Nell Prince gives us a tour of her poetry bookshelf and recommends Catullus for entertainment value, Herrick for sensuality, and Frost for friendliness and range
First up is Catullus. He is my current read. I have the 1981 Folio Society version with translation by James Michie and a pompous little introduction by Gavin Ewart. The poems delight me. I enjoy their obscene, gossipy nature. It’s a joy to encounter work which fearlessly sniggers at various characters, including Cicero. I find the notes interesting, too: apparently radishes and mullets’ fins were inserted into the anus as punishment for sexual offences.
I think what I value most about Catullus is how entertaining he is. This is an aspect of poetry I’ve been thinking about recently. Catullus’ poems strike me as entertaining in the same way that Frank O’Hara’s sometimes are: the work of both poets has a deep social and urban aspect to them. But Catullus is sharper than O’Hara, perhaps because he’s never tangential, his focus is always unwavering – part of what gives his work its power.
I’m keen on erotic poetry and have a number of anthologies on this theme, including the The Penguin Book of Love Poetry, The Emma Press Anthology of Mildly Erotic Verse, A Poetic Primer for Love and Seduction (also by the Emma Press), Bad Kid Catullus by Sidekick Books, and Erotic Poems published by Everyman. Erotic Poems includes quite a bit of Robert Herrick, Catullus, and Thom Gunn. It’s Herrick that I really like. John Donne’s erotic poetry is ingenious, but Herrick is more relaxedly humorous. Here’s ‘The Vine’:
I dreamed this mortal part of mine
Was metamorphosed to a vine,
Which crawling one and every way
Enthralled my dainty Lucia.
Methought her long small legs and thighs
I with my tendrils did surprise;
Her belly, buttocks, and her waist
By my soft nervelets were embraced.
About her head I writhing hung,
And with rich clusters (hid among
The leaves) her temples I behung,
So that my Lucia seemed to me
Young Bacchus ravished by his tree.
My curls about her neck did crawl,
And arms and hands they did enthrall,
So that she could not freely stir
(All parts there made one prisoner).
But when I crept with leaves to hide
Those parts which maids keep unespied,
Such fleeting pleasures there I took
That with the fancy I awoke;
And found (ah me!) this flesh of mine
More like a stock than like a vine.
I admit it’s not as good as Donne’s ‘The Sun Rising’ or ‘To His Mistress Going to Bed’, but for sheer fun and vivid sensuality, this Herrick poem is a wonder. And it’s not the only one of his I like. I remember the deliciousness of ‘Upon Julia’s Clothes’ which I studied for English GCSE. The word “liquefaction” in “the liquefaction of her clothes” is perfect.
For sheer fun and vivid sensuality, this Herrick poem is a wonder
I first encountered Frost’s poetry in the film The Outsiders . At dawn one morning, the character Ponyboy recites ‘Nothing Gold Can Stay’ at dawn. The recitation was a revelation to me. I sought out Frost’s work and became engaged by many of the poems, particularly ‘Acquainted with the Night’. I was, as an undergraduate, very well acquainted with the night so this poem, with its hypnotic beat and moody imagery, captured my imagination. I was also drawn to Frost’s astronomical references. I think of ‘Moon Compasses’ especially, and also ‘The Star-Splitter’, but there are many other of his poems which allude to sun, moon, and stars. Overall, though, what I find special about Frost is the friendliness of his poetry, even in darker pieces. To me, a spirit of generosity is born out of earthly, humble words – a rare thing to encounter.
Frost’s range also dazzles me. ‘The Lesson for Today’, for example, is strikingly different to the more well-known rural poems like ‘Apple-Picking’, ‘Mending Wall’, or ‘The Road Not Taken’. ‘The Lesson for Today’ was read before the Phi Beta Kappa Society at Harvard in 1941. It’s mindblowingly great. I’ve even shed the odd tear over it. Here’s the first stanza:
If this uncertain age in which we dwell
Were really as dark as I hear sages tell,
And I convinced that they were really sages,
I should not curse myself with it to hell,
But leaving not the chair I long have sat in,
I should betake me back ten thousand pages
To the world’s undebatably dark ages,
And getting up my medieval Latin,
Seek converse common cause and brotherhood
(By all that’s liberal – I should, I should)
With poets who could calmly take the fate
Of being born at once too early and too late,
And for these reasons kept from being great.
Yet singing but Dione in the wood
And ver aspergit terram floribus
They slowly led old Latin verse to rhyme
And to forget the ancient lengths of time,
And so began the modern world for us.
The balance between dark subject matter and lightness of tone is made to look easy. The intellectual depth of the piece is frightening. For me, this is a masterpiece.
Relatedly, I have begun to appreciate the work of Edward Thomas. Last year a friend gave me a copy of the Collected Poems. To start with I was more interested in the accompanying War Diary. Now I find myself dipping in more and more and finding poems I want to re-read and say out loud. I like the delicacy of his work, the attention to rural details, and the conversational quality of the poems.
So much poetry is toted as brilliant when in fact it’s not. It’s often staggeringly bad. Annoyingly self-indulgent. Fashionably political. A heap of broken images
My poetry shelf also includes Ben Lerner’s amusing essay The Hatred of Poetry from Fitzcarraldo. It’s a great comfort to know that other people, including poets, dislike poetry. “I, too, dislike it” he quotes from Marianne Moore. This is a phrase which shivers round my head. It resonates strongly with me because I also dislike, even despise poetry. From my perspective it’s to do with the fact that so much poetry is toted as brilliant when in fact it’s not. It’s often staggeringly bad. Annoyingly self-indulgent. Fashionably political. A heap of broken images. And, at root, shunning beauty – a mistake. But I can get woefully cosmic, and this might be one of those times.
Another book about poetry I must mention is Clive James’ Poetry Notebook 2006-2014. Literary criticism isn’t usually hilarious. This is. Here’s the opening paragraph from an essay on Pound’s Cantos:
In recent years I have gone back to Pound’s Cantos to find out if I was correct in so thoroughly getting over my initial enthusiasm for them, or it. (Whether the Cantos is, or are, a singular or plural, is a question that I believe answers itself eventually, but only in the way a heap of rubble gradually becomes part of the landscape.) Fifty years ago, when the mad old amateur fascist was still alive and fulminating, I fell for the idea of his panscopic grab bag the way that I was then apt to fall for the idea of love. As that sweet-if-weird moment in that sad-if-stilled passage in The Pisan Cantos has it: ‘What thou lovest well remains. / The rest is dross.’ I especially liked the sound of that at a time when my knowledge of eternity was nineteen years long.
I find it difficult to write about contemporary poets’ work. I’m not sure why this is. I think it might be because the poets are alive. So it’s difficult to write truthfully about them. BUT my bookshelf wouldn’t be complete without Abigail Parry. When poetry is at its best, it tends to change your life. Jinx, Parry’s first collection, certainly changed mine. I am haunted by its poems. Lines and fragments from them have rooted deep in my memory. I also remember the time I walked into a bookshop and randomly picked up Hannah Sullivan’s boringly titled Three Poems. I think my heart skipped a beat when I started reading. Oh. This is poetry. Must buy. Now. And went home with it like a child with a huge toffee apple.
Lastly, I was in another bookshop recently and happened upon Update On The Descent by Ellen Hinsey. The title really caught my attention. When I opened the book, I wasn’t disappointed. I’m not going to quote from it because I think this is a collection which needs to be read as a whole. A few lines taken out of its context feel aimless and a bit facile. Seek out Hinsey’s work for yourself – you will not be disappointed.