Today is National Poetry Day. To celebrate, The Guardian has an interactive quiz taken from I Wandered Lonely as a Cloud: And Other Poems You Half-Remember from School. They also have an attractive set of pictures to illustrate the Top ten nursery rhymes. ‘Booktrust asked 2,500 poeple [sic] to name their favourite nursery rhyme. All together now … here are the top 10.’ Less cheerfully, The Telegraph gloomily forecast Traditional nursery rhymes could be heading for extinction. Rhymes which have been passed down from parent to child for generations are being shunned for more fashionable modern alternatives, ‘experts have warned’. However, they cite one expert, Professor Roger Beard of the Institute of Education (I hope he has a really long beard, too) as slightly contradicting their headline: ‘It is not dying out, but it is a recurring concern that parents of young children are not being encouraged to use nursery rhymes as often as they might do.’
So Booktrust will distribute one million books of the nation’s top eight rhymes in celebration of Bookstart, to help today’s parents rediscover their love for the rhymes. I wonder why they announce the ‘top ten’ but only print eight? Are they inadvertently helping to kill off the unfortunate ninth and tenth: ‘Send for chooper to chop off his head’? Good gracious, they even list ‘Jack And Jill’ as the last of the ‘least popular’ rhymes!
Andrew Motion and the poet’s cloak
As a delightful footnote to yesterday’s post about Andrew Motion, I came across Nancy Banks-Smith’s review in the Guardian of Wednesday night’s Why Poetry Matters on BBC2. ‘Among the better bits was Andrew Motion’s abashed admission that he used to wear a cloak, feeling it was incumbent on a poet. His mother bought it for him.’ So although yesterday’s poem showed the influence of the Georgian Brooke, Motion (bless him) already saw himself as a latter-day Tennyson. Well, it did the trick: like his hero, Andrew eventually took the Laureate’s wreath as well as his cloak!
The Poetry Archive site has a recording of Tennyson reading ‘The Charge of the Light Brigade’ in a wonderfully atmospheric wax-cylinder recording.
The First World War is still providing material for poems for today
The First World War continues to haunt poets. The first contribution to BBC Radio 3’s Poems for Today in their Poetry Season 2009 was broadcast this morning on the Breakfast programme. It was, Sara Mohr-Pietsch told us, recorded by Andrew Motion just before he relinquished the post of Poet Laureate. It’s a personal and not a ceremonial work, in which Motion recalls when he was 17 and the poems of Rupert Brooke were ‘the only ones I had read in their entirety’. Brooke’s collected works had been presented to him at school and the leather-bound volume took pride of place in his parents’ ‘whirligig bookcase’ (this was the word Andrew Motion actually used, as I found out when I caught the poem a second time round over lunch, not ‘hurdy-gurdy’ as I put this morning: must pay more attention). With two friends he visited the island of Skyros to find Brooke’s grave – and the heat on the harsh hillside, he says, meant the ill-equipped English schoolboys almost joined their hero in early graves. Even in 1969 this devotion to Brooke (‘who died,’ the grave records, ‘for the deliverance of Constantinople from the Turks’) must have seemed quaint English nostalgia. Read more about Brooke’s death and see a picture of the grave on Wikipedia and Poet’s Graves.
You should be able to listen again to all forty Poems for Today readings on the BBC site for the next year, though at present there are no recordings available. So make do with Ian McMillan’s more cheerful collaborative poem ‘I pull the curtains wide and feel the morning on my face’, composed with the help of listeners this morning in a new form he’s calling the ‘Pietsch’ in honour of the Breakfast presenter.
Poems of Today, incidentally, was a very popular collection first published in 1915 and much reprinted; I have a leather-bound copy on my shelves dating from 1925 and a school edition from 1942. The preface tells us: ‘This book has been compiled in order that boys and girls, already perhaps familiar with the great classics of the English speech, may also know something of the newer poetry of their own day. Most of the writers are living, and the rest are still vivid memories among us, while one of the youngest, almost as these words are written, has gone singing to lay down his life for his country’s cause.’ That ‘singing’ young poet was, of course, Brooke. There’s more about the collection, and where to find it online, on Literary Connections.
More about the new Poet Laureate, including exclusive revelations, in a later post!
Shakespeare and our other saints
It’s St George’s Day again. Last year I was startled to be presented with a synthetic rose (made in China) on behalf of Tameside Council to celebrate England’s patron saint. Today in The Guardian, Ian McMillan reminds us that April 23rd is a deadly day for poets, marking as it does the deaths of not only Shakespeare but also Wordsworth, Cervantes, Vaughan, Brooke and others. He’s staying in today, just in case.
A more cheerful celebration might be to read James Shapiro’s fascinating account in 1599 of the year the Globe was built, Shakespeare completed Henry V, Julius Caesar and As You Like It and drafted Hamlet. Those who are rather troubled by the pushy patriotism of today’s flag wavers should enjoy the reflection by Michael Goldfarb on last night’s Night Waves (BBC Radio 3), in which he points out just how many other countries claim St George (he was Turkish, for a start). For a more appropriate patron saint, he suggests Bede, who died on 26 May 735 – though his feast day, confusingly, is May 25. Sometimes it takes an outsider such as the American Goldfarb, to remind us of the oddities of our customs. (His short contribution isn’t listed on the Night Waves page but starts about 38 minutes into the programme.)
For a quick and colourful account of Bede and much else, take a look at Alice in Sunderland by Bryan Talbot, which featured in an earlier post.
Appearing on Radio 4’s ‘Beyond Belief’ provokes thoughts about Great War poetry
I found myself (as though it were outside my volition) interviewed for today’s Beyond Belief on BBC Radio 4. As the filling in the middle of the sandwich, I didn’t hear the panel’s comments until the broadcast. I’m not entirely sure I agree with the comment that the First World War changed the public perception of chivalry and therefore of the Crusades, but the point about the sentimental invocation of a romanticised past is quite right, as can be heard in The Volunteer by Herbert Asquith (1881-1947), who was son of the British Prime Minister:
And now those waiting dreams are satisfied
From twilight to the halls of dawn he went;
His lance is broken; but he lies content
With that high hour, in which he lived and died.
And falling thus, he wants no recompense,
Who found his battle in the last resort
Nor needs he any hearse to bear him hence,
Who goes to join the men of Agincourt.
The same Great War site has a volume called The Holy War by the Irish poet and novelist Katharine Tynan which very explicitly portrays death in the War as religious sacrifice. For example, the Dedication concludes:
In this most glorious day and year
That gives your man to die for men.
Looking back (a bit) on 2008
As I read the Christmas letters, I wonder what happened in the last twelve months that’s worth reporting. It’s hard to remember now – though we did get quite excited when Ben popped his head out of his window to give us a shout as we were passing. That’s him you can just see in the window high up on the right. Nice house he’s got, isn’t it?
There’s also been a trip to Texas, where I received another warm welcome. Before that it’s a bit of a blur, though you can read a few things elsewhere on this blog. As Milton hath well said in his Sonnet VII:
How soon hath Time the suttle theef of youth
Stoln on his wing… &c
Happy 400th birthday, John! He’s received some overdue recognition this month – and, appositely, he wrote a fine ode On the Morning of Christ’s Nativity. Just don’t ask what he might have said about the Pope.
More Christmas listening – poetry and music
A happy and melodious Christmas to all our readers! As a follow up to last year’s entry on Christmas poetry (which you can read about in more detail on the Literary Connections Christmas page), I’ve just noticed that last December’s Woman’s Hour interview with Carol Ann Duffy about her Manchester Carols is still available on the BBC site. The Manchester Carols also feature in Aled Jones’s Radio 3 programme on Christmas Music for Choirs on 14 Dec 2008 at 19:00. Happy listening – and I hope you enjoy some singing of your own too!
Call for new memorial to mark burial site of poet William Blake
The Islington Gazette reports today on a campaign to erect a new memorial located on ‘the exact spot of the grave of one of Britain’s most famous poets – William Blake’. Enthusiasts claim to have located the exact place in Bunhill Fields Burial Ground where Blake was buried; you can see a picture of the spot with the newspaper article. As often, there is a motive: there’s money on offer for the park that receives the most votes from Londoners and visitors in the vote for your park campaign. What, I wonder, would he have made of all this fuss?
There’s more about Blake, including a picture of notes left for him by his gravestone, on the Literary Connections Blake page. Bunhill Fields also holds the remains of other famous Dissenters, such as John Bunyan and Daniel Defoe; more on the City of London page about the burial ground.
A rich harvest of material for those interested in the literature of the First World War
Armistice Day this year has seen a particularly rich harvest of material for those interested in the literature of the First World War, coming as it does 90 years after the last shots were fired.
The Guardian‘s excellent series of booklets, with a wallchart on propaganda, provided a very accessible overview with plenty of examples from poetry, reminiscences and art as well as the historical background. The complete series, or missing booklets, can now be ordered here. Much of the material in the booklets can also be found online, here along with other material on the war. The Guardian also carried a moving interview with Harry Patch, the last surviving British soldier who fought in the trenches, by Andrew Motion, and a short video on the Battle of the Somme. Oxford University has also just launched a much enhanced version of its excellent First World War Poetry Digital Archive.
At our consortium meeting yesterday, Nadine was an enthusiastic advocate of All Quiet on the Home Front, ‘An Oral History of Life in Britain During the First World War’, by Steve Humphries and Richard van Emden, which she praised for the valuable first-hand accounts to balance the poetry from the front line. Someone reminded us of the value of the approach in Oh! What a Lovely War – script from 1967 and film version in 1969 (remembering the context in which it was produced). And I didn’t even have time to mention, or play extracts from, The Pity of War: a collection of elegiac First World War works by Elgar, Janacek, Debussy with a second disc of Wilfred Owen letters and poems read by Samuel West, interspersed with wartime songs. For literature teachers, the second disk alone is worth the price.
Finally, for a broader overview, I can commend James Anderson Winn’s The Poetry of War, a wide-ranging study of war poetry from Homer to Bruce Springsteen. My review in NATE’s English Drama Media can be found here.
Day of celebration for Byron – in Greece
The Guardian reports today that Lord Byron has won the belated honour of a ‘day of celebration’ in the country he romanticised, Greece. It will fall on April 19, the date Byron died in 1824 at Messolonghi in Western Greece. It’s more recognition than he has won in his home country – where we don’t seem to honour writers at all. Even Shakespeare’s (supposed) birthday and date of death, 23 April, is honoured rather as St George’s Day. The paper points out that it took until 1969 for Byron to receive any commemoration in Westminster Abbey, having been too scandalous to be buried there.