Wednesday, 9 February 2011

My Life in Verse

The jacket of My Life in Verse shows a rocky coast with the sea quietly breaking on the dark and backlit cliffs. I prefer to think of poetry as a peering into the mist. The book, published by Penguin Classics in 2009, accompanies the BBC series.

So what does it all mean? It means that Robert Webb selects the poetry chapter to do with Modern Life, Cerys Matthews tackles Britain in Poetry, Malorie Blackman gives us Searching for a Voice, and Love and Loss is left in the hands of Sheila Hancock. And the four of them have 250 pages to do it all in.

Do they succeed? Let's take a look. Webb, covering Modern Life, gives T S Eliot pride of place. Now, T S Eliot as we all know was born in 1888. We are now living in 2009, or at least we were when My Life in Verse was published. Notwithstanding, the 19th century Eliot graces the 21st century publication with 6 poems. But perhaps we can admit that Eliot actually lived until 1965 and therefore he is allowed by default to be modern.

Maybe modern, for the wo/man in the bankomat queue, began with the invention of the Internet, or when Neil Armstrong sang his poem from the Moon? I won't even wonder what the likes of Rupert Brooke have to do with modern. Brooke, born even before Eliot, left his mortal coil as long ago as 1915. Allen Ginsberg, he is in anybody's book an observer of modern life, was allowed only 2 pages from Howl.

My Life in Verse is already beginning to remind us of The Nations Favourite Poems, that Griff Rhys Jones offering from 1996 which curiously featured the favourite poem by proxy, for the simple reason that the Nation voted Kipling, Tennyson and De La Mare onto the podium. But then, when all is dusted and done, the BBC is simply being the BBC when it comes to defining our taste in poetry.

Cerys Matthews had an easier task. Britain in Poetry is not a difficult category to fill. W B Yeats with 9 poems, Dylan Thomas with 7 poems, and Robert Burns with 5 were the standard bearers. A poem from Seamus Heaney, another from Patrick Kavanagh, a couple from Ted Hughes and so on. No risks. No pack drill. Louis MacNeice got in with Snow.

Malorie Blackman filling the void known as Searching for a Voice journeys from William Blake to Hilaire Belloc via Emily Dickinson (4 poems), Langston Hughes (7 poems) and Ogden Nash (5 poems). A curious mixture of styles and topics. A search for a voice it is...

Finally when it comes to Love and Loss Sheila Hancock turns in large measure to the usual suspects; think Shelley, Keats, Tennyson, Dickinson, Wordsworth, Rossetti, Shakespeare's Sonnets (29, 30 and 73). Elizabeth Barrett Browning, of whom Virginia Woolf said "her only place in the mansion of literature [...] is downstairs in the servants' quarters" is with 5 poems the Hancock star.

My Life in Verse is a journey through poetry along a main road. The signs for the less-known attractions are in the main ignored. It was an opportunity lost.
My Life in Verse
Penguin Classics hardback
ISBN 978-1-846-14187-4
18.99 GBP


  1. Yes it is interesting Gwilym. I always think that books like this are written with selling in mind - sad really as it never gives the 'modern' poet a voice.

    I do love that photo of RS Thomas on your sidebar - it shows him at his most grumpy!

  2. Pat, I think it's the predicatable predictability of it all that makes it more than a tad disappointing.

    R S Thomas is NOT in it, as you have rightly deduced.

    George Szirtes, another in the sidebar, NOT in it.

    Wallace Stevens, sidebar, NOT in it.

    Lewis Carroll is in it. But is NOT in my sidebar ;)

    'Nuff said?

  3. ps-
    And hardly believable - sidebar's D H Lawrence - the man who wrote all those magical and wonderful poems about snakes, tortoises and other 'wild' animals is NOT in it!!!


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