Here’s another recycled piece from my 2011 Bracelet of Bright Hair. I left it out of the finished volume because for complicated reasons Emily Dickinson’s poetry I think is still in copyright, though I don’t suppose anyone will track me down here. Probably my list of Desert Island poems would be different now, but this is what it was then.
Lying awake last night, (or that dead time in the very early morning when your mind seems to run rather nerdishly into list-making, ) I thought of the question I’d been asking other people- and if someone had asked me for a favourite poem, what would it be. Easy to ask, hard to answer. Instead, I tried to chose a DesertIsland eight. And that isn’t easy either.
The first ones come smoothly enough. There must be a Shakespeare sonnet, and it would probably be no 29, When in disgrace with Fortune and Men’s Eyes, if only for the wonderful lift of those last lines:
Haply I think on thee, and then my state
Like to the lark at break of day arising
From sullen earth…
There’d be a Donne, probably The Sunne Rising. It’s one of the first I remember reading, and I recall my startled delight ; poetry can do this! And without one of his nasty little anti-woman gibes – an undiluted love song. There’d be Coleridge’s Frost at Midnight, simply because it’s one of the greatest English poems. There’d be Arnold’s Dover Beach, because it sums up so movingly a crucial turning point in Western consciousness.
Okay – so that’s four. Probably The Bailey Beareth the Bell away because it’s beautiful, mysterious and works at a level you can’t quite fathom. Lyric poems only work in the moment – they are gorgeous, then they stop; the ripples cease and the shining water closes over them; they don’t go on working in your head like a ‘real’ poem – but beauty earns them a place.
There’d have to be W.H. Auden’s As I walked out one evening, a ballad turning suddenly sinister, which for years I treasured in an EP record (remember them?) read mesmerically by Dylan Thomas in his outrageously plummy voice.
Then at this stage, the poems start competing, and vying for space, raising hands and jumping above the crowd, shouting Choose me! Choose me! While you’re aware that the quiet one saying nothing at the back is the overlooked one you really want….
Yeats’ Long-legged Fly . though the second two verses don’t quite match the eerie and concentrated focus of the first verse.
Something by Emily Dickinson. What? Wild Nights…. A Narrow Fellow in the Grass… There’s a certain slant of light…the Soul Selects her Own Society… Impossible. But I’ve set myself this silly task, so I’ll choose A Narrow Fellow, because of the precision of her metaphors, the light conversational tone, and the heart-stopping last line.
How many is that? And still no Seamus Heaney, no Gillian Clarke. Have I room for Denise Levertov’s The Secret? Elizabeth Bishop’s One Art?
What moron would even try and do something like this?
A Narrow Fellow in the Grass: Emily Dickinson
A narrow Fellow in the Grass
You may have met Him – did you not
His notice sudden is –
The Grass divides as with a Comb –
A spotted shaft is seen –
And then it closes at your feet
And opens further on –
He likes a Boggy Acre
A Floor too cool for Corn –
Yet when a Boy, and Barefoot –
I more than once at Noon
Have passed, I thought, a Whip lash
Unbraiding in the sun
When stooping to secure it
It wrinkled, and was gone -
Several of Nature’s People
I know, and they know me –
I feel for them a transport
Of cordiality –
But never met this Fellow
Attended, or alone
Without a tighter breathing –
And Zero at the Bone -