Sarah Leavesley takes poems by Matthew Arnold, Jacques Prévert, and Lorine Niedecker to her desert island
I’m going to start with two confessions. The first is that I don’t ever want to be sent to a real desert island – too many flies, too much risk of exposure, the loneliness …. The second is that this piece is as much about poems I couldn’t take with me as it is about my final chosen three.
My first choice is ‘Dover Beach’ by Matthew Arnold (1822-1888). Given that I’m alone on an island, a poem about the sea’s “melancholy, long, withdrawing roar” might not seem a comforting selection. But it’s a poem I return to frequently, exactly for that. Although it opens quietly (“The sea is calm tonight. / The tide is full, the moon lies fair”), the poem resonates most deeply for me when it reaches full force:
Listen! you hear the grating roar
Of pebbles which the waves draw back, and fling,
At their return, up the high strand,
Begin, and cease, and then again begin,
With tremulous cadence slow, and bring
The eternal note of sadness in.
This is a sadness I’ve felt a lot. But shared pain brings kinship, and a sense that I can also tap into the ocean’s power and endurance. The bleakness isn’t without hope either:
Ah, love, let us be true
To one another! for the world, which seems
To lie before us like a land of dreams,
So various, so beautiful, so new,
Hath really neither joy, nor love, nor light,
Nor certitude, nor peace, nor help for pain;
And we are here as on a darkling plain
Swept with confused alarms of struggle and flight,
Where ignorant armies clash by night.
Sadness and pain happen. But I am, like my suffering, only a small part in something that’s way bigger and longer lasting. Even in this darkness, though love may bring its own torments, it’s also a consoling grace, no matter how brief. And the armies of that final line are, for me, a reminder too that no matter how bad my life and circumstances might be at any particular point, they could also be a great deal worse!
The armies of that final line are, for me, a reminder too that no matter how bad my life and circumstances might be at any particular point, they could also be a great deal worse!
To choose my second piece, I returned to school, and found myself torn between ‘The Tyger’ by William Blake (1757–1827) and ‘Déjeuner du Matin’ (‘Breakfast’ in English) by French poet Jacques Prévert (1900–1977). Both poems are important to me because they’re the ones I’ve lived with longest and because they’ve shaped what I’ve come to expect from poetry. At school in the 1980s / 90s, poems were analysed in detail. Sometimes, they may have been over-analysed, given meanings that were never intended by the poet or ones that don’t exist for the majority of readers. It is possible to kill poems, and a love of poetry, in this way. But I enjoyed, and continue to enjoy, looking for symbolism and layers of meaning. The poems I admire most are ones that open up further and give more every time they’re read.
In ‘The Tyger’, this comes into play in considering the tiger as representative of evil or hellfire, in contrast to the lamb (of God)’s holy innocence. Even though I no longer believe in this, as someone brought up in a high C of E background, I still feel at home when returning to the beauty and belief in these lines. The metaphysical and numinous are also two elements of my own work that readers often pick up on.
Growing up often includes growing out of some things, while growing into others, which brings me to Prévert’s ‘Déjeuner du Matin’ from high-school French lessons. This was the first poem that I actually loved rather than admired – the poem that taught me how to love poetry. It is cinematic and layered, using repetition (with change) of simple phrases and actions that take on more significance as the poem progresses. What we deduce is as important as what Prévert explicitly shows us. At the surface level, a man slowly makes and drinks a morning coffee. But he does so without either looking at or saying a single word to the poet-narrator, and then he puts on his coat and leaves. Only at the very end do we see the narrator cry. That it’s a heart-break poem partly explains why it appealed to me as teenager with neo-romantic tendencies that I’ve carried into adulthood and my own writing. I need to feel a poem and I also need a poem to make me feel.
Another factor in my choice is having studied modern languages at university. Some aspects of French have an inherent musicality that doesn’t exist in English. For example, possessives aren’t created using apostrophes and ‘s’ but in an already stressed and unstressed structure: for example “la plume de ma tante” rather than “my aunt’s pen”. When poets use ‘of’ structures in English because of the rhythm, they can often feel contrived or contorted, whereas in French they flow naturally. This is also why I’d take this poem in its original language, even though some translation may still take place subconsciously in my head.
The link for ‘Déjeuner du Matin’ that I’ve included is partly because that site has the poem in both French and English. But I selected this over other options which have “churned” instead of “stirred” in line eight of their English version. While the former might sound closer to the French verb “tourné”, “stirred” is the more natural phrase to use for the literal action of the spoon. “Churned” is perhaps what the poet-narrator is feeling inside but, for me, to bring that in here potentially gives away too early the poet-narrator’s feelings shown in action in the final closing image.
Awareness of another language and the choices involved in translating has been invaluable in my writing
The awareness of another language (and the choices involved in translating) has been invaluable in my own writing. When translating, finding the best or closest word meaning-wise has to be balanced against the sounds, rhythm and connotations of each word or phrase. This often calls for compromises in terms of what to prioritise. But as writers, we make similar choices even when writing in our own language. “Le mot juste” (the exact, right word), as Gustave Flaubert termed it, might be an ideal aim. However, in reality, we have to work with what’s available, sifting the language at our disposal and assessing the size, weight and shape of every word we choose against the other options we’ll discard.
My poem choices so far have been made more as a reader than a writer. Although it’s not a poem I encountered in school, I also considered ‘When You Are Old’ by William Butler Yeats (1865–1939), both because of its increased relevance as I get older, but also because of the beautiful Bat Eyes poetryfilm, which extends the poem’s interpretation and significance in much the same way as readers might in their imagination when reading.
For my third desert-island selection, I hesitated even more, trying to pin down a contemporary poem that’s most influenced my writing. Some reviewers have compared my work to Carol Ann Duffy. It’s hard to be a woman writer and not be influenced by the only female UK Poet Laureate’s work, be it in emulation, counteraction, or a mixture of both. I have a great admiration too for Gwyneth Lewis and Alice Oswald, because of the musicality of their poems and because nature has become more important in my own work as I’ve got older. Jean Sprackland’s beautiful ‘The Birkdale Nightingale’ resonates deeply and is another poem which has both influenced and remained with me over the years.
The list of final-choice contenders is potentially endless. My experimental poetry has been affected by Mark Goodwin’s work breaking up words to create new alternative meanings. Michael Symmons Roberts’s Corpus (Cape Poetry, 2004) and The Half Healed (Cape Poetry, 2008) were important to me as a developing writer because of how they incorporate spirituality without making me feel tied to a particular religion. The way each of Symmons Roberts’s books isn’t just another set of poems but a whole new approach in terms of theme and/or form has also inspired and challenged me to try to do the same.
Both Jean Sprackland and Michael Symmons Roberts taught and supervised me on my MA, where I first came across Canadian poet, Anne Carson. I found ‘The Glass Essay’ striking, moving and exciting, like much of her work read subsequently. In the end, I only turned away from this as my final poem choice because I wanted to pick something significantly different to my others in content as well as style.
Things I love about this – and other poems by Niedecker in a similar style – include the elements of nature, the pared lines and the way multiple different readings of the poem are possible
My last desert-island treasure then is another discovery made during my MA: ‘My Life by Water’ by near-contemporary American poet Lorine Niedecker (1903–1970). Things I love about this – and other poems by the same poet in a similar style – include the elements of nature, the pared lines and the way multiple different readings are possible. This is partly because of the spareness – like the best haiku, where the brevity and precision of juxtaposed sense-images open up more than one significance. In Niedecker’s poem, it’s also because of the language. Words like “ground” could be nouns, verbs, adjectives or all three. I’d initially read “ground” as a noun, with “giving” as a verb. But re-reading, knowing that “gnawing” follows in the next stanza, “ground” could be the adjectival past participle of “grind”, with “giving” as a noun (“giving” in the sense of an offering – the ensuing gnawing sound being that offering). Another element in creating multiple possibilities is the lack of punctuation which might otherwise define one single reading. Equally, omission of punctuation allows some lines to link backwards or forwards, with corresponding options for meaning. (Tiffany Atkinson is another, contemporary, poet whose work I greatly admire for similar reasons.)
Niedecker also uses indentation to create movement and progression, while this and the shortness of the lines gives space for their impact and multiple potential relevances to register in the mind. The sound of the words is also potent. It often taps into many senses simultaneously, as in my favourite stanza of ‘My Life by Water’:
When I started this article, I talked about being on this desert island alone. But, of course, that’s not entirely true. In having these poems with me, I have automatic company. In a way, it’s a conversation, but with myself as much as the poems. Poems help me to better understand who I am. In theory at least, this then makes me a better companion for myself, throughout life as much as on this fictional castaway adventure. Me being me, it also goes without saying that I’ve already sent out my message in a bottle requesting more, different, poems, please!