Poetry is difficult.
The book by the cereal bowl today is an old anthology I found in a dark corner of a book-case: “The Penguin Book of English Verse” first published in 1956! Despite the absence of some of our best 20th century poets it suits my purpose, which is to re-visit some of our greatest poets. By co-incidence one of my favourite poems is the first in the anthology and another is the last. Four hundred years divide them. They are “The Lover Showeth How He Is Forsaken Of Such As He Sometime Enjoyed” by Sir Thomas Wyatt 1503? To 1542, and “Fern Hill” by Dylan Thomas 1914 – 1953. Great poets die young.
Both have the capacity to move me to tears, and both have that essence which distinguishes poetry from mere verse – what I call compression. A fine poem is dense; you have to tease out the meaning and the beauty of it. Each time you read it you discover more. A great poem adds depth and emotion to a few words by using rhythm and by playing words off against each other with rhyme and alliteration. This special form of writing has structure: imagine I am constructing something fairly complex out of wood – a drawer for example. Each of the dovetails must be a good fit, the sides must be at precise right angles to the front and back and the base should slide easily in place along a set of grooves in the sides and front. Turn it round and you can see the structure. It gives pleasure. Similarly a poem must have shape and form. It cannot simply meander. I remind myself that verse existed long before prose. It predates writing. Verse was how ideas and instructions were passed on in a way which could be remembered because of the structure and, in the case of songs, the tune and the music.
Here is Wyatt and two lines I have remembered for 60 years:
“They flee from me that somtime did me seke
With naked fote stalkyng within my chamber”
I remembered them because the rhythm of the second line conforms, I learnt then, to a classical format which I have since forgotten. We may long ago have forgotten the rules of Greek and Latin poetry – supposing we ever knew them – but we respond emotionally to the rhythm.
Perversely my old anthology does not list what is probably the best known of Dylan Thomas’ poems – “Do not go gentle into that good night”, but the last poem in my book begins:
“Now that I was young and easy under the apple boughs
About the lilting house and happy as the grass was green”
Need I say more?