Monday, 18 February 2013


The Scots poet everyone's heard of: Robert Burns
Portrait by Peter Howson
One of the great things about my current Open University course on 20th century literature is that virtually every text I tweet about reading has fans who tweet back to say how much they love it. The novels Orlando (Virginia Woolf), Rebecca (Daphne du Maurier) and Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep (Philip K Dick) seem particularly popular. And several people agree with me that Katherine Mansfield’s short stories should be more widely read. However, it was TS Eliot's poem The Love Song of J Alfred Prufrock that got the most responses, with several folk tweeting me their favourite lines from it. You may recognise some of these, even if you've not knowingly read the poem:
I have measured out my life in coffee spoons
I should have been a pair of ragged claws / Scuttling across the floors of silent seas.
I grow old . . . I grow old . . . / I shall wear the bottoms of my trousers rolled.
So here's a confession: I rarely read poetry out of choice. Yet when I do, I am full of admiration for its precision, its skilful use of language, its sheer cleverness. Perhaps what holds me (and many others) back is that most poems don't give up all their treasures on one reading. You have to read them over and over again just to understand what they're going on about. And even then a poem's 'meaning' may elude you. But don't let that put you off. I see poetry as proof of that old saying: 'tis better to travel hopefully than to arrive'. 

I'm not going to paste in endless poems - that would make this a very long post. Besides, many are available, free to enjoy, at the click of a mouse. What I've done is list a few of my favourites, with links to sites where you can read them. Choose one and have a go! They’re in no particular order and cover everything from love poetry to sheer nonsense. 

And for you writers out there, poetry is a splendid source of book titles. For example, Val McDermid must surely have taken The Mermaids Singing from this line in ‘Prufrock’: ‘I have heard the mermaids singing, each to each’.

To His Coy Mistress by Andrew Marvell – one of the great romantic poems
The X Files: Bonnybridge, October ’95 by Hugh McMillan – Scottish and hilarious (thanks to Rosemary Kaye for this one!)
The Thought-Fox by Ted Hughes – for every writer 
To A Louse by Robert Burns – Burns is best enjoyed out loud so this link also offers a reading by Robert Carlyle
Jabberwocky by Lewis Carroll – a splendid nonsense poem
Warning by Jenny Joseph – a battle-cry for middle-aged women

Wilfred Owen
commemorative window

Dulce et Decorum Est by Wilfred Owen – one of the greatest anti-war poems ever
Skipping by Marina Sofia – this poem is on the wall above my desk, a source of comfort when I worry about my writing

Do you have a favourite poem? I’d love to read it, so please leave a comment below or tweet me: @janetokane.