Monday, October 10, 2011

Poems for Life

Erudite Mondays at HalfSoled Boots
Volume 11, Number 2

Selected by Laura Barber
After a long hiatus from reviews, I have a backlog of books to share with you. I found a wonderful second-hand bookstore a week or two ago, which provided me with an enormous stack of volumes, and I've also got a whole collection of other things I've meant to tell you about for - oh, at least two years.
For today, I'm looking at an anthology I bought in a sudden burst of self-directed generosity, purely motivated by the title and the cover, and the knowledge that Penguin never lets me down. It's a collection of poems relating to our personal journeys through life - the ultimate human condition, the sweet and bitter, emulsified joy and suffering.
"The effect of a poem can be real and tangible," editor Laura Barber writes, " seems there are plenty of times in our lives when only a poem will do." The hundreds of poems in Penguin's Poems for Life, though just a smattering of what's out there, Do marvellously.
Love set you going like a fat gold watch,
The midwife slapped your footsoles, and your bald cry
Took its place among the elements.
          -Sylvia Plath, from Morning Song

Barber continues, "The structure of the book was inspired by a few lines in Shakespeare's play As You Like It, in which one of the characters, Jacques, describes a human life as having seven distinct stages." The book is divided into chapters accordingly: Birth and Beginnings; Childhood and Childish Things; Growing Up and First Impressions; Making a Living and Making Love; Family Life, for Better, or for Worse; Getting Older, Looking Back; Intimations of Mortality; and (an extra chapter) Mourning and Monuments. 
How can the bird that is born for joy
Sit in a cage and sing.
          -William Blake, from The School Boy
One of the things I like best about the anthology is that the poems are organised within the chapters by theme and expression, not by chronology or author. So, reading along, you might finish off an e.e. cummings, turn the page, and find Geoffrey Chaucer.
All the handsome boys from school
rode up front, and crowded there
at the prow of that long canoe. I
remember how we watched them. At night,
we slow-danced with them too. Their hair
was damp; we pressed ourselves
dreaming against their dark jackets like
butterflies in our thin dresses, caught.
          - Kirsty Gunn, Mataatua
The day I received this volume I didn't have time to look at it properly. The next day I sat down with it and opened it up to the first page, the first poem. It was Sylvia Plath's Morning Song. It only took a few lines before I remembered that I need to be careful with poetry - it's too truthful to take in large doses.
I am the ship in which you sail,
little dancing bones...
          - Maura Dooley, from Freight
Whammied by Sylvia Plath on the first page, I realised I wasn't going to be able to read the whole thing in order, as planned. I was going to have to administer tiny little doses seemingly at random, like putting a new CD on shuffle until you get to know it. I shut the book and then reopened it to any page, brushing a few lines here and there, never reading more than one entire poem at a time.
She sits in the park. Her clothes are out of date.
Two children whine and bicker, tug her skirt.
A third draws aimless patterns in the dirt.
Someone she loved once passes by - too late
to feign indifference to that casual nod.
'How nice,' et cetera. 'Time holds great surprises.'
From his neat head unquestionably rises
a small balloon...'but for the grace of God...'
They stand awhile in flickering light, rehearsing
the children's names and birthdays. 'It's so sweet
to hear their chatter, watch them grow and thrive,'
she says to his departing smile. Then, nursing
the youngest child, sits staring at her feet.
To the wind she says, 'They have eaten me alive.'
          - Gwen Harwood, In the Park
I suppose poetry is one of those things that some people just don't like. I suspect, though, that this comes from its association with school - it's one of those things you were forced to study just at the time of your life when you were least able to understand it. (Like me, with algebra.) Maybe if the prosaic among us could take a look at a carefully-selected poem later in life, they might feel a resonance within themselves.
I always remember your beautiful flowers
And the beautiful kimono you wore
When you sat on the couch
With that tigerish crouch
And told me you loved me no more.
What I cannot remember is how I felt when you were unkind
All I know is, if you were unkind now I should not mind.
Ah me, the power to feel exaggerated, angry and sad
The years have taken from me. Softly I go now, pad pad.
          - Stevie Smith, Pad, pad
To speak to outward appearance, this book is one of a series Penguin has published of clothbound editions which are really lovely on the shelf. They're not going to be enormously valuable collectors' items, naturally, but they are several steps above the mass-market paperback, and worth collecting for, say, a teenage daughter who will one day take them when she moves out. I'd like to get them for my children...though I have quite a few years left before they'll be on their own.
So now it is vain for the singer to burst into clamour
With the great black piano appassionato. The glamour
Of childish days is upon me, my manhood is cast
Down in the flood of remembrance, I weep like a child
  for the past.
          - D.H. Lawrence, from Piano
There are times, says Penguin's Poems for Life, when only a poem will do. This anthology, so carefully chosen and so eclectic, will end up being a perennial favourite of mine. If a person didn't know much poetry and didn't know where to start, I'd wholeheartedly recommend this book to begin their education. With its thematic power, and its beautifully selected material, it has a value far beyond its price.

Down, down, down into the darkness of the grave
Gently they go, the beautiful, the tender, the kind;
Quietly they go, the intelligent, the witty, the brave.
I know. But I do not approve. And I am not resigned.
          - Edna St Vincent Millay, from Dirge Without Music
And did you get what
you wanted from this life, even so?
I did.
And what did you want?
To call myself beloved, to feel myself
beloved on the earth.
          - Raymond Carver, Late Fragment


Cynthia said...

Oh, my, Shan, this sounds wonderful. It's going on my Christmas list right now.

Dave Hingsburger said...

Whoa, Sylvia Plath on Thanksgiving Monday!!!??? I can still quote from several of her poems (Daddy, Daddy, you bastard, I'm through) ... And Edna? And Raymond? My that's quite a collection. I don't read poetry as often but you've got me thinking I should give it a go again.

kate said...

Sigh. I love poetry.

Susie Hewer said...

I've got that book too and it's a cracker! I have several anthologies and that is one of my favourites.

I always read a 'poem a day' book that I found in a secondhand bookshop and I like that because it contains poems that don't often appear in collections.