Intro to Poetry

Five poets you should have a crack at reading, with some handy, helpful commentary attached.

5. This Be The Verse and Ignorance – Philip Larkin

Two short and simple ones, to begin with.

“They fuck you up, your mum and dad. / They may not mean to, but they do.”

Read on, dear readers, read on!

Other Larkin gems include Aubade and Church Going. Longer, but the better for it.

4. Sonnet 123, the ‘tomorrow’ soliloquy from Macbeth and Falstaff’s ‘honour’ speech from Henry IV pt1 – William Shakespeare

The man himself…

Sonnet 123, like many (if not all) of Shakespeare’s sonnets expresses a preoccupation with and a defiant lament of the passing of time. It really does speak for itself, I feel. In the context of ‘the sonnets’ as a whole, there is a great deal more to be said. But that is the great thing about Shakespeare (or rather one of many), his words often stand alone just as well in fragmented form as they do in context. This is particularly evident in the best of the soliloquy’s. Poetry really doesn’t get much better than in ‘tomorrow’. Read it slowly! Please! And read it several times. Don’t glance at it in between checking Facebook status updates. You will glean nothing from the words if you do! Give them your full attention. Then perhaps turn your attention to one of the great tragi-comic Shakespearean characters, Falstaff – the lovable rogue. I was lucky enough to see Roger Allam play this part at The Globe Theater in London in 2010, a role which he won an Olivier award for. I hadn’t read the play at the time, but was struck dumb by these words in the midst of the play at large. Never were truer words spoken by a perpetually drunken, carefree egotist (Falstaff, not Allam).

3. Refugee Blues – W. H. Auden

Many people will be familiar with Auden’s work through Richard Curtis – the poem Funeral Blues famously being recited in the film Four Weddings and A Funeral. It’s a great poem, to be sure. But Refugee Blues is my all time Auden favorite. I first read it in London. I had a hankering to read Auden all of a sudden, and bought a copy of his Selected Poems from a Waterstones bookstore in Leicester Square. A few days later I found myself reading Refugee Blues on the tube on the way to Camden Town. Needless to say, the tube is generally not the place to immerse yourself in the reading of poetry. And I struggled. I read the poem through quickly from beginning to end and essentially registered nothing. It seemed so simple. What was in it?

As it turned out; a lot was in it! My eyes traversed the printed words, wandering about aimlessly, until at some point or rather on this tube journey, they hit upon something that at last made me focus and drew me in. I read the poem over and over again and the influence of its sensibility intensified each time as I finally realised how utterly brilliant this simple formation of words really was. Auden sets up a profound juxtaposition between innocence and corruption, inherent natural freedom and artificially imposed imprisonment and ostracism. The poem is deceptively complicated and exceptionally rewarding. In so few words, the tragedies of the Second World War are rendered with startling integrity; tragedies which echoed beyond the war, in later twentieth attitudes and in the displacement of millions of refugees across Europe. And needless to say, they still resonate with the world today. Would that it were not so.

2. An Essay on Criticism – Alexander Pope

Don’t let the title throw you. Or… to put it another way, do… The essay is a poem. But also an essay. A didactic, satirical, Enlightenment verse essay, both splendiferous and delightful!

Popean rhyming couplets are fun. Or at least I think they are. The first four lines are essentially Pope in a nutshell:

“‘Tis hard to say, if greater Want of Skill
Appear in Writing or in Judging ill,
But, of the two, less dang’rous is th’ Offence,
To tire our Patience, than mis-lead our Sense”

Scathing, witty, delightfully arrogant, yet supremely rational, measured and sensible. Bad writers and bad critics are condemned at length by Pope (in the wittiest of ways) but, whilst the writers are usually mocked with almost-affection, as simple minded dunces, the critics are virulently lampooned because the worst of them, according to Pope, use their influence to mislead readers, drawing us away from truth and common sense.

In the ‘Essay’ Pope holds up Enlightenment (Neo-Classical) virtues of truth, order, reason, science. He revers the best of the Classical tradition, whilst lampooning the worst of the ‘modern’ poets who imitate the style of the ancients, yet whose work is deficient in substance. A classic example is:

“Some by Old Words to Fame have made Pretence;
Ancients in Phrase, meer Moderns in their Sense!
Such labour’d Nothings, in so strange a Style,
Amaze th’unlearn’d, and make the Learned Smile.”

There are laugh out loud moments peppered throughout this masterpiece, intertwined with many sober and beautifully poetic reflections upon the world.

Patronage and the aristocracy also cop a beating:

“In the fat Age of Pleasure, Wealth, and Ease,
Sprung the rank Weed, and thriv’d with large Increase;
When Love was all an easie Monarch’s Care;
Seldom at Council, never in a War:
Jilts rul’d the State, and Statesmen Farces writ;
Nay Wits had Pensions, and young Lords had Wit:”

At it’s heart, the ‘Essay’ is a defense of reason and an exemplification of Pope’s model of poetic virtue. The poet declares emphatically that, “Nature’s chief Master-piece is writing well.” Then goes on to show us exactly how this is to be done.

1. The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock – T. S. Eliot

Ah, Prufrock. One of those poems you always hear about, that gets referenced all the time, but that you may never have got around to reading. Do. Then read it again. And again. And again and again and again! Really. The first time I read this poem, a few years ago, I was… well… just whelmed (I hear you can just be whelmed in Europe). It was nice and all, but I had no idea what it was about. And I wasn’t really disposed to excavate its many layers. I went back to it now and again and each time underlined a different line and was taken by some other phrase. But still, I didn’t really follow it. What was all the fuss about?

Gradually I became more conscious of Eliot (mostly through Hitchens) and as I became more poetically literate generally, saw more and more in the poem, until eventually the lightning struck and i got it! No, scratch that, you can never ‘get’ Eliot completely, but more of the essence of the poem opened up to me and took shape within my consciousness.

So what is it about? Well, read it first! Done? Good.

The poem is about a great many things: impotence, communication, tangible human connection, Victorian rhetoric and social values, modernity, fragmentation, tradition, the power of the human imagination, the confines of the physical world and the struggle for self-expression, clarity and truth. So, like… a lot of things…

More specifically, the speaker of the poem, Prufrock, leads us through his fragmented thoughts in an extended interior monologue. His imagery evokes a profound sense of decay, fragmentation and dissipation as well as stagnation and sterility, through classic images, like the “patient etherised upon a table”. The speaker then shatters the “insidious” scenario he has created with an abrupt interruption by another imagined voice (polite, mannered, Victorian). From dark imaginings, Prufrock is repeatedly brought back to the world in which he is contained; a world of structure, decorum, truth, politesse, order, where insipidity and the ineffectual reign supreme and “the women come and go / Talking of Michelangelo” yet, implicitly, say nothing.

The age old Hamletian existential crisis and struggle with inaction is foregrounded in the first stanza and lingers at the heart of the poem at large. The speaker breaks off at the point of reaching an “overwhelming question” and lapses back into the banal and superficial.

The third stanza deals with the idea of wearing masks – of social affectation, theatricality and pretense. The questions: who are we really? Are we what we think we are? Are we who other people see us as? Or something else entirely? Prufrock considers many possibilities but perpetually shies away from all points of realisation; both existential and sexual. He is consumed by imagined possibilities but crippled by a stifling and limited reality; a life defined by progressive, incremental decay, “measured out with coffee spoons.”

The speakers crippling inaction stems from a fundamental fear of fixity, which seems unfathomable in a rapidly accelerating, changing and fragmented world; a world in which Victorian social confines appear increasingly absurd and obsolete.

And of course, the poem is, ironically a self-proclaimed love song, yet the absence of lovemaking (in favor of narcissism) is palpably felt.

The poems conclusion, I feel, brings to the fore the thematic divide between romantic and anti-romantic views of reason, imagination and reality. Romantic expanse and the infinite powers of the imagination are swiftly undercut by the poems stark return to reality with the final line, “’till human voices wake us and we drown.”

In this, my analysis, I have barely scratched the surface. There is much, much more to be gleaned within the depths of Prufrock. May your own readings yield and reveal many a splendid thing!

That’s all folks. But for further reading, you might like to consider the more epic Don Juan by Lord Byron, Paradise Lost by John Milton, The Marriage of Heaven and Hell by William Blake and/or The Divine Comedy by Dante Alighieri. There is a reason people still read these works today. They are supremely excellent, that’s why!


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