The Dog Walking Poet 2

Do you like to read a poem for yourself ? Or do you prefer to hear it spoken ? I ask that because there has been a recent revival in spoken word poetry. Maybe it stems from rap music. I must admit that I have a problem with rap – maybe I’m too old to appreciate it, but I do think that sometimes it glorifies rhyme and rhythm at the expense of meaning. But at least it’s there.

When I was growing up spoken poetry was dull, prim and exclusive. I remember being made to listen to TS Eliot reading “ The Wasteland “ – he read it in the portentous, droning way which was the fashion in those days. Most poets are bad readers- they need helping out. And yet I can remember listening to Ted Hughes read “ Crow”. It was late at night, with the wind howling and the rain lashing at the windows- and he scared the living daylights out of me. And no-one can beat Richard Burton in that wonderful opening speech of “ Under Milk Wood.”

All poetry was originally spoken word.. It was a way of embodying experience, of shaping the past. Before a battle, the bards of each party would meet and agree a place where they could watch the fight- they would note who showed the most courage, who fight with the greatest vigour- and at the end – they would work it all up into an agreed version, to be spoken in the mead hall or before the next battle. It wasn’t a good idea to upset the bards- they held your reputation in their hearts
Printing changed everything. It altered the very nature of poetry. What was a flourishing, social art became personal. You could read a poem for yourself and by yourself. Rather than being simply an audience, the reader became a partner in the creation of a poem. You could work it out for yourself. You could relate it to your own experience. Thomas Wyatt was the first Elizabethan poet to make poetry directly personal- his work is taut, allusive- meant at the most for a very small audience. The same can be said of Shakespeare’s sonnets, Donne’s love poetry, George Herbert’s quiet dissection of his own soul.

And poetry as good as this is being written now, you’ll be glad to hear. If you haven’t read Clive James poetry- then that’s a gap you’ve just got to fill. And James Nash’s “ Some Things Matter” – a wonderful sequence of sonnets- is simply a masterpiece. It’s moving and human and it really does go straight to the heart.

It’s horses for courses, isn’t it. The main thing is that poetry is alive and well and getting stronger by the day.

Ah…the dog… here he is…you ndon’t believe there is a dog, do you ? You think it’s a cheap way of bringing this to an end… wait till next time… and he will make an appearance.

John Donne 1572-1631


Look at this man. Face like an axe blade, a sensualists’s mouth. What is he looking at, out of the frame ? A pretty woman ? Probably.

This is John Donne .
The shape-shifter. Born a Catholic in a time of persecution, he knew family members who had been hanged, drawn and quartered. Around the time this portrait was painted, he was toying with aetheism- which was also punishable by death. Later in his life he became an Anglican and ended up Dean of St Paul’s. He was The Man Who Loved Women ( “a great frequenter of plays..and ladies” said a contemporary.) His erotic poetry is so powerful, you have the feeling he’s just jumped out of bed to write it down, leaving the girl asleep under the covers.

When he did marry, he made an unfortunate choice- the niece of his master, Sir Thomas Egerton, who did not approve. Donne was put in prison until the marriage was proved valid. They were banished to to a village in Surrey, where he scratched a living as a lawyer, working at the kitchen table as a pack of children played around his feet.

Then he began a second career….this time as an Anglican priest. In 1615 he was made a Doctor of Divinity at Cambridge and by 1621, he was Dean of St Paul’s.

By this time, the libertine had turned into … a kind of mystic. The erotic passion of his early years had turned into something deeper. You could say that he began a love affair with God- full of joy and doubt, pleadings and exulations. His religious poetry still has the same passion and drive, intellectual toughness and theatricality- but he’s talking to, shouting at…God.

Remember that I said the two main subjects of poetry are sex and death ?

He did both, often at the same time.

Next time we’ll look at one of his sonnets. It’s tricky, contradictory, and hard to understand.

So be there.

Right ?