I have a Tom Gauld cartoon over my desk called ‘Crimefighting with Spiderman and Ginsberg’. Spiderman is running ahead of Allen Ginsberg and calling back to him, ‘I’ll catch the crooks in my web, then you blow their minds with a poem.’ It got me thinking about what poem Ginsberg might recite once they’d cornered the crooks. It had to be the obvious one, of course, ‘Howl’:
I saw the best minds of my generation destroyed by madness, starving hysterical naked / dragging themselves through the negro streets at dawn looking for an angry fix, / angelheaded hipsters burning for the ancient heavenly connection to the starry dynamo in the machinery of night ...
This recitation might have been taken as cautionary, but I have a feeling that particular day’s crime-fighting was more to do with converting criminals to poetry rather than cleaning up the streets.
I wondered then if I myself was on a poetry conversion mission – with or without superhero assistance – whose poems might I recite to blow the listener’s mind? I could grab one of Neil Astley’s Bloodaxe anthologies, Staying Alive or Being Human, and read some poems aloud. Those anthologies include a brilliant, varied selection and they’ve already blown the minds of everyone from Joe Soap to Meryl Streep.
But I happen to have my own personal anthology too, which I would happily use for conversion to poetry purposes. This is a hard-back notebook where I have handwritten the poems that have blown my mind over the years. There is something about transcribing a much-loved poem that brings you closer to it, makes you understand and love it all the more. My notebook includes childhood favourites like Edward Lear’s ‘The Owl and the Pussycat’. Who could fail to be wowed by its joyous language and neat storyline?
They dined on mince, and slices of quince,
Which they ate with a runcible spoon;
And hand in hand, on the edge of the sand,
They danced by the light of the moon,
They danced by the light of the moon.
Another childhood favourite is ‘Rainy Nights’ by Irene Thompson. I went to school in Marlborough St in Dublin and this poem affirmed for me the beauty of wet, city evenings in winter. I even used it as the favourite poem of the narrator in my novel You:
I like the town on rainy nights
When all the rain about the town
Is like a looking-glass,
And all the lights are upside-down
Below me as I pass.
The moon, which I use a lot in my own writing, also features heavily in my personal anthology, not least with one of my favourite poets, Sylvia Plath. Her poem ‘The Moon and the Yew Tree’ is there with its gorgeous lunar imagery and stark depiction of a low state of mind:
The moon is no door. It is a face in its own right,
White as a knuckle and terribly upset.
It drags the sea after it like a dark crime; it is quiet
With the O-gape of complete despair...
Other poets I have transcribed into my notebook include Elizabeth Bishop, Sharon Olds, Elizabeth Barrett Browning and Paul Durcan, all of whose voices sing to me from their pages.
Since I met him as a child, Michael Hartnett’s poetry has been important to me. I remember my mother’s awe on meeting him and that transferred to me. His ‘Death of an Irishwoman’ has long been a favourite poem of mine. I love the way it deals with memory, ageing, progress and familial love (or the messing-up of it). The last line in the first stanza is devastating: ‘I loved her from the day she died.’ The poem turns here and begins a ballad-like mantra of ‘She was ...’, ‘She was ...’, ‘She was ...’. Hartnett ends on a poignant note:
She was a language seldom spoken.
She was a child’s purse, full of useless things.
Irish language poet Caitlín Maude also features. Her poem ‘Treall’, which I studied in secondary school, was a violent and unnerving exception to much of the ancient poetry we read:
Tabhair dom casúr
go mbrisfead is
an teach seo…
Hand me a hammer
or a hatchet
to demolish and
This was a poem of simple words and identifiable action. The poem’s final cry, ‘Ach, a Dhia, táim tuirseach!’ / ‘But, my God, I’m tired!’ sang to the heart of every teenager who heard it. And, although for the author there were personal and political layers to this poem, to a melancholic fifteen-year-old there was only an identifiable rage; an anger that made you believe somebody out there understood. It was enough to blow your mind.« Return to listings