Friday, May 07, 2010

Death and poetry. These days if you asked me, "Mel, do you like poetry?" my answer would be a derisive noise whose rudeness and loudness would vary depending on how many drinks I'd had at the time.

However, when I was quite young my mother gave me a poetry anthology that made a tremendous impression on me. It was called I Like This Poem and it had been compiled as a fundraiser for the International Year Of The Child in 1979. The poems had been selected by kids aged 6-15, and each one was followed by a blurb from the kid who'd picked it.

The book was arranged in the age order of the children, so it began with very simple poems and ended with quite complex ones. The poems are by a wonderful cross-section of the best-known authors, and quite frankly they form the bedrock of my knowledge of poetry. I learned great chunks of the book by heart, and they've stayed with me all these years later.

Some of my favourites were the ones I loved to read aloud, the great stories that rolled off the tongue: The Puddock, by John M Caie; Tarantella by Hilaire Belloc (I loved the melancholy tone and the exotic rhythm of it); Macavity The Mystery Cat by TS Eliot; My Name Is… by Pauline Clarke (I found the line "My name is Bite-My-Knee" richly funny); The Highwayman by Alfred Noyes; and of course, Jabberwocky by Lewis Carroll.

Others I remember more for the feeling of unease they inspired. These included Ozymandias by Percy Bysshe 'Ramrod' Shelley; Overheard On A Saltmarsh by Harold Monro; A Welsh Testament by RS Thomas and Anthem For Doomed Youth by Wilfred Owen.

But I think the most disturbing poem in the book is On A Portrait Of A Deaf Man by John Betjeman. I found its brusque, angry evocation of death and decay really confronting, considering that I would've been maybe seven years old at the time.

Phrases from this poem have popped into my mind over the last couple of weeks, as I've been reading a fascinating history of London and its dead called Necropolis, written by Catharine Arnold. It is slotting nicely into a gap in my library, somewhere between The Victorian Underworld and Falling Angels. But when Arnold mentions Highgate cemetery, I can't help but be reminded of Betjeman's grim lines:

But least of all he liked that place
Which hangs on Highgate Hill
Of soaked Carrara-covered earth
For Londoners to fill.

It's a vision of Highgate cemetery utterly unlike the sentimental Victorian 'garden of the dead' or bourgeois stronghold. It makes the place seem cold, miserable and desolate. The poem is about his father's death, and about the inability to believe in God that eventually broke up his marriage.

While looking the poem up just now, I read that Betjeman's teddy bear, Archibald Ormsby-Gore, also provided the inspiration for Aloysius, the teddy bear from Brideshead Revisited – Betjeman was known for having brought him to Magdalen College, Oxford, in the 1920s, along with a stuffed elephant named Jumbo.

Apparently, both Archie and Jumbo were in Betjeman's arms when he died in 1984, aged 77. I get the feeling that his childhood profoundly influenced Betjeman. I certainly feel that my own childhood continues to steer me.

Comrade! I was given that book in 1982 at the age of seven, and it changed my life. I owe it much of my imagination and all of my poetry. Thank you for the reminder today.
Great recommendation, Mel. My 9 y o has a couple of poetry anthologies that she likes, but I like the idea of one selected by children at different ages.
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