Thursday, October 02, 2014

I don't have a favourite poem

but I love poetry.  Today is National Poetry Day.
I don't have a favourite kind of poetry either; there is such a rich selection from which to choose: different styles for different moods.  I think that it's the concentration, the distillation which attracts me most.  The focus on individual words, combinations of words, the sounds, the meanings - the broad and the narrow possibilities of this mix, and how it all remains, savoured in the mind.
With me it started as a love of words and their power: a wonder at vocabularies and their subtleties.  I was fortunate as a baby that I was constantly in the company of a Greek mother who was learning English, surrounded either in Scotland by speakers of English with a range of dialect vocabulary, or in Greece by speakers of Greek also with the addition of Pontic expressions and words.  Crossing Europe by train from that earliest age introduced me to so many languages, expressions, and accents, and I would try out and practise sounds, rolling them round in my mouth quietly to myself over the days that the journey took.
When I went to school of course there were nursery rhymes, the poetry which introduces the young to literature.  I was put off for a few years, however, because we were made to recite out loud in front of the class, and I was a shy child.  Two years from the age of eight in a tiny school in Malta however not only cured that, but introduced me to two brilliant teachers.  One taught English poetry with passion, the other taught me French.
(image from here)
And it was Apollinaire who fired off my real love affair with poetry by introducing the visual with calligrams. Closely followed by the work of Ian Hamilton Finlay who was local to where I was at school and university.
(image from here)
I loved teaching poetry, and was lucky enough to do so in Liverpool at the time when the Liverpool poets were stars, but never insisted on memorising verse as I have not been able or wanted to myself.  Those phrases which remain in my memory do so under the power of their own force.
I have been so fortunate to be able to read and study poetry in English, French, and German. My only mild regret is that I only learned to speak 'household' Greek, not to read or write, but I have had the help of brilliant translators to be able to approach the work of so many poets in Greek and other languages.

One of the poems which I enjoyed with my students was Snake by D.H. Lawrence (a writer whose poetry and short stories are not so popular these days):


A snake came to my water-trough
On a hot, hot day, and I in pyjamas for the heat,
To drink there.

In the deep, strange-scented shade of the great dark carob-tree
I came down the steps with my pitcher
And must wait, must stand and wait, for there he was at the trough before
He reached down from a fissure in the earth-wall in the gloom
And trailed his yellow-brown slackness soft-bellied down, over the edge of
the stone trough
And rested his throat upon the stone bottom,
i o And where the water had dripped from the tap, in a small clearness,
He sipped with his straight mouth,
Softly drank through his straight gums, into his slack long body,
Someone was before me at my water-trough,
And I, like a second comer, waiting.

He lifted his head from his drinking, as cattle do,
And looked at me vaguely, as drinking cattle do,
And flickered his two-forked tongue from his lips, and mused a moment,
And stooped and drank a little more,
Being earth-brown, earth-golden from the burning bowels of the earth
On the day of Sicilian July, with Etna smoking.
The voice of my education said to me
He must be killed,
For in Sicily the black, black snakes are innocent, the gold are venomous.

And voices in me said, If you were a man
You would take a stick and break him now, and finish him off.

But must I confess how I liked him,
How glad I was he had come like a guest in quiet, to drink at my water-trough
And depart peaceful, pacified, and thankless,
Into the burning bowels of this earth?

Was it cowardice, that I dared not kill him? Was it perversity, that I longed to talk to him? Was it humility, to feel so honoured?
I felt so honoured.

And yet those voices:
If you were not afraid, you would kill him!

And truly I was afraid, I was most afraid, But even so, honoured still more
That he should seek my hospitality
From out the dark door of the secret earth.

He drank enough
And lifted his head, dreamily, as one who has drunken,
And flickered his tongue like a forked night on the air, so black,
Seeming to lick his lips,
And looked around like a god, unseeing, into the air,
And slowly turned his head,
And slowly, very slowly, as if thrice adream,
Proceeded to draw his slow length curving round
And climb again the broken bank of my wall-face.

And as he put his head into that dreadful hole,
And as he slowly drew up, snake-easing his shoulders, and entered farther,
A sort of horror, a sort of protest against his withdrawing into that horrid black hole,
Deliberately going into the blackness, and slowly drawing himself after,
Overcame me now his back was turned.

I looked round, I put down my pitcher,
I picked up a clumsy log
And threw it at the water-trough with a clatter.

I think it did not hit him,
But suddenly that part of him that was left behind convulsed in undignified haste.
Writhed like lightning, and was gone
Into the black hole, the earth-lipped fissure in the wall-front,
At which, in the intense still noon, I stared with fascination.

And immediately I regretted it.
I thought how paltry, how vulgar, what a mean act!
I despised myself and the voices of my accursed human education.

And I thought of the albatross
And I wished he would come back, my snake.

For he seemed to me again like a king,
Like a king in exile, uncrowned in the underworld,
Now due to be crowned again.

And so, I missed my chance with one of the lords
Of life.
And I have something to expiate:
A pettiness.

Taormina, 1923


  1. A fascinating poem by DHL. It would make a great image.

    Thanks for sharing a bit more of your past, your love of poetry and being a teacher, aslo fascinating.

  2. I'm glad you enjoyed the poem. There are several gems in his collected works.

  3. Wasn't having to recite poetry in class, absolutely ghastly? I hated it and could never understand the point of the exercise. However - my sister and I used to love reciting to our parents: we would take it in turns to stand on a stool and recite the poems we learnt at school. Many a winter evening was spent in this way, and it's something we both remember fondly, as did our parents.

    I learnt to love poetry in my teenage years when my French teacher introduced me to the French poets, Apollinaire being one of them, but my favourites were Baudelaire and Rimbaud - the fascination with those two still remains.

    Like you, I loved teaching poetry. Thanks for this post, Olga.

  4. Eirene, I too loved the work of the French poets: Baudelaire and Verlaine as well as Apollinaire and Gautier. I still read Baudelaire from time to time.

    The reciting I always hated, not only because I was shy in class, but somehow it seemed an intrusion into my inner world. But I had no trouble sharing my love of poems with the students, and would read them out loud happily then.

  5. "and I in my pyjamas for the heat" - one of those phrases that seeps into memory, marking for me a nose-to-nose encounter in school, with ways of using grammar creatively. Good poem, good to re-read it ... I'd forgotten about the entire latter half, over the years.

  6. Margaret, glad you enjoyed the reminder. I love the way that bits of poems can spark so much more creative writing.