Today, 1st October, is National Poetry Day. This year, Tony Cross has read a lot of poetry and shares some of his favourites ...
I have read poetry from the present day and poetry from the past. I have read Russians and Italians. I have read an Iranian and explored the limited remains of Sappho’s poetry, which people have put together like literary archaeologists. I have read the Beats, Modernists, Romantics and Surrealists. I have sometimes found the going hard. Sometimes it has been blissfully easy. The poets I have read have covered many subjects: politics; nature; death; joy; films; passion; sex; poetry and poets. And, of course, love. Sometimes a whole poem grabs you by the heart. Sometimes it is a handful of lines.
I do not necessarily have the technical understanding to break down for you what a poet does. It is a matter of what the words do to me. I like to read them out loud or listen to them being read aloud. Leonard Cohen’s poetry read by Leonard Cohen is an experience I highly recommend.
There has been no real pattern to what I have read. I have looked at lists, read social media, read the press, and listened to podcasts. Two have provided several recommendations: Backlisted and Frank Skinner’s Poetry Podcast, but one poet leads to another.
For example, I read Second Nature: Poems by Boris Pasternak. That was one of the hard ones. Pasternak is almost an impressionist in words. You must read, re-read and even then, I could not make out the whole picture. But Pasternak led Four of Us: Pasternak, Akhmatova, Tsvetaeva, Mandelstam, which led to reading more Tsvetaeva, which led to reading more Mandelstam. I already loved Akhmatova – I have a painting of her in my room – now I had more poets to join her. Or I read The Duino Elegies / The Sonnets to Orpheus by Rilke, which are glorious but difficult. Again. In, I think, the first of the Duino Elegies he mentioned Gaspara Stampa. I was not familiar with the name, so I looked her up. It turns out she is one of the great female poets of the Italian Renaissance. I read a Selected Poems of Gaspara Stampa, which seemed to be pretty much the only thing of hers available in English.
Other times I cannot remember where I discovered a name. Perhaps the best thing I have read all year was Another Birth and Other Poems by Forough Farroukhzad. Farroukhzad was an Iranian poet and film maker who died in a car crash in 1967. She was only in her 30s. Her poetry is well-known in Iran, even if some of her writing and behaviour was frowned upon by the sort of people that frown upon these things: mainly old men with stale ideas. The poetry is wonderful. I wish I could remember how I found her. I wish more of us would find her work. We English are perhaps a little spoiled – or parochial – with poetry in our own language and translation, particularly of poetry, throws up its own problems. As Nina Minyan Powles says in ‘Falling City’, contained in her excellent collection ‘Magnolia, 木蘭’when talking about Eileen Chang:
“19. When reading her stories in translation it’s like trying to see/her from a great distance. Or through a thick pane of glass. I am/standing outside, peering into rooms where her ghost has been.”
This applies even more to poetry. How can I know the translation does justice to the poetry and the poet? I am your typical monolingual Englishman. How can you know? Perhaps all you can do is trust that the translator and the poet are intertwined enough to give you at least some of the truth.
So, I pick up more poetry and try and find my way through it. I follow references to poets in other poets works. I listen to people talking about poetry. I listen to poets. YouTube is full of poetry. If I ever win a huge amount on the Euromillions I’m going to invest a chunk of it in forming a company to produce audio poetry books which haven’t already been read. To fill in some of the gaps. Ideally, they would be read by the poets themselves, but if not someone who can do them justice.
So, on National Poetry Day I want to encourage you to pick up more poetry, but make the journey your own. If you do not think poetry is your cup of tea, do not give up on it after one book. There is a poet out there that will unlock your love of poetry. You could read something like ‘The Poet X’ by Elizabeth Acevedo, which is a novel about a Dominican-American teenager trying to find her way in the world. It is a novel told in slam poetry. Or find some footage of John Cooper Clarke. Just keep digging. The world is full of poetry, dip in.
Read more poetry.
“…and next year, when the spring/makes love with the sky behind the window/and in its body there bursts forth/green fountains of frolicking stems/they will blossom, O friend, O most singular friend”
From ‘Let Us Believe in the Beginning of a Cold Season’ by Forugh Farrokhzad
Follow Tony on Twitter @Lokster71
Images - National Poetry Day/Amazon