Ruth Padel: 52 Ways of Looking at a Poem A Graph Review

52 Ways of looking at a Poem.

A Graph Review      58 with assorted high points  65

author:  Ruth Padel

available  as Vintage,

my copy:  2004     paperback.   £10.99            978 009942915 0

ruth padel 52 ways coverSub titled:     How Reading Modern Poetry Can Change Your Life

(A Year from Her Celebrated Newspaper Column)

Poems dated   1971 to 1998

Now here is a book that has so many reasons to be read.  Not merely (!) as poetry but as an explanation for the way poets can write, be interpreted and infiltrate the mind.  Ultimately, like a subconscious memory, half remembered lines or sentiments can prod and provoke the reader into thought and action filtered from a poet or poem.   Poems here are those that have appeared in her weekly column ‘The Sunday Poem’ in The Independent on Sunday and her thoughts on them (okay you might say explanations, should call it analysis but they read much more interestingly than the term implies)

For whatever reason you read poetry or if you need an excuse to start or have a phobia against it then dip into this book.   There is no guarantee but the 52 poems by 52 poets with accompanying notes by Ruth Padel will show the reader a range of poetry with confident analysis that threads beautifully between technical and pure enjoyment of the subject and poet.  Her observations on the debt resurgent, modern British Poetry owes to English translations of modern poems written in Irish (Gaelic) and from overseas poets from the Caribbean and Aus/NZ fit well with her brief explanations of English poetry/styles through the ages.

I much prefer the emotion and effect of reading poetry and tend to steer clear of deep analysis for fear of diluting the effect (on me) of the poem.  ( Ignoring the fact I am probably not very good at it for the those very reasons of losing immediate effect and emotion).  However, greater understanding of the reason why a poem ‘works’ as an individual can be very rewarding on a psychological level.  If you suspend emotion the technical dynamics of a poem may also give pleasure.  Imagine yourself as a surgeon during an operation and concentrate on the the skin, it’s structure, the veins, muscle and bone that you uncover and consider that each has its own commitment to the whole and individually to understanding  of  being.  The structure and content of a poem exists but the reason why a word, a line or the whole poem resonates is (almost) definable.

Having just written this I realise that in her introductory essay, Ruth Padel starts with a much clearer approach to the ‘whys’ of reading poetry.  Followed by a superb resume of modern poetry moving through the last half of the twentieth century, touching as needs be on the poets and styles of earlier years and ages.  As you have seen my lame attempt above you really need to read her lucid explanation in the initial essay.

My random list of some of the 52 poets included:             Jo Shapcott, Paul Muldoon, Selima Hill, Les Murray, Fleur Adcock, Seamus Heaney, Carol Ann Duffy,                Patience Agbabi, Peter Redgrove, Susan Wicks, Thom Gunn, Christopher Reid.

With each poem there is an analyses that adds meaning to the poem, poet’s intentions and uses the ‘technical’ terms in a way that explains their particular meaning and use as a tool.  What I like is the fact that the author points out that the reading of the poem may influence the technical analysis and especially that many ‘terms of analysis’ are historic constructs.  Constructs that have been superseded or have alternative possibilities or names.  Terms are still being invented or imported because the structures of poems and their writers (in English/English translation) push boundaries and seemingly overturn or fracture conventions.  Why more invention?   To enable the reader to understand the poem’s meaning/s.  One of her emphases is that all poets write from differing angles and all readers read from differing angles.  The initial point of contact is emotional and from there you may invest in analysis to develop and maintain that point of contact.

My fear is that too much analysis may end up being detrimental to your appreciation. There is also the possibility that the reader reads/analyses more into the poem than the poet actually intended or at least intended consciously.  This is where the readers interpretations must relate to content.  Remembering that poets may well be layering story over story or parallels of meaning as well as echoing the past in story or poet or fact or myth.  Of course, the more skilful in more areas a poet is, then the deeper and wider you may end up going.  Divining what a poet is trying to say and what the poem says is not always the same thing.  Shakespeare may be a great and common example of many things pulled together and re-created in writing of and for the day yet has remained open to interpretation and discussion whilst remaining a cornerstone description of humanity

Throughout, the book is an  exciting variety of poems and poets.  Good value just for the range of poets and poems.  A huge addition is in the author’s  ‘Readings’ of the poetry.  The explanations of each are deep enough to be thorough and using terminology explained in the text as well as in a glossary.  Plus the useful references to other poets, poems and periods.  I have to admit that reading each poem and note on author and its analysis got a bit trying when just over halfway through the book.  It was the  highlighting of such things as dactyls, anapest et al that got to me.  But then it is my failing that I found  analysis to this degree onerous by poem 34.

Again, Ruth pre-empts this in her introduction by saying you should approach the book in your own way, stick with just the poems or also read the notes and analysis, dip in, dip out etc.   I slipped into reading the poems and part of the notes, skipping the, for me, harder analysis.  Okay, I sat there with regret nibbling away as I did so because I was missing part of the ‘stories’ and I know I will have to read it all again to practice my iamb and trochee as well as dactyl and anapest with maybe sponge thrown in.  (Should have been spondee but the iPad may know me better than I know myself).

A great selection of poets and poetry with clear, thoughtful discussion of  Modern Poetry  and where it stood at the turn of the millenium.

Ruth Padel is currently writing a weekly column in the Guardian.

This is the current cover of latest edition.

In 2008 she published: Poems and a Journey, 60 poems.  Useful guide for both readers and writers of poetry.

Vintage 2008.    Paperback £10.99.       978 009949294


Sentenced to Life by Clive James

A Graph Review:          70 but mostly highpoints of 75 plus

Sentenced to Life          Clive James

Picador,          Hardback.         £14.99.        978 14472 8404 8         published 9 April 2015

sentenced to life cover37 poems.

Clive James is a television writer and presenter, author of more than forty books, poetry, novels, autobiography and criticism (‘Cultural Amnesia‘ is a book I was reading!!!  but packed it away in a move and annoyingly have not re-discovered it yet).

“As often happens with poetry, the ostensible meaning and the deeper meaning might be at variance”.   Says Clive James in his Acknowledgements in ‘Sentenced to Life’.

Here is the simplicity of story telling, some vignettes, much on the trials of ill health and approaching death.  Plenty of nostalgia using a sleight of words that give not a meaning to life but an acceptance of what was and is.  Any anger, maybe placed in another’s story but even then quietly dissipated.  Throughout, Clive James admits the weight and tedium of his illness through verse with a skill that is sharp and witty. His is a mind still working at full tilt despite a tired body.  A burst of humour in a line or two or a lighter-touch poem help to release the tensipns a little.  And the landscape?  They are of fine images, concise, precise and immediately in the mind.
Frequent glimpses of Australia and regret at not treading its beaches or seeing the sun setting overhead.  Relationships and family reach into the poems, the past and the present.

Writing on death is often a poet’s forte, the elegies, the emotion, the memories in sequence or random; usually of a loved one.  Clive James, however is processing through his own death, seemingly at a stage of acceptance.  Here we have a classic line followed in awesome skill.  Did I say simplicity?  Even partway through a verse, a line, maybe just touching a word, you could be sign-posted to another thought or possibility.

Despite a concentration on ‘the blackness’, the void, I find this collection is almost purely a celebration and remembrance of life: ‘The sea, the always self-renewing sea/ The horses of the night that run so fast’.  The waves seem calm(ish) in these passages, safe in the knowledge that there is continuation, albeit not his/ours.  As in the ocean there are many undercurrents to be aware of.

You may find ‘variance’ if you change your perspective a little on further reading.  Like fine music, you discover more options on every reading.

As usual I noted poems I especially liked for one reason or another but once again I say the whole collection deserves a place, not only on my shelf but on that of every reader, writer and student of literature.
My attention was especially caught by:
Elementary Sonnet.      WinterPlums.        Transit Visa.        Japanese mMaple

Japanese Maple may well be the anthologist’s favourite.

Other poets to sample: Douglas Dunn:  Elegies

                                         Christopher Reid: Scatterings

Douglas Dunn wins Queens Medal for Poetry

Many congratulations to Douglas Dunn for winning  the  2013 Queens medal for Poetry, in recognition of his lifetime contribution to literature.

I have previously mentioned  his ‘Elegies’  in relation to other writing by James Reeves and Christopher Reid and I had planned to witter-on about Douglas Dunn via his ‘Selected Poems 1964 to 1983’  which I have shelved and bookmarked ready for re-reading and no  doubt  including  ‘Elegies’ too.     Latest title and others can be bought through this link.

frosted tree

Photo by Lin Smith

I have been considering the worth of delving a little deeper when writing about the poetry/poets I have been reading or just unearthed.  My basic feeling is that I should comment on what is before me and my likes and preferences of that book with only a little pointer about the poet’s life. This may encourage readers, including myself, to find more to read both of works by and material about that poet.   I am not a critic, not really in the high literary and poetic manner, only  as a reader.  I do care about what I like and discover so perhaps I should look deeper into the poet and the work to understand my own interpretation of what I read.  Understanding what the poet says is required emotionally and no doubt logically but do you need to dig deeply into the mechanics of comma versus semi-colon and metre and or rhythm?

You can tell from this that anything I learnt when young was discarded and forgotten long ago.  I do believe you should read poetry.  If you  understand what is being said logically as well as emotionally then it is a first step.  The next is to glimpse the life of the poet and try to get a grip on appreciating the forces that worked upon them through life and pushing through your own subconscious to understand the common ground you have with the writing.

Here is where it starts to hurt in that history, history of literature and language (real and poetic) all develop out of the previous years/periods/style that rise to the concious levels either of the literate and or the populace.  And Life, let alone Art, Art of any sort, is always trying to emulate, improve and denigrate, shock and create anew.  So the spectrum of poetry follows similar patterns and you have to choose where you sit and read, or write:  on the fence-post, the fence itself or the spikes.

So, should I pretend I can be a critic for you, or rather myself as I am the one doing this for my own pleasure?   Or maybe I think that wherever I sit and dribble out my thoughts on writers I will never be right?   But then whatever I find, or believe, or say, will only be me with a sign-post saying where I have been and suggesting you have a look around.  If you are taller, shorter, etc etc your view will always be different and if you understand what you read, to a degree, like it or not, you will always be right.  Until you move on and the view changes.

But for some years now my view of Douglas Dunn’s poetry has not changed.  He remains firmly on my shelf.

The Talking-Skull, poems by James Reeves

A Graph Review:   45 with highpoint 60

(0=dont bother, 100 =best ever)

talkingskull trimmed piccymy copy is Heinemann, jacketed hardback

published 1958

This was Reeves’ fourth collection of non-childrens poetry. He is possibly better remembered as writing poetry for children or editing anthologies and also as a literary critic. He was also the first to edit a volume of folk-song and traditional poetry from Cecil Sharp’s collection for many of music had been previously published:  titled ‘Idiom of the People’.

I was pleased to find this old edition containing  his poetry.  The themes as per title on death and sadness might have weighed a little heavy  but there were enough variations, interests and touches of humour to balance the collection nicely.  You need to know your Classic Greek and Roman at times in order to get full reverberations from some poems.  (Here I admit  lacking somewhat though I have a couple of very handy books to help the old memor)

Some 47 poems, some harking back to Hades, to Catullus and ‘Field of Lies’  (I also mentally transposed it to Lilies), not forgetting ‘Frogs’ .  Then a poem I found almost hypnotic, the title being:  ‘And so they came to live at Daffodil Water’.   Thumbing through to pick out my choicest, it gets more difficult as I read.  Classicism may not be much in the current mode but it is a refreshing style with its variation of lines and word selections that do not fall so frequently nowadays.

Yes, I know I am being generalist and shouldn’t.  This is just my current stance on recent reading, there are plenty fabled, old and new who lean on the classics in theme or style but remember James Reeves and tuck him into a corner too.

What drew me initially to this book was the first poem (second, if you include the poetic dedication):  ”The Savage Moon; a meditation on John Clare’  beginning:

‘I saw a dead tree, and the moon beyond,

Low in the sky, untroubled, full and round;

Nearer, the thin rain’s diorama fell

And blurred the surface of the brimming pond’

There follows, in a number of verses a brief resume of John Clare which is full of the passion and emotion that reading Clare’s works and knowing his life can produce.  Clare clutched at fame briefly and then fell away with his mental instabilities holding sway.  Moved up from labourer suffering ‘enclosure’ to poet in London Society, down again to a poor labourer with family and thence to Epping and Northampton asylums.  His Nature was an obsession. His observation and writing was with a passionate but still clear eye though his mind was often clouded.  (sorry, bit of a hobby-horse, see some earlier blogs, even better pick out some of the now-growing number of books on Clare , life and critical studies to see his place in the poet’s spectrum)

And again in this collection, in  a different poem; ‘On a Poet’ Reeves uses the lines:

‘When he is dead and his best phrases stored

With Clare’s and Hardy’s in the book of gold,

She with her unpresuming Saxon grace

In the Queen’s starry train will take her place’.

‘She’ being the poet’s muse in the poem but read more of James Reeves life to seek a possible person.  The important element for me is the position Reeves places Clare as a poet, but then you might also judge from this that all poets deserves such a place.

This book, trying to resist my enthusiasm for its Clare content, is a worthwhile read if you like to vary your period and styles and like to taste currently less well known authors.  There are no great leaps into beat or modern or skeletal poems. but romantic, assuming brittleness, classical references, clutches of humour and touches of sorrow.  Compare with Douglas Dunn: Elegies (Faber) or Christopher Reid: A Scattering (Areta books)

Poems noted above are worth finding, as are the poems: Academic, Bottom’s Dream; and ‘The Talking-Skull’, seems especially good for recital.