Sunday, October 10, 2010


This past week was national poetry week, but that is not why I have chosen to write about poetry – although it would be a good reason. No, what set me onto this topic was in all probability age – forgetting things…I had fragments of an Emily Dickinson poem snapping at the edges of my memory. All week I had been reworking A CORNISH HOUSE and one of the key themes is faith and I was overwhelmed by so many thoughts during the solemn sung mass at Westminster Cathedral last Sunday.

A few weeks ago Biddy, here, asked how do you refill the well and recently another writer friend asked the question what do you do when you get stuck and another when do your best writing ideas come….be patient I will pull all of this together, I promise.

So sitting in the beautiful cathedral my senses were beginning stimulated in many ways – visually – I love the unfinished church and the way the massive crucifix pulls the eye while the morning lights streams in behind it; olfactorily (yes, it is a word – I had to check) the mix of incense and candles and people; auditorily the exquisite voices of the choir – all the while being on autopilot through the order of the mass which is simply a part of me. So my mind in the face of extreme stimulation yet relaxation picked up the words of the opening antiphon …

All things are submitted to your will, O Lord, and no one can resist your decisions; you have made all things, heaven and earth, and all that is contained under the vault of the sky; you are the master of the universe…Blessed are those whose way is blameless, who walk in the law of the Lord.

This was further echoed in the readings…

Hab 1:2-3
How long, O LORD? I cry for help
but you do not listen
2 TM 1:6-8, 13-14
I remind you, to stir into flame

the gift of God that you have through the imposition of my hands. 
For God did not give us a spirit of cowardice
but rather of power and love and self-control.
So do not be ashamed of your testimony to our Lord,
nor of me, a prisoner for his sake;
but bear your share of hardship for the gospel
with the strength that comes from God.
Take as your norm the sound words that you heard from me,
in the faith and love that are in Christ Jesus.
Guard this rich trust with the help of the Holy Spirit
that dwells within us.
Lk 17:5-10
The apostles said to the Lord, "Increase our faith." 
The Lord replied,
"If you have faith the size of a mustard seed,
you would say to this mulberry tree,
'Be uprooted and planted in the sea,’ and it would obey you.

I came out of church buzzing with ideas for the book – excellent. (the well refreshed – who would have thought…but the music and beauty and the autopilot did the trick) The well had been refilled and the difficulty I had in progressing with the rewrite was reduced to surmountable obstacles.

Now fast forward to the end of last week. I was within thirty pages of the end of the rewrite and all I could think about was Emily Dickinson. I had been a good girl so I allowed myself to do a little research…

You see, in my final year at Mount Holyoke (where Emily herself spent time – although in those days it was labelled a women’s seminary), I did a fabulous senior seminar on her poetry. I won’t say we read all her poems, but I may have done it (something of a fan girl back then)….somewhere I knew there was poem of her struggling with her faith that I knew would tap into my heroine’s feelings…but could I find it – no.

However I did while away a happy hour or three rereading her work, which reminded me how important poetry used to be in my life. Call it my Irish roots and grandfather reciting bits of verse to me as I sat on his lap, or my teenage need to express all that was trapped in me…poetry spoke to me and to my soul.

It saddens me to say that with the odd exception I haven’t read poetry with diligence since I was twenty-five (this is of course discounting nursery rhymes). This is a mistake, a huge one….

So, poetry…where each word is weighed and measured and given forth almost reluctantly…do you read poetry? Did you read poetry? Do or did you write it? And if you do, do you share it? (Challenge – if you do post a link in the comments)

I just stumbled across my journal from my time studying the great poet….I can clearly see the influence of studying her work on thoughts and my words. I shall leave you with one of my favourite poems of hers:

You constituted Time –
I deemed Eternity
A Revelation of Yourself-
‘Twas therefore Deity

The Absolute – removed
The Relative away –
That I unto Himself adjust
My slow idolatry –

(Apologies if I have transcribed this incorrectly as I working from my old journal …underneath it I had added the comment ‘scalding prayer’)


  1. I don’t write poetry and never have, but I love listening to what I call old-fashioned poetry, ie. the kind that rhymes or has been put together in a certain pattern. It’s fascinating how words can be made to fit like that and it can be soothing or exciting to hear it read out loud. My favourite poems are Thomas Gray’s “Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard” which is wonderfully evocative and Edgar Allan Poe’s “The Raven”, an absolute masterpiece. I also really like haiku, the short Japanese poems with a set number of syllables on each of three lines. They are amazingly clever and conjure something up with so few words.

    I also find that song lyrics are a kind of poetry. There are some that really make you think, for example Boulevard of Broken Dreams by Billy Joe Armstrong of Green Day. The words of that song really spoke to me.

    Sorry I can’t rise to your challenge. I think either you can write poetry or you can’t, but everyone can enjoy it.

  2. I love both the Gray poem and the Poe one though haven't read either in ages. Now will go off and search the green day song - I do agree that songs do hold a great deal of poetry.


  3. I forgot to say I love the poem "Dying" by Emily Dickinson. The way she writes about such a sad event and then right in the middle of it, a fly appears! Wonderful.

  4. She has a unique way of looking at the world to say the least - but it's quite refreshing too

  5. I read poetry - I love Eliot and at my wedding we had poems by Pinter and Carol Ann Duffy. I've tried writing it but I'm absolute rubbish! It's fun, though!

  6. Talli - how romantic...poems at your wedding :-)

    i love it

  7. I love poetry and I'm ashamed to say, have been known to keep anthologies in the bathroom... I like sensual poetry such as Keats (Eve of St Agnes and Isabella) and Tennyson (Come into the Garden, Maud.)

  8. Last year, I decided that I hadn't read much poetry, so I set myself a challenge to read a poem a day. I've just about managed to keep it up into 2010 - with only a few lapses!

    At the moment, I'm reading Don Paterson, Simon Armitage and Carol Ann Duffy but my favourite poet is Robert Frost. I think it's his connection to the land he lived and worked, and nature generally.

    I don't write very much poetry at all but here is one of the few poems I've written. It's called Watching:

  9. Actually Phillipa I think keeping anthologies in the bathroom is brilliant...moments of quiet contemplation :-)

    Kath - I am impressed and I just may take up the challenge myself. I loved your poem - have left a comment there.

    I did post a feel of my uni angsty type one over on my blog....and all i can say of them as it is actually a good way to go back into emotions that are so distant from my life now - sort of a reference library


  10. I used to write a lot of poetry. It centred me through teenage angst and twenties' uncertainties. I'm not sure it's worth repeating, though! I used to write angsty sonnets.... if you can imagine such a thing. I haven't written any since the Foot and Mouth crisis. Long story.

    I still drool over Donne, though.

  11. This is a beautiful post, Liz.

    I love poetry, though I'll admit that except for Dr Seuss, I don't make enough room for it in my life these days. I used to love teaching it, and I spent a lot of time in my uni days wallowing in Tennyson and the Brownings.

    I do have the Penguin Book of English Verse which I keep by my bedside, to dip into, and I normally buy Carol Ann Duffy's books, because I fell in love with her verse while teaching it for A-level.

    What I like about poetry is that if you read it at the right time, the lines stay with you forever. I think of Tennyson's "Tithonus" in autumn:

    The woods decay, the woods decay and fall,
    The vapours weep their burthen to the ground,
    Man comes and tills the field and lies beneath,
    And after many a summer dies the swan.

    And Hopkin's Goldengrove:

    Margaret, are you grieving
    Over Goldengrove unleaving?

  12. Anna - i love the idea of angsty sonnets...mind boggles at foot and mouth though...and yup Donne does it for me too :-)

    Julie - i do think that is so true 'if read at the right stays with you'. I am quite jealous of your having taught it...I would imagine sharing the joy of poetry and seeing the reaction is quite special.


  13. Lovely post, Liz.

    I did most of my poetry writing in high school and college. I do enjoy poetry but don't read nearly enough of it. I love writing with poetic imagery in it - it creates a strong emotional link with the story for me.

    I still write poetry on occasion - often just as writing exercises using prompts of random word lists and making something out of them - it's a great way to keep sharp when I don't have the time to write anything longer, like the novels bouncing around in my head, and it's fun too. :)

    a poem I have always enjoyed is Sea Fever by John Masefield:

    I must go down to the seas again, to the lonely sea and the sky,
    and all I ask is a tall ship and a star to steer her by,
    and the wheel's kick and the wind's song and the white sail's shaking,
    and a grey mist on the sea's face, and a grey dawn breaking.

    There is definitely also a lot of poetry in music lyrics. Adam Duritz of Counting Crows comes to mind for his evocative lyrics:

    Step out the front door
    like a ghost into the fog
    where no one notices the contrast
    of white on white
    and inbetween the moon and you
    the angels get a better view
    of the crumbling difference between
    wrong and right

    (the opening lines of 'Round Here' from memory)

    I love how lines of poetry stick in one's head and come back at the perfect moment with all their beauty and emotion to enrich that moment.

  14. I used to write lots of poems as a teenager (even got them in the school magazine!). I love Donne *swoons* and have recently discovered Billy Collins, went on an Amazon spree.

    If I get up the courage (and the time) I might post something on my blog.

  15. Sofie - the Masefield transport me back to when i first read it ...beautiful. I like your idea of using as a way to keep sharp - poetry has to be so tight and this would help with prose no end. Love the words to the song :-)

    Biddy - don't know Billy Collins (must go look up)...come up I was brave enough to post three of my ghastly poems...


  16. OK I have taken up the challenge!! Three poems... I skipped the angst ridden love lorn ones ;-)

  17. I can see your wicked sense of the world emerging in them!!

    Thanks for being brave.