10 Poems That Have Changed My Life
The truth is, every poem I hear or read leaves me altered (ie: inspired, chilled, elated, and, most of all, thinking). Some more so than others. I can’t summon all of them out of my subconscious, but here is a list of 10 poems that left their mark on my soul from an early age.
1.) As I Walked Out – W. H. Auden
I not long ago blogged this, but felt it had to feature in my list. I was ten when I first came across a stanza of this poem, at the beginning of Whitley Strieber’s novel Cat Magic.
I love the reminder of Time’s presence beneath the surface of everything.
2.) The Waste Land – T.S. Elliot
Where do I begin with a poem of this calibre? I was introduced to this epic (434 lines) in third year uni and seem to still be working my way through it! I have always been particularly struck by the poem’s epigraph, a quote from the Satyricon, regarding the Sybil of Cumae.
3.) Pain for a Daughter – Anne Sexton
My mother has always told me that to have a child is the sudden death of you – she meant it in the nicest possible way.
Ann Sexton sums up that vulnerability beautifully.
4.) Bosch – Rafael Alberti
(Unfortunately, I can’t find an online version of this poem, so, as a treat, I’ll put it at the end of this post.)
This poem was the very first I came to when I opened a vast anthology of world poetry. I read it out to my mother (over whiskey) and we both giggled like naughty girls.
It has been translated from Spanish and I can’t help but wonder what might have been lost in its conversion to English. It depicts the aspects of Dutch painter Hieronymus Bosch’s devil/devils and ‘busy’ visions of hell, with fantastic verbal imagery and a dark and dirty sense of humour.
5.) Punishment – Seamus Heaney
A ‘beautiful and grotesque’ poem for lovers of bog bodies exhumed from British peat marshes.
Heaney has bestowed a personality on the long-dead ‘little adulteress’ and confesses that had been there at the time of her death he would not have spoken up against her punishment.
6.) This Living Hand – John Keats
I largely ignored Keats at school, but appreciate his poetry now, having rediscovered him serendipitously while reading Dan Simmons’ Hyperion Cantos. My interest sparked and the first poem I rediscovered was This Living Hand. Perhaps not his best, but it kept me reading.
This poem makes me want to grab my life and the world in each hand, without the fear of what might happen because someone else says, “but what if”.
Structurally, I appreciate the cantering meter and rhyme, and find myself tapping it out whenever I read it.
Typical Borges and another one I’ve recently posted. This poem embodies several poststructuralist theories including Kristeva’s Abjection, Derrida’s Aporia, as well as the concept of Mise en Abyme. Here, it is from the point of view of the “three-fold beast”, and begs the question: who is more absurd – man or Sphinx?
The mirror reminds us that we are “the eternal Sphinx,” an enigma that we don’t have to face directly; the enormity and monstrosity of the fact of “us”, the burrowed-deep self, is hidden from our lives.
9.) The Lady of Shallot – Alfred Lord Tennyson
I’ve since read that this poem was Tennyson’s interpretation of the artist isolated from day-to-day life, looking at it in the mirror as it passes by, but as a teenager I was obsessed with whimsy of Arthurian legends – any Romantic tendencies that shine through with this one are soon to be turned on their head by Alberti’s Bosch. Tennyson’s Lady draws parallels with Elaine of Astolat.
10.) The Goblin Market – Christina Rossetti
Some of the imagery in this poem makes for a very dark and sexy fairytale indeed. Violent and filled with unnatural colours and flavours.
Next week, I’ll list some of my favourite contemporary Australian poems, but for now, here’s Bosch by Rafael Alberti, translated by Carolyn Tipton.
The devil –
through a funnel.
Loving & dancing,
singing & laughing,
smelling & touching,
sleeping & sleeping,
weeping & weeping.
The devil has a crooked stake.
I ride and I crow,
go mounted on a doe
& on a porcupine,
on a camel, on a lion,
on a burro, on a bear,
on a horse, on a hare,
and on a bugler.
The devil has a small pitchfork.
Love in a garden,
Garden of Delights.
On one foot the appletree
& on all fours the flower
(And your lovers,
asses bare to the wind,
to perching birds, small bouquets.)
The devil is a trickster.
The devil jackrabbit
with his satyry,
With an enema.
boats in dread,
vomitings & wounds,
He preaches, he preaches,
The devil puts on leeches.
In the lethal
the most infernal rags, shoe-toes –
He scythes, he scythes,
Devil cobweb harvest lives.
your palette ascends to the skies,
but on a horn your paintbrush flies