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


Useful links

I sometimes add links to blogs but realised it would also be  useful to have them plus others on a single page.   They will be added to when I get  a round tuit (as they say) and no doubt may fall off over time.  Most will have links to other sites.   This ought to be a page not a post but it is a start.  Also havent yet checked the links work.  (Oh the shame of amateurism versus enthusiasm).  Many offer similar items such as poetical form but always the one you want.  Usually have examples, which is useful

There are thousands of sites and here but a sample………

All UK based (as far as aware)  unless country noted e.g. USA

blackbox manifold               Current poems and poets, online mag.  Uni. Sheffield site.             USA              A site for students and teachers.  Can be useful as a quick double/check on people and terms.      For full service there is a subscription.

Friends of Dymock Poets       Covers an area of beautiful countryside which attracted poets to live and visit, specifically supporting:  Lascelles Abercrombie, Rupert Brooke, John Drinkwater, Robert Frost, Wilfrid Gibson, Edward Thomas

Guardian Poetry page            Regular articles and reviews from this Guardian site.

Ivor Gurney Society               Composer and poet:  often considered a war poet (WW1) but he considered music and song as his priority.

John Clare Society                 John Clare possibly positioned himself as a ‘peasant poet’  for public consumption of the day.  Wrote a huge amount of poetry and natural history notes.   It is now possible to visit Clare’s Cottage in Helpston.

literacyadvisor                        Based in Scotland but a blog that is interesting for teachers, primary plus as information and links that could be useful to all at some time.

literature Wales                      Focused interest, I first looked for inf. on Alun Rees

National Poetry Day             Part of Forward Arts Foundation, see site for full range.

Poetry Book Society              Founded in 1953 by T.S. Eliot and friends

Poetry Foundation                USA:  Putting poetry into American culture.  Publish online poetry magazine.

Poem Hunter                          assumed USA        As it says; good way of finding poets and poems of all description.  Includes audio poems.

poetry pf home page              North London based.  Regular events  and listing of current poets and poems.

Robert Bloomfield Society      poet 1766-1823.  author of  The Farmer’s Boy

Shadow Poetry                         USA:  Another useful site, covering many styles of poetry with examples plus other resources.

The Victorian Web                  a superb site for literature and history et al of the Victorian period

War Poets Association       UK:   A good listing of names and work of War Poets plus relevant events and comments.  Not restricted to  era.   Seems a reasonably new site and likely to be another.  Pleased to see Vernon Scannell listed.

Gray’s Elegy in the Guardian, comment and note

There is an  interesting article I have linked, in the Guardian, poem of the week (some long time ago now) by Carol Rumen on ‘Gray’s Elegy’.    She offers a link to the complete poem but includes the first fifteen verses and brief analysis on those and further.   Carol Rumen’s  page is a site well worth visiting for interesting thoughts on poetry far and wide…..

The first verse or two of  ‘Elegy written in a country churchyard’  may well be the ones that today’s older generation recall from memory though I suspect many will recall having read the verses rather than memorising them. Having said that you only have to read the first two verses a few times and the repetitive rhythm and rhyme-scheme which is natural heart-beat to us, combined with the descriptive alliteration throughout lends itself to memory.  Even today.

Here the hesitation creeps in because poetry today is not what it used to be!   A bit like nostalgia, if you will forgive the aside.  In her article Carol bemoans the fact that the educational system of today no longer caters for ‘impoverished young Miltons and Hampdens’ and worries for their literacy in current financial predicaments for students and the school curriculum.  A short paragraph that highlights a failing in the system for poetry, maybe literature, even literacy but to focus on the specifics of poetry,  it does not consider that the bulk of poetry gets ever larger as years go by.  The language and styles of poetry have exploded, maybe not exponentially but massively, since the death of Queen Victoria.  The movements from the Americas and the changes in writing style of people crossing the period into the First World War such as ‘the Georgians’ and T S Eliot and numerous others of the period, some of whom, like Edward Thomas produced good poetry but had short productive (poetic) lives.  Life -style was changing as industry and technology was changing, all in mod and speed.

Today, language and rhythms from around the world are part of everyday life…and therefore poetry.  So, my point is that though we may all sadden at the loss of poetry (literature) in schools in general, what could be described as relevant literature is now so wide open to discussion across time and distance, now almost removed by technology, that it is inevitable some once-revered lines should be cut.  Relevance and connectivity with the audience of today is where the excitement should be created.  A student of poetry, like any artist, will always find their way to the past in order to re-invent the future.  So much to talk about, so little time!  I suspect Carol knows all of this and much more  and has taken a brief  line to make a single point and I have simplisticly taken the bait!

Back to Gray’s Elegy:

This was a hugely successful publication when first published, many editions rushed out as its fame spread.  A great poem of the day but Thomas Gray never published much more than a thousand lines of poetry in total.

I never learned the poem by heart, have probably not read many more than the listed stanzas.  I have, however, visited the memorial put up by John Penn to the memory of Thomas Gray and the hugely successful publication of the ‘elegy’.   As children we used to walk as a family group to the memorial every Easter Sunday, weather permitting, and a few other times too!   The reason why was never given, the question why never asked.  I suspect is was just a nice walk but may have misadvertantly planted that early germ of mystery about poets and poetry.   Recently, in the interest of soothing old imaginings, I have been back several times and being in the close vicinity of the memorial has been interesting.  The same memory is there.  The grass surround, the ha-ha and the field with the tree standing magnificently defiant in the meadow.  Get the position right and it’s branches seem to give a green canopy over the sarcophagus shaped memorial.


plate from Gray’s Elegy, project gutenberg

Reading around the subject leads to the suggestion that most of the poem was written when Gray was at Cambridge though the quiet inspiration no doubt flowed from his frequent visits as he lived close by.   The solitude of this  place with view of trees and hedge at edge of the now extended churchyard can still be felt and easily imagined if you just filter your mind back over two hundred years.  This is as a lone visitor today.  If the small car-park across the road is full then that quiet spot may well be lost to snap and chatter of enthusiasts.  The monument itself must be several hundred yards from the church and out of sight of most, except for the odd farm-hand.  All so quiet in late 18th century English countryside.

The small copse of trees backdropping the monument and its part-surrounding ha-ha have been owned by the National Trust for some years.  In 2014 the copse is due to be planted with wild flowers and the ha-ha highlighted and reconstructed where needed.

gray monumet

Gray’s monument, Feb.2014 photo by Wordparc The photograph of the monument is facing approximately north.

 A photo to the west, to include the church did not work.  It was too far away and only the roof-ridge and top of tower were visible.   The bare tree looks too bleak.  In summer the foliage create a nice ‘mantle’ for the monument.

stoke poges church engraving

St Giles’ Stoke Poges, from project gutenberg

st giles st poges

st Giles’ Stoke Poges , 2014 photo by Wordparc

The small church of St Giles’ is worth a visit and you can pass Gray’s tomb and that of his mother and her sister.  The side chapel was renovated last century and the bells moved by John Penn’s suggestion and money.  However, the plate above shows monument with church in view, with a small spire.  There is none.  Look at  plate here for more accuracy.  There is enough ivy for all!  The  figure sitting with back to the church wall may be a reader of the poem rather than Gray writing it as two tombs are clearly visibly.  You choose!  Gray’s churchyard is very pleasant and worth a visit.

I have not read that a spire ecer existed. Note above, that the bells were moved by John Penn’s suggestion and money, hence the  roofing to the tower as seen in the photograph.

  Which neatly leads me to that tolling bell and ivy-mantled tower:   The plate offers all the ivy you may need but it is more than likely that the sound and site in mind at the time of writing was actually the Church of St. Laurence in Upton-cum-Chalvey, some six miles away.  This bell tolling nightly curfew across the fields to Eton College.  Possibly heard from St. Giles but more likely just from his time at Eton.  The tombs by the church wall, sadly, are not very eloquent today and as several photos are included I decided against them at this time.  Quiet reflection brought together ideal elements for Gray and the poem stands for itself.  It is interesting to read and see the influences on any ‘art’ but it is still the ‘artist’ that fuses the idea into substance.

st laurence church 1

st Laurenc church. photo by wordparc

St. Laurence is another delightful little church. It fell into serious dereliction and was saved from collapse in 1850 and rebuilt and re-dedicated in 1851.   It had been a wooden sided Parish church built on elements of a Norman church, some of which can be seen.  Today the tower  is not ivy- clad but the church and churchyard sit in a quiet corner a little away from the now Parish church of St Mary’s, Slough.

Sir William Herschel and wife are buried in a vault near the tower.

I have wandered away from the poem, have not quoted nor analysed but hope I have added a tiny bit of colour and place of today.  Look back at the illustration of the church and see and think of the solitary reader, and enjoy.

The Shipwrecked House: A Graph Review

A Graph Review:  55 with high points 75

published by: Penned in the Margins

Shortlisted for Guardian First Book Award  2013

author: Claire Trevien                 paper at £8.99 (Buy now from Amazon)

  978 190805110

I was caught up by the first poem, ‘Origin Story‘ and well-held for shipwrecked house coveralmost all that followed.

Claire is a young poet, this her first published collection though in her acknowledgements she has been published in numerous journals and 6 of this selection previously appeared in a pamphlet.  She is currently an editor of Sabotage Reviews and involved in other collaborations in poetry writing and author groups.  Recently she was part of an ‘author’s day’ at Beaconsfield Library.  She is an Anglo-Breton, her late grandmother in Brittany was an artist and Claire’s writing seems deeply influenced by this familial and scenic heritage.

The sea and its borderline landscape, the myth and music of a Celtic heritage and the artistic colour and imagery pour through the changes in style along the progression of the poems.  From origins, childhood,  with teasing and testing of other influences and styles; thorns and tucked-in humour to the final four poems that maybe forecast a sea-change in self with the last taken lines:

Wipe the blade clean on the grass,

the songs, the sounds, must be plucked off.

There is so much offered in this collection, flowing from birth to maturity.  For those that like depths to explore, for all that like variety and conscious exploration, with murmur and colour galore this is a desreving read.  And a welcome re-read.  I do hope that Claire can continue her poetry output.

I find it hard to limit to my favourite four poems, its almost a random choice:

          Origin Story,           Journeys of Evaporation,           Novella,          Melusine             and finally:     Good god that’s a lot of shake.

My one disappointment is that there are several blank pages at the back of the book, I would have loved just a few more poems.

Lastly, it is no wonder she was chosen by readers to be on the shortlist for the Guardian First Book Award for 2013.   Sadly she was not the winner.