(Author's note: this article first appeared in issue 86 of NAWG LINK)
I'd like to pass on one of the best pieces of writing advice I've received. If you find the writing doesn't come, don't stress about writing – READ instead. Read your favourite things, the stuff that really inspires you. Immerse yourself in it, for weeks or months if necessary. Over time, those treasured writings will start to stir your subconscious, and get your imagination on the road to fruitfulness again.
I'll go a step further. Many people have a musical Top Ten, or a list of "songs that changed their life". So why not seek out the ten poems that changed your life, and use these as the starting-point for your literary therapy? Don't just list them – think about how and why they changed your life, why they're still meaningful today. Read them, again and again. Luxuriate in them.
I'll get you going by telling you a bit about ten poems that changed my life.
The first one goes back to my infant years, and Brian Cant (I think) on Play School (more than likely) reciting Wilma Horsbrugh's The Train to Glasgow. This has everything a perfect child's poem should have: it's full of rhythm and rhyme, delightful repetition, lovely unusual words, and it's really, really funny. I can still recite it today.
I have my Mum to thank for unleashing the storytelling power of poetry on me at an early age. Her eerie recitation of Edward Lear's fantastical ballad The Dong with a Luminous Nose is one of my earliest memories. She filled it with such weird musicality that it used to terrify me as a child; today, I consider it the finest gothic romantic poem ever written.
Roger McGough's First Day at School was another much-quoted childhood treasure. I didn't realise it at the time, but this was my first encounter with free verse. No less rhythmical or musical than The Train to Glasgow or The Dong, it's a joy to read aloud.
I came across Oliver Goldsmith's The Deserted Village when I was 16, studying English Literature O-level. I have Irish heritage and this poem took me right back to where my ancestors might have started out. It was a blast of fierce political rhetoric, lambasting the establishment of the day for ruining a land and its inhabitants in the name of what we'd now call capitalism. At a time when my social and political conscience was still being formed, it stood strong alongside the repertoire of protest songs I was discovering.
O-level English Lit. also introduced me to Tennyson's The Lotos Eaters. Tennyson was well and truly part of the establishment that Goldsmith loathed. But he was a lyrical genius. Not only was this a slice of epic storytelling in a tradition that I loved, but it was one of the most musical things I'd ever heard (it demands to be read aloud).
After Tennyson, T.S. Eliot's The Waste Land was a shock to the system! I blame a theatrical production by a university friend, not long after I moved away from home, for introducing me to this incredible piece of writing. I hardly understood any of it; at the same time I was mesmerised. The words, the chants, the half-glimpses of meaning wove a spell around me like nothing I'd experienced before. Suddenly I knew it didn't matter if I didn't always understand poetry, I loved it just the same.
J.R.R. Tolkien isn't best known for his poetry. A cursory glance at the form and structure of his Mythopoeia shows a number of stylistic weaknesses. But these didn't matter to me when I discovered that behind the shaky iambic pentameters lay the best excuse for imagination, ever! The poem was Tolkien's response to an argument with C.S. Lewis when Lewis was still an atheistic rationalist who sneered at storytelling and myth as "lies". Tolkien's defence of the storyteller's art was satirical, inspirational, and even a little prophetic when you consider the struggle that writers and dreamers still face against the dumbing-down of the world. The central stanza is a call to arms for poets and all creative writers to keep their eyes open, keep dreaming and marvelling at the wonder of the universe: "He sees no stars who does not see them first / of living silver made that sudden burst / to flame like flowers beneath an ancient song / whose very echo after-music long / has since pursued. There is no firmament, / only a void, unless a jewelled tent / myth-woven and elf-patterned; and no earth, / unless the mother's womb whence all have birth."
I’ve loved and lingered over almost all of Carol Ann Duffy's collections over the years, and have been lucky enough to hear her read a number of times. Our new Poet Laureate deserves to be represented in this list, though I struggle to settle on a favourite from her vast repertoire. The famous Valentine, a brilliant subversion of the classical love poem, is an obvious choice. But if pushed I think I might have to go for Star and Moon from the Meeting Midnight collection. A poem written for a close friend of the poet and for her unborn child, it has a breathtaking intimacy that I long to be able to emulate in my own poetry.
I was just beginning (unsuccessfully) to send my poems out to competitions when I discovered Diana Syder's Hubble. In my day job I'm a research scientist, and I'm acutely aware of how infrequently the scientific world and the poetic world overlap. It's not that they have no connection – more, perhaps, that many poets don't know how to make the connection. Syder, an astrophysicist, astonished me with her hymn of praise to the Hubble Space Telescope – and put a healthy dose of childlike wonder back into both poetry and science.
Just one more to choose: and for my last one I'll select something that brings me full circle, in Roger McGough's Poem for the Opening of Christ the King Cathedral, Liverpool, 1967. I grew up in Birkenhead, and the unique shape of "Paddy's Wigwam" sat on the skyline throughout my childhood. It symbolises family, community, my roots, and my faith. McGough, fellow Merseysider, catches the spirit of it perfectly.
There you have it. My poetry jukebox, or Ten Poems that Changed My Life. Which ten poems would you choose?