Castaway Roy Marshall chooses poems by David Jones, Paul Batchelor and John Donne (and a few more besides)
Thank you to The Friday Poem for having me as a castaway. I should explain that I can only do this (i.e. choose three poems to be castaway with on a desert island) by cheating. Or maybe you might say I am being generous by giving readers a chance to discover (or revisit) a mini anthology of carefully selected and deeply loved poems. There is no compulsion to read and sample the list below, so you can just skip to the three-course set menu if you wish. Here are a few poems that I could take (but won’t) instead of the ones I am going to go with.
‘The Sea Bird’ by Keith Douglas, because it is beautiful, mysterious and profound.
‘The Stolen Orange’ by Brian Patten, who taught me that poems were for me too.
‘What happened next?’ by Eiléan Ní Chuilleanáin, for its possibilities and questions.
‘Colden Valley’ by Ken Smith. Stark and beautiful, a poem for and of the north of England.
‘Break of Day in the Trenches’ by Issac Rosenberg, for the rat with “cosmopolitan sympathies”.
‘Peregrines’ by John Burnside, for its awareness of our skewed sense of human importance.
‘The Meaning of Existence’ by Les Murray, who delivers a poem to match its title.
‘The Wishing Tree’ by Kathleen Jamie. Or anything from The Overhaul or The Tree House.
‘Strawberries’ by Edwin Morgan. A sensual moment, lifted and preserved forever.
‘Quashie’s Verse’ by Kei Miller, a moving meditation on poetry, power and colonialism.
‘If Bach had been a beekeeper’ by Charles Tomlinson. A celebration of life.
‘Having a Coke with You’ by Frank O’Hara, because it fizzes like a just opened Coke.
‘Tam Lin’s Wife’ by Clare Pollard. An evocation of an aspect of my own lived experience.
‘The Word’. Zaffar Kunial skilfully articulates the complexity of a father / son relationship.
‘On the Hearth of a Broken Home’ by Sharon Olds, because it contains miraculous words.
‘In the waiting room with Leonard Cohen’ by Tony Hoagland. Brave, frightened, honest.
‘The Tolland Man’ by Seamus Heaney. Heaney navigates the rocky reefs of his divided homeland, writing about
tribalism, violence and politics in his great humanist poem.
Hopefully that’s scratched the surface, broken the ice, opened the door, pointed to some cracks that will let the light in. Now here are my three castaway choices:
Is ‘In Parenthesis’, the book-length epic by David Jones, a poem? Read an introduction to the book, and an extract from it, on the Anthem for Doomed Youth website, based at Brigham Young University, Utah, and see what you think. I know that if I were castaway on a desert island I could read and reread this rich and beautiful book for years. The first time I started it I felt that it was the best thing I had ever read. The realism of the first sections is overwhelming, partly because the book begins in medias res and the reader is suddenly immersed in the world of Jones’ regiment as the soldiers are marshalled on the parade ground and prepare to embark for France. “Slowly, and with every sort of hitch, platoon upon platoon formed single file and moved toward an invisible gangway. Each separate man found his own feet stepping in the darkness on an inclined plane, the smell and taste of salt and machinery, the texture of rope, and the glimmer of shielded light about him.”
Despite my immediate feelings of admiration, I didn’t finish ‘In Parenthesis’ the first time I picked it up. It felt too much for me, as though the first few sections were a range of mountains, and I could only go so far along the path before turning back. ‘The book might be considered daunting or difficult for a number of reasons. Firstly, it is unclear if it is a poem or something else. I wonder if it matters what name we give to a book that crosses boundaries and, like its author, avoids or defies easy categorization. I don’t think it does matter, although the lack of certainty about ‘where it fits’ probably didn’t help sales of the book, first published in 1937.
I know that if I were castaway on a desert island I could read and reread this rich and beautiful book for years
Another reason I may have abandoned the book at first attempt might have been the numbers that pepper the text and relate to notes at the back of the book. Many people agree that these are off-putting, which is ironic, as Jones, who agonised about where to put his notes and whether to include them at all, had intended them to help the reader understand his references rather than being deterred by them. The second time I picked up he book I read the notes in batches in advance of sections of the text, so that the references were in my head and I didn’t have to keep flicking backwards and forwards. Tim Kendall suggests that one way to approach the book is to read “one part per day for seven days”. He writes “don’t stop for what you don’t understand. Ignore Jones’s notes until you read it a second and a third time”. However else you approach it, most people would agree that the book should be read slowly.
Jones later regretted including the notes, but I’m glad they are there. It seems a generous act for the author to provide so much detail, and his notes, which are not complex or daunting once you get used to them, ultimately serve to make
reading the book a deeper and richer experience. They also point to, and keep alive, references to ancient texts for those who might wish to explore them. You can read more about David Jones in this piece on my blog and read Owen Sheers on ‘In Parenthesis’ in the Guardian.
The Tawny Owl
By way of contrast, I have chosen Paul Batchelor’s fourteen line ‘The Tawny Owl’ from his 2021 Carcanet collection The Acts of Oblivion. Check out the book for several great poems, including the bitter epic ‘A Form of Words’.
‘The Tawny Owl’ is mysterious, and also as precise and concise as poetry gets. Its rhythm, pace, images and line breaks all seem just right to me.
I have a strongly emotional response to the poem, maybe because I can identify with the solitude of the speaker, and also with the sense of awe that an encounter with any magnificent creature brings. The whole short piece seems to be perfectly balanced between mystery and precision, like the owl in flight. The line that begins with “let fall himself”, instead of the more obvious (and less controlled?) “let himself fall”, glides across the page embodying the glide of the bird. The content fits the form.
The Tawny Owl
There was this owl – I used to see him
perched on his branch in the not-yet dusk,
poised like a diver taking his time.
I’d look out from my attic room;
I’d look up from the dishes – there he’d be,
weighing his options … then suddenly
let fall himself in a low glide the length of the terraced garden,
bob over the churchyard wall, and be gone.
His flight was silent, silencing.
His disappearance had the force of apprehension.
Never saw a kill. Never saw
a mouse limp in his beak, though I remember it.
Was not, as I once thought I’d be,
brushed by his wing.
The Sunne Rising
Finally, I would like to take John Donne’s ‘The Sunne Rising’ (original spelling, now often written as ‘The Sun Rising’). It opens:
The Sunne Rising
Busy old fool, unruly sun,
Why dost thou thus,
Through windows, and through curtains call on us?
Must to thy motions lovers’ seasons run?
Saucy pedantic wretch, go chide
Late school boys and sour prentices,
Go tell court huntsmen that the king will ride,
Call country ants to harvest offices,
Love, all alike, no season knows nor clime,
Nor hours, days, months, which are the rags of time.
You can hear the poem being read on the Poetry Archive, where Adam Foulds explains how “playfully, passionately, with unbelievable formal dexterity, [Donne’s] poems arrange objects and perspectives in mutually illuminating patterns of the personal, the political, the mathematical, the spiritual and the cosmic. It is wit, it is comedy, and it often resolves in the most beautiful simplicity”. If a poem can do all that, I guess it is worth rereading! You can also read Carol Rumens typically perceptive analysis of the poem in Poem of the week in The Guardian.
‘The Sunne Rising’ (I will stick with the spelling in my Penguin Classics copy of The Metaphysical Poets) is as mind expanding, sexy, romantic, and startlingly brilliant as it was when I first encountered it in the ‘O’ level Literature class at St Albans F.E. College in 1983. It utilises the cleverest of conceits, and remains a wonderful poem, claiming as it does – to quote another John – that all you need is love, and love is all you need.