Rhyming with the times

Is poetry still relevant?

The words could have been written on any day over the past month or so as millions fled their homes in the major cities of Ukraine to escape the Russian invasion. In fact, these are the first two verses of the poem, Refugee Blues, written by W.H. Auden and first published in 1939 on the eve of the Second World War. 

The poem considers the plight of Jewish refugees forced to flee Nazi Germany but also takes in broader themes of isolation, loneliness and exile. And as the years pass Refugee Blues can be looked at as a poem for all the refugees of the world, those fleeing not just Ukraine but also countries such as Afghanistan, Myanmar, Syria, and Ethiopia. Poetry has power. To make us think. To reflect. And to act. Great poetry is timeless. “Poetry is truth telling”, says the current Poet Laureate, Simon Armitage, who has recently completed Resistance, his own poem reflecting on the war in Ukraine.

For as long as there has been the written word there has been poetry. Stretching back around 4,000 years it is known to be the first form of literature. From the earliest discovered work written on clay tablets in mysterious and now disappeared Mesopotamia, through to the Odyssey and the Iliad attributed to Homer in Ancient Greece, the Latin classics of Virgil and Horace and ever onward, poetry has always been with us and is acknowledged as one of the great art forms. Indispensable, in every language. Poetry has covered and continues to explore every theme and every topic: legend, love, fantasy, violence, mystery, religion, life, death, war. 

Who amongst us is not deeply and indelibly moved reading the words of the great First World War poets? Reading the words and thoughts of poets who were there on the front line, experiencing for themselves the horrors of the battlefield, some of them dying as they wrote. And now, it comes round again. In the early days of the war in Ukraine, a BBC television crew went into a hospital and interviewed two Ukrainians, a middle-aged woman and boy of eight or nine. They were unknown to each other and in different wards. At the end of their interviews, both woman and boy, unprompted and purely spontaneously, began reciting different poems. The woman spoke of freedom and the boy of clear skies. Poetry retains its power then, both to shock and to move. 


What are the Nation’s favourite poems?


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

Above: “The Lady of Shalott” (1888) by John William Waterhouse. This painting is a depiction of the ending of Tennyson’s 1832 poem of the same name. Waterhouse painted three versions in the style of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood, though he continued to produce work decades after the brotherhood split up. The above painting was donated to the public by Sir Henry Tate in 1894 and is usually on display in Tate Britain, London


Does poetry still please?


Poetry isn’t, and arguably never was, mainstream.  It can have a complex relationship with language and with its changing cadences and structures and different rhythms, it requires concentration. A poem isn’t generally a quick read, even one of just a few lines.

The reader may sometimes need to pause to consider what the poet is saying or attempting to say. Other poems can be pacey page turners, a good old epic tale can be a right ripping yarn. It all depends upon the poet and his or her style, and those of us who are poetry lovers gradually choose the poets and the verse we particularly like, the works we return to, to reread time and again. And sometimes we are rewarded by discovering a meaning or phrase that we never spotted or fully grasped before.

But is poetry as important now as it was in the past? Until recent years most poetry appeared in collections of a single poet or anthologies of verse. Newcomers gave readings and released their works in pamphlets or cheaply produced booklets and hoped to be spotted for their talent and plucked from obscurity to be published by established publishing houses. Slowly they made their name and gained their fame, but rarely, if ever, their fortune. Poets never went into the business to become rich. It was always something they wanted or needed to do.

 The proliferation of social media platforms has, in some ways, made being a poet easier today. Thousands upon thousands of “poets” are putting their work online to be read and digested, again probably hoping that one day they will be spotted by a publishing house.

For some that doesn’t matter, it’s enough for their work to be out there, read and “liked” by as many readers and potential “followers” as possible. And then there’s the question what makes a good poem?  It’s an undoubted fact that through the centuries countless thousands of poems have been read and quickly forgotten.

Poetry is subjective, what one reader loves another may loathe. Who is to say which of them is right? There also remains the old argument by a few that it’s not a poem if it doesn’t rhyme. And it may be that some poets regarded “great” in their era become less relevant and their work less important with the passing of time. But the true “greats,” – let’s just mention Shakespeare for one – remain forever great. Sometimes the poet gets in the way of the poetry.

Philip Larkin, who died in 1985 was once regarded and remains for many a true great, the best poet never to be selected as Poet Laureate. But the more we have learned about the man and his attitudes, the more some have turned against his work. Perhaps in these cases it’s best to stick to the poetry and not whatever may have been said or written in diaries or letters. Most importantly there is the poetry of now, and of what is yet to come. Not everyone will like or ever read poetry, but for many around the world poetry remains essential. A light and a vital strength in the darkest of days. A lion. A “Tyger Tyger, burning bright”. 


Above :William Holman Hunt’s painting was inspired by John Keats’ poem, “Isabella, or the Pot of Basil”, based on a story in Boccaccio’s “Decameron”, in which Isabella’s beloved, Lorenzo, is murdered by her disapproving family. Hunt shows Isabella with her head resting on the pot of basil in which she has buried Lorenzo’s head. Isabella is thought to be a likeness of Hunt’s wife Fanny, who had recently died from a fever. 

Above: “Hero and Leander (To Christopher Marlowe)”, Cy Twombly, 1985. Twombly painting is inspired by Christopher Marlowe’s poem of the same name. In the legend, Leander swims across the sea to see Hero: “On Hellespont, guilty of true love’s blood,/In view and opposite two cities stood…”.


Tu seras un homme, mon fils


Rudyard Kipling’s poem If has been translated into at least 27 languages. In some instances – French for example – there have even been several adaptations. One of France’s most known versions is by André Maurois, and features in his 1918 book The Silences of Colonel Bramble, entitled You will be a man, my son. 

Maurois approached this in the same spirit as Charles Baudelaire when he translated Edgar Allan Poe: belle plutôt que fidèle, or “beautiful rather than faithful”. Early 20th century translators in France were more concerned with maintaining the purity of the French language while conveying the essence of the overall meaning rather than producing word-for-word reproductions in their own language.

In Maurois’ version, “If you can keep your head when all about you/Are losing theirs and blaming it on you;” features in the last verse rather than in the first. Having said that, Maurois not only managed to remain faithful to all of Kipling’s key ideas in If, but he also managed to keep to perfectly regular, rhyming verses.


The Love Song of Shu-Sin


This decorative-looking terracotta tablet is believed to be the oldest love poem to have ever been written, dating from the Sumerian era (c 2037-2029 BC). Part of a yearly ritual knows as “sacred marriage”, Inanna, the goddess of love and fertility, expresses erotic praises of love and desire for the Sumer King Shu-Sin.

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