Memorable Poem Project

To celebrate National Poetry Day 2014, the theme of which is ‘Remember’, the Poetry Centre asked Oxford Brookes staff and students to tell us about their favourite poem. Of those volunteers, five participants were videoed, whilst five others were selected to contribute a written response to their poem and why it is important to them. You can watch and read these reflections below. We hope it will inspire you to rediscover your own most memorable poem and share it with others on National Poetry Day!

The Poetry Centre has also been running two other projects to coincide with National Poetry Day: a well-being and mental health poetry competition, and a series of pop-up poetry events all around Oxford and the Oxford Brookes campuses. 

Wallace Stevens, Anecdote of the Jar

Read by Professor Janet Beer, Vice-Chancellor of Oxford Brookes University

Anecdote of the Jar

I placed a jar in Tennessee,
And round it was, upon a hill.
It made the slovenly wilderness
Surround that hill.

The wilderness rose up to it,
And sprawled around, no longer wild.
The jar was round upon the ground

And tall and of a port in air.

It took dominion everywhere.
The jar was gray and bare.
It did not give of bird or bush,
Like nothing else in Tennessee.

Wallace Stevens

Arthur Rimbaud, Sensation

Read by Edward Bressan, Academic Director of English Language Pathways Programme, Oxford Brookes International

Sensation


Par les soirs bleus d’été, j’irai dans les sentiers,
Picoté par les blés, fouler l’herbe menue:
Rêveur, j’en sentirai la fraîcheur à mes pieds.
Je laisserai le vent baigner ma tête nue.

Je ne parlerai pas, je ne penserai rien:
Mais l’amour infini me montera dans l’àme,
Et j’irai loin, bien loin, comme un bohémien, 
Par la Nature, — heureux comme avec une femme.

In summer evenings blue, pricked by the wheat
 On rustic paths the thin grass I shall tread, 
And feel its freshness underneath my feet, 
 And, dreaming, let the wind bathe my bare head,

I shall not speak, nor think, but, walking slow 
 Through Nature, I shall rove with Love my guide, 
As gipsies wander, where, they do not know, 
 Happy as one walks by a woman’s side.

Arthur Rimbaud

Robert Desnos, I've Dreamt of You So Often

Read by Amanda Edwards-Day, MA Creative Writing, Oxford Brookes University

I've Dreamt of You So Often / J’ai tant rêvé de toi

 I’ve dreamt of you so often that you become unreal.
 Is there still time to reach this living body and to kiss on its mouth the birth ofthe voice so dear to me?
 I’ve dreamt of you so often that my arms used to embracing your shadow andonly crossing on my own chest might no longer meet your body's shape.
And before the real appearance of what has haunted and ruled me for daysand years I would doubtless become a shadow.
Oh the shifts of feeling.
I’ve dreamt of you so often that it is doubtless no longer time for me to wake. I sleep standing, my body exposed to all the appearances of life and love and you,who only count today for me, I could touch your forehead and your lips less easily than any other lips and forehead.
I’ve dreamt of you so often, walked, spoken, slept so often with your phantom that perhaps all that yet remains for me is to be a phantom among phantomsand a hundred times more shadow than the shadow which saunters and will saunter so gladly over the sundial of your life.

Robert Desnos

Edward Thomas, Sedge-Warblers

Read by Dr Andrew Lack, Senior Lecturer in Environmental Biology, Oxford Brookes University

Sedge-Warblers

This beauty made me dream there was a time
Long past and irrecoverable, a clime
Where any brook so radiant racing clear
Through buttercup and kingcup bright as brass
But gentle, nourishing the meadow grass
That leans and scurries in the wind, would bear
Another beauty, divine and feminine,
Child to the sun, a nymph whose soul unstained
Could love all day, and never hate or tire,
A lover of mortal or immortal kin.

And yet, rid of this dream, ere I had drained
Its poison, quieted was my desire
So that I only looked into the water,
Clearer than any goddess or man’s daughter,
And hearkened while it combed the dark green hair
And shook the millions of the blossoms white
Of water-crowfoot, and curdled to one sheet
The flowers fallen from the chestnuts in the park
Far off. And sedge-warblers, clinging so light
To willow twigs, sang longer than the lark,
Quick, shrill, or grating, a song to match the heat
Of the strong sun, nor less the water’s cool,
Gushing through narrows, swirling in the pool.
Their song that lacks all words, all melody,
All sweetness almost, was dearer then to me
Than sweetest voice that sings in tune sweet words.
This was the best of May—the small brown birds
Wisely reiterating endlessly
What no man learnt yet, in or out of school.

Edward Thomas

Spike Milligan, Have a Nice Day

Read by Phoebe Hitt, recent graduate in BA (Hons) Drama and English, Oxford Brookes University

Have a Nice Day

‘Help, help,’ said a man. ‘I’m drowning.’
‘Hang on,’ said a man from the shore.
‘Help, help,’ said the man. ‘I’m not clowning.’
‘Yes, I know, I heard you before.
Be patient dear man who is drowning,
You see, I’ve got a disease.
I’m waiting for a Doctor J. Browning.
So do be patient please.’
‘How long,’ said the man who was drowning. ‘Will it take for the Doc to arrive?’
‘Not very long,’ said the man with the disease. ‘Till then try staying alive.’
‘Very well,’ said the man who was drowning. ‘I’ll try and stay afloat.
By reciting the poems of Browning
And other things he wrote.’
‘Help, help,’ said the man with the disease, ‘I suddenly feel quite ill.’
‘Keep calm,’ said the man who was drowning, ‘Breathe deeply and lie quite still.’
‘Oh dear,’ said the man with the awful disease. ‘I think I'm going to die.’
‘Farewell,’ said the man who was drowning
Said the man with the disease, ‘goodbye.’
So the man who was drowning, drownded
And the man with the disease passed away.
But apart from that,
And a fire in my flat,
It’s been a very nice day.

Spike Milligan

Edith Joy Scovell, Deaths of Flowers

Introduced by Helen Newdick, MA Creative Writing, Oxford Brookes University

Deaths of Flowers

I would if I could choose
Age and die outwards as a tulip does;
Not as this iris drawing in, in-coiling
Its complex strange taut inflorescence, willing
Itself a bud again - though all achieved is
No more than a clenched sadness,

The tears of gum not flowing.
I would choose the tulip’s reckless way of going;
Whose petals answer light, altering by fractions
From closed to wide, from one through many perfections,
Til wrecked, flamboyant, strayed beyond recall,
Like flakes of fire they piecemeal fall. 

Edith Joy Scovell

Tulips and irises. Ordinary garden flowers. Yet with her deeply reflective, lyric voice, Scovell shares with the reader the metaphysical here. It is a short, accessible poem, typical of Scovell’s writing. She once said she didn’t have the stamina to write long poems. It is for me, all the more powerful for its simplicity. How in these two short stanzas, has she captivated me quite so much?

The poet uses her close observations about what happens to iris and tulip flowers when they are spent to say how she would choose to age and to die and in so-doing alludes to those human qualities she both repugns (drawing in, hiding away) and admires (opening out, expressing).

Technically, she is clever in letting the idea of the first stanza run on into the second. Continuing with that one extra line of the iris motif, ‘the tears of gum not flowing’ re-emphasises the shrinking away of the iris and contrasts it all the more starkly with the tulip.

The poet uses a gentle, almost genteel language, ‘I would if I could choose’ and this contrasts with the poem’s central focus on death and in so doing strikes a tone which is disdainful, almost glib. This is, for me, the heart of the poem. The poet’s brave, wilful response to her mortality, conjured throughout the second stanza and culminating with the riotous lines ‘Til wrecked, flamboyant, strayed beyond recall, Like flakes of fire they piecemeal fall’. Since first coming across this poem, seven or eight years ago, these lines have become something of a happy mantra for me as I move, all too swiftly, through middle-age!

Like Scovell, I love working in my garden and experiencing up-close the intricate wonders of the plants and flowers there. To come across a poem which immediately moved me, like this one did, and which introduced me to such a wonderful poet was a magical moment.

Paradoxically, Scovell has in a sense contained the anarchy of the tulip, and I think the poem retains a meditative quality. This poem, as with many of her poems, is beautifully poised between the cerebral and the sensory. This means I can think and truly feel her poetry at the same time, which was honestly a bit of a first for me. I don’t want the poetry I read to be overly-abstruse, but I need it to be intelligent enough to genuinely affect me!

Joy Scovell described herself as a strict agnostic, in the sense of believing that the ultimate metaphysical truth is beyond human knowledge. Without affixing itself to a specific religion or creed this poem, with its intensity of gaze, somehow heightens my sense of being human and has the capacity to expand me spiritually.

The poem is reproduced by permission of Carcanet Press, and comes from E.J. Scovell, Selected Poems (Manchester: Carcanet Press, 1991). The Poetry Centre is grateful to Michael Schmidt and Michelle Healey.

Billy Collins, Carpe Diem

Introduced by Richard Haill, Lecturer in English for Academic Purposes, International Centre, Oxford Brookes University

Carpe Diem

Maybe it was the fast-moving clouds
or the spring flowers quivering among the dead leaves,
but I knew this was one day I was born to seize -

not just another card in the deck of a year,
but March 19th itself,
looking as clear and fresh as the ten of diamonds.

Living life to the fullest is the only way,
I thought as I sat by a tall window
and tapped my pencil on the dome of a glass paperweight.  

To drain the cup of life to the dregs
was a piece of irresistible advice,
I averred as I checked someone's dates

in the Dictionary of National Biography
and later, as I scribbled a few words
on the back of a picture postcard.  

Crashing through the iron gates of life
is what it is all about,
I decided as I lay down on the carpet,

locked my hands behind my head,
and considered how unique this day was
and how different I was from the men

of hari-kari for whom it is disgraceful
to end up lying on your back.
Better, they think, to be found facedown

in a blood-soaked shirt
than to be discovered with lifeless eyes
fixed on the elegant teak ceiling above you,

and now I can almost hear the silence
of the temple bells and the lighter silence
of the birds hiding in the darkness of a hedge.

Billy Collins

With some friends I started a poetry-reading (not writing!) group in 2002, and we have been meeting 7 or 8 times a year since then. As a result of this I’ve built up quite a large poetry collection. We take it in turns to host the meetings and set the theme: each of us chooses 5 or 6 poems to read, and we are provided with copious glasses of wine to help us through. I first came across the work of Billy Collins about 10 years ago; this poem is from his 2008 collection, Ballistics.

I like it for several reasons. The contrast between the incitement-to-positive-action title (‘Enjoy the Day!’) and the relative inaction of the poet who is content to sit, tap his pencil, check some facts in a book, write a post-card, lie on the carpet, stare at the ceiling and listen to bells & birds.

The further contrast between the clichéd phrases in the poems which are commonly used to exhort us to follow the ‘carpe diem’ approach to life - ‘this was one day I was born to seize’. ‘living life to the fullest’, ‘drain the cup of life to the dregs’, ‘crash through the iron gates of life’ – and the quiet, contemplative way in which the poet chooses to enjoy his day;

The poet seems a nice guy! He wants to pass the day (and note the coming of spring) in his own way: he resists any urge to dash out and do important things, and is content to sit (and lie) at home and while away the time with his own thoughts. Who can't relate to that!

The poem is reproduced by permission of Random House USA, and comes from his collection Ballistics (New York: Random House, 2008). The Poetry Centre is grateful to Sherri Feldman.

Thich Nhat Hanh, Please Call Me By My True Names

Introduced by Kate Rowley, Ecumenical Chaplain, Oxford Brookes University

Please Call Me By My True Names

Do not say that I'll depart tomorrow
because even today I still arrive.

Look deeply: I arrive in every second 
to be a bud on a spring branch, 
to be a tiny bird, with wings still fragile, 
learning to sing in my new nest, 
to be a caterpillar in the heart of a flower, 
to be a jewel hiding itself in a stone.

I still arrive, in order to laugh and to cry, 
in order to fear and to hope. 
The rhythm of my heart is the birth and 
death of all that are alive.

I am the mayfly metamorphosing on the surface of the river,
and I am the bird which, when spring comes, arrives in time 
to eat the mayfly.

I am the frog swimming happily in the clear pond, 
and I am also the grass-snake who, approaching in silence, 
feeds itself on the frog.

I am the child in Uganda, all skin and bones, 
my legs as thin as bamboo sticks, 
and I am the arms merchant, selling deadly weapons to 
Uganda.

I am the twelve-year-old girl, refugee on a small boat,
who throws herself into the ocean after being raped by a sea
pirate,
and I am the pirate, my heart not yet capable of seeing and
loving.

I am a member of the politburo, with plenty of power in my
hands,
and I am the man who has to pay his "debt of blood" to my
people,
dying slowly in a forced labor camp.

My joy is like spring, so warm it makes flowers bloom in all
walks of life.
My pain is like a river of tears, so full it fills the four oceans.

Please call me by my true names, 
so I can hear all my cries and laughs at once, 
so I can see that my joy and pain are one.

Please call me by my true names, 
so I can wake up, 
and so the door of my heart can be left open, 
the door of compassion.

Thich Nhat Hanh

I’ve worked as Ecumenical Chaplain at Oxford Brookes University since December 2012. The Chaplaincy team is made up of members of faith communities who are available for pastoral or spiritual care and guidance to the University community.

The poem I have chosen is called, ‘Please Call Me By My True Names’, and was written by Thich Nhat Hanh. Thich Nhat Hanh is a Buddhist monk and Zen Master who was born in Vietnam, and during the war with the United States of America he worked to support the wounded and dispossessed. His work is dedicated to individual transformation and creating peace in the minds of every person. He is a committed advocate of using the principles of mindfulness to calm the mind and soul, and his influence can be seen in the practice of mindfulness all over the world today.

I first heard this poem at an inter-faith event, as part of a reading from Peace is Every Step. I was profoundly affected by hearing the line, ‘I am the pirate, / my heart not yet capable of seeing and loving’. When I heard that spoken aloud it is a reminder of the humanity of people who commit atrocities, and the latent atrocity in human nature. It is a call to compassion and mercy.

In my time in ministry, I have worked with people who have suffered greatly at the hands of others. I have listened to the stories of LGBT people who have been tortured, homeless women fleeing abuse, children whose parents don’t want to know them. My Christian faith teaches that all people are made in God’s image – torturer and tortured alike – and the words of Thich Nhat Hanh are a reminder of the sacred in everyone. They remind me to pray for my enemies, and those who hurt the people I love, and to seek to love them in turn.

I find that poetry can speak very profoundly to my faith and experiences. In poetry, I hear a lot said in few words; those words echo across languages and generations. Ancient psalms can move me to tears, or stir me to action in a very powerful way. People who understand God very differently to me can still move my spirit to prayer or praise through an expression of our common beliefs. Poetry spoken aloud as part of the liturgy of the Christian tradition binds us together. Set to music, poetry lifts us up or draws us inward. I can’t imagine my life and work without the poems of others, and I hope I will continue to discover new works and rediscover ancient truths.

The poem is reproduced with the permission of Random House USA. The Poetry Centre is grateful to Alicia Dercole.

Adrienne Rich, Song

Introduced by Liz Robertson, Careers Consultant, Careers Service, Oxford Brookes University

Song

You’re wondering if I’m lonely:
OK then, yes, I’m lonely
as a plane rides lonely and level
on its radio beam, aiming
across the Rockies
for the blue-strung aisles
of an airfield on the ocean.

You want to ask, am I lonely?
Well, of course, lonely
as a woman driving across country
day after day, leaving behind
mile after mile
little towns she might have stopped
and lived and died in, lonely

If I’m lonely
it must be the loneliness
of waking first, of breathing
dawn’s first cold breath on the city
of being the one awake
in a house wrapped in sleep

If I’m lonely
it’s with the rowboat ice-fast on the shore
in the last red light of the year
that knows what it is, that knows it’s neither
ice nor mud nor winter light
but wood, with a gift for burning.

Adrienne Rich

I cannot recall where I first heard this poem, but I do remember asking a well-read friend if he knew of a poem which mentioned a wooden boat on a shoreline and the phrase ‘a gift for burning’. He walked across to his bookshelves and pulled out a collection of poems by Adrienne Rich, flicking straight to the poem ‘Song’.

I love the positive slant she gives a part of the human condition which is often seen as a negative. I feel that her loneliness is all about possibility and being comfortable with the state of being alone. I travelled a lot in my late teens and early twenties around a number of different countries, much of it on my own. I would join up with new people in stopping places, be part of their lives for a while, then move on. Some of those I met are still part of my life now, others are not.

People asked at times whether I got lonely when I went off travelling by myself. A few questioned why I would put myself in that situation, since it seemed that they felt it was to be avoided. Travelling alone allows you to be yourself and can also include the opportunity of being someone other than the ‘self’ others (friends, family, colleagues) may expect you to be. Every now and again it provides those magical moments that are entirely yours, whether that is being immersed in a natural landscape or in the quiet of early morning; the presence of another can sometimes 'clutter' those experiences. This poem makes me think fondly of my travels which are now decades in the past and prompts the recall of an eclectic jumble of memories.

This poem is reproduced by permission of W. W. Norton & Company, Inc.

Bernard Spencer, On the Road

Introduced by James Taylor, undergraduate student in English and History, Oxford Brookes University

On the Road

Our roof was grapes and the broad hands of the vine
as we two drank in the vine-chinky shade
of harvest France;
and wherever the white road led we could not care,
it had brought us there
to the arbour built on a valley side where time,
if time any more existed, was that river
of so profound a current, it at once
both flowed and stayed.

We two. And nothing in the whole world was lacking.
It is later one realizes. I forget
the exact year or what we said. But the place
for a lifetime glows with noon. There are the rustic
table and the benches set; beyond the river
forests as soft as fallen clouds, and in
our wine and eyes I remember other noons.
It is a lot to say, nothing was lacking;
river, sun and leaves, and I am making
words to say 'grapes' and 'her skin'.

Bernard Spencer

Bernard Spencer was not a critically acclaimed poet during his lifetime, and arguably has yet to reach the level of fame which I believe he deserves. He spent most of his life working for the British Council as a teacher, lecturer and administrator. It is understandable that the setting of the majority of his poetry is essentially an escape from the mundane and an exploration of the rural. He died in Vienna, 1963, at the age of 53.

The language in his verse is relatively colloquial, even conversational at points such as: ‘it is a lot to say, nothing was lacking’; however this colloquial undertone does not infringe upon the concise, direct style of Spencer’s poetry.

My first encounter with this piece was during the dark depths of revision for my GCSE exams, it was as refreshing then as it is now; the portrayal of the ‘forests as soft as fallen clouds’ remains to provoke an ambience of emollient tranquility, providing evidence that the voice of the poem is content within this timeless and idyllic setting.

I selected this poem as a result of its descriptive prowess, and its ability to allow a reader to relate to the setting it’s portraying. Furthermore, Spencer focuses on the aspect of time; using the example of a river which both ‘flowed and stayed’ to emphasise the timelessness that one can experience when encountered with an appropriate situation; in this case being with a loved one. He concentrates on the plentitude of a passing moment and the difference to a situation that a woman can make. I believe that much like MacNeice's poetry, Spencer has captured the setting, and atmosphere of enduring calm.

This poem catalysed my passion for poetry and my desire to write my own material. This piece is one that, in my opinion, has escaped the strict confines of Pound or Eliot’s template for modernist poetry whilst still having a direct style. This style of writing is not usually coupled with the descriptive elegance that Spencer conveys; thus this is why I found it particularly refreshing and enjoyable to read.

This poem is reproduced by permission of Bloodaxe Books, and comes from: Bernard Spencer, Complete Poetry, Translations and Selected Prose, ed. by Peter Robinson (Hexham: Bloodaxe Books, 2011). The Poetry Centre is grateful to Neil Astley, Suzanne Fairless-Aitken, and Peter Robinson.

A. E. Housman, The Oracles

Introduced by Dr Caroline Jackson-Houlston, Senior Lecturer in English, School of English and Modern Languages, Oxford Brookes University

The Oracles

’Tis mute, the word they went to hear on high Dodona mountain
  When winds were in the oakenshaws and all the cauldrons tolled,
And mute’s the midland navel-stone beside the singing fountain,
  And echoes list to silence now where gods told lies of old.

I took my question to the shrine that has not ceased from speaking,
  The heart within, that tells the truth and tells it twice as plain;
And from the cave of oracles I hear the priestess shrieking
  That she and I should surely die and never live again.

Oh priestess, what you cry is clear, and sound good sense I think it;
  But let the screaming echoes rest, and froth your mouth no more.
’Tis true there’s better boose than brine, but he that drowns must drink it;
  And oh, my lass, the news is news that men have heard before.

The king with half the East at heel is marched from lands of morning;
  Their fighters drink the rivers up, their shafts benight the air.
And he that stands must die for nought, and home there’s no returning.
  The Spartans on the sea-wet rock sat down and combed their hair.

A. E. Housman

I’m a lecturer in nineteenth-century literature here at Oxford Brookes, and I have a research interest in allusion and intertexuality.

A. E. Housman’s ‘The Oracles’ is a poem of almost unrelieved gloom and some of the details are moderately impenetrable without the rudiments of a classical education and a good knowledge of the Old Testament, or the help of the wonderful notes from Archie Burnett’s edition. However, its theme of impending and inescapable disaster is clear, as is the poet’s insistence on the primacy of the human heart, and his presentation of the heroic insouciance with which the Spartans respond.

I confess to liking this because I share Housman’s existential pessimism. I admire the invocation of an outworn culture which has a set of expectations about divine guidance very alien both to our own and to the more accessible parameters of Christian consolation that are criticised by Housman’s use of the antique. The uneasily condescending familiarity with which Housman addresses the dead priestess is an index of his own emotional distress at the lack of any consolation to be found at the prospect of death and defeat. I admire the invocation of a tight-lipped heroism which transcends history and culture, and which defies inevitable extinction by celebrating the beauty of life. The last line, with the Spartans at Thermopylae smartening themselves up for death, has undertones of Housman’s then-inexpressible sexual admiration of the male body, and the ways in which he codes his own sexual preference in his poetry are of academic interest to me.

I have set this poem to music and occasionally sing it. The lines in italics were intended by Housman to represent the words of the oracle foretelling the defeat of the Spartans by the Persians. If presenting the poem aloud, I would chant these lines, as a homage to Housman’s indebtedness to the traditional British ballad in much of his work. Moreover, I have been to Dodona and sung in the open-air classical theatre there. Whether I sang this is lost in the mists of time, but I certainly will the next time I am there. It is a beautiful, isolated site, and the oakenshaws are still present.

This poem (1922) is in the public domain.

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