Another top 10 list. Don't remember how I found this blog, the Anthony Wilson blog. Be sure to visit it. So what are life saving poems? Here is Anthony's words describing it - fascinating concept and what a great way to make poetry a visceral part of your life. Below the description are the top 10.  Enjoy...

I was struck by a remark of Seamus Heaney in an interview he gave some years ago now. He was musing on how many poems can affect the life of an individual across that person’s lifetime. Was it ten, he said, twenty, fifty, a hundred, or more? This is the question that has underpinned this pet project of mine since I began it in July 2009.

Since then I have been copying out poems into a plain Moleskine notebook, one at a time, in inky longhand, when the mood took me. Allowing myself no more than one poem per poet, I wanted to see how many poems I could honour with the label ‘lifesaving’. I quickly realised it was a deeply subjective and unscientific exercise. Frequently, the poem that was copied into my book was not especially famous, certainly not representative or even the ‘best’ of that poet’s work.

My criteria were extremely basic.  Was the poem one I could recall having had an immediate experience with from the first moment I read it? In short, did I feel the poem was one I could not do without?

The list below is, therefore, not a perfect anthology-style list of the great and the good. It is a list of poems I happen to feel passionate about, according to my tastes. As Billy Collins says somewhere: ‘Good poems are poems that I like’.

Copying them out into my book has not always been fun, but now that I am finished, I am in possession of a deeply satisfactory feeling of having learnt more about myself and about each poem that I copied.

Over the next weeks and months I am going to be blogging here about the stories behind the choices I made, the influences upon them, and what I learnt in the process. (Before anyone writes in, I have noticed that William Blake snuck in with two choices).

For what it is worth, here are my

Lifesaving poems

Here are the most read Lifesaving Poems of 2014.

For the first time I have been able to compare last year’s top ten with this year’s, so have put last year’s position in brackets. * denotes a new entry to the top ten.

1 (1) ‘Journey’ -Mary Oliver

I first came across Mary Oliver’s ‘The Journey’ on Malcolm Doney’s Posterous page, sadly now defunct. (While it was still with us I took the liberty of copying it to my scrapbook blog Nowhere Better Than This, the text of which is here. The good news is you can now listen to Malcolm Pausing for Thought on Radio 2. A recent favourite example is this short piece, on hope. It has five essential words of Wendell Berry in it, which, as my children never tire of laughing at me for saying, is worth the admission fee.)

Until finding ‘The Journey’ on Malcolm’s blog I had not really got Mary Oliver’s project. I am still learning from her capacious, wise and effortless-looking poetry. She is fast becoming, as Auden said of Marianne Moore, one of the handful of poets I can read on any day and in any mood.

2 (3) ‘Wind’ -Ted Hughes

Just about everyone I know who reads and writes poetry seriously owes a debt of one kind or another to Ted Hughes, directly or indirectly. Even though I never met him (the nearest I came was receipt of a hand-written note in the summer before he died) I still think of him as the single biggest influence on my poetry-writing (and therefore reading) life. As Peter Sansom said when he died, his death was the first of a public figure that moved me personally.

3 (2) ‘Atlas’ -U A Fanthorpe

I heard ‘Atlas’ before I read it.  I was in a tiny, tardis-like medieval church, at a rather posh wedding in Winchester.

In a day that seemed to contain, as in so many English summer days, more than its fair share of tension and release, the poem appeared as unlooked for balm and blessing. Most crucially it created a long moment in which all of the day’s private sadness and public celebration could be held equidistant from each other, not so much for close examination but rather to allow acceptance to take a tentative foothold.

A moment of breathing, of in-filled lungs, returning us to a larger moment, to each other and to ourselves.

4 (5) ‘Everything Is Going to be All Right’ -Derek Mahon

I first read Derek Mahon’s ‘Everything is Going to be All Right’ as an undergraduate, somewhere towards the end of my degree, at a stage of life when everything did indeed seem hopeful and untainted by disaster and breakdown. My reaction on reading it is was a kind of falling in love, infatuation followed by obsession, taking the book in which I found it (a library copy of his Selected Poems) everywhere and checking every ten minutes to see if it was still there.

5 (*) ‘To His Lost Lover’ -Simon Armitage

A welcome new entry to the Lifesaving Poems Top Ten.

Like so many Lifesaving Poems, I heard ‘To His Lost Lover’ before I read it, in a BBC2 film about love poetry, sometime in the Nineties.

I had been an admirer of Armitage’s work for some time, but this was the moment I really got him, in the way people speak about finally getting jazz or the blues when they least expect it, as it were without trying, out of the blue, because of one performance.

Perched beside a crag of ancient magma on a Yorkshire moor, Armitage read his poem through a plastic wallet in slanting, icy rain. Wet through in his anorak, he looked fantastically cold and pissed off.

I found the combination of grim circumstances and slow outpouring of grief in the poem mesmerising and moving. Not only did I admire his professionalism for getting the job done beautifully, it seemed as though the poem had to be read there, its exposed and exposing circumnavigation of a ruined relationship enacted in the elemental downpour of the day. In its stripped back couplets infrequently connecting by force of full rhyme it is a tour de force of control and of love, both of which are as icy as the film’s setting, and all the stronger for it.

6 (5) ‘Night Drive’ -Seamus Heaney

‘Night Drive’ explores in a resolutely low-key register those fertile and  liminal spaces between wakefulness and sleep, light and dark,  arrival and departure.  As in so many of Heaney’s poems, there is a back-note of cautionary guilt and self-reproach running across the lines; the separation which causes the poem to be written is celebrated as it appears to be mourned.

7 (*) ‘Who?’ -Charles Causley

Another welcome new entry to the Lifesaving Poems top ten.

Philip Gross once said to me that when he went into schools to take writing workshops with children he deliberately set out not to read to the whole class but to one child. He meant by this that he chose not to go for the easy laugh and the snappy punchline, preferring instead to let his poems find the one child in the class they were meant for, often quiet, sometimes invisible, usually one with a talent for daydreaming. He would know he had found them if they came up to him at the end to ask a question about a poem once the other children had gone out to play.

‘Who?’ is written for the invisible child lurking inside all of us.

8 (6) ‘May the Silence Break’ -Brendan Kennelly

This poem is the reason I called this series of blog posts ‘lifesaving’.

A young friend of mine was in a coma in hospital, the result of a traffic accident. I read her poems from  Kennelly’s A Time for Voices (Bloodaxe, 1990), having been encouraged by the doctors to continue to speak to her, hearing being the most enduring of the senses. Partly the decision was pragmatic: it is easier to read to someone who is not going to answer back than it is to sustain a monologue of news and chit-chat. Partly the decision was romantic: I sensed that Kennelly was someone who knew about ‘the war on silence’ and the cost of trying to overcome it.

My friend not only survived, she is now thriving. This is the miracle of poetry.

9 (*) ‘St Francis and the Sow’ -Galway Kinnell

Another welcome new entry to the Lifesaving top ten, not least because we lost this great poet in 2014.

I was first shown it by Jean Sprackland, at theArvon Foundation’s writing centre atTotleigh Barton.

That week we had given our group a pre-course task, of bringing to the course one book of poems they felt passionate about, to share and discuss with others. Jean brought Kinnell’s Bloodaxe Selected. I had not seen it or the poem before.

My initial reaction to it was one of surprise and great fondness. I loved that it dared to hymn unlovely subject matter. I loved its complete self-absorption in the living moment of description. I loved that it did not seem to care a hoot what I thought about it.

Reading it again now, I think daring is not far from the mark. It seems to take two very distinct strains of American poetry, beginning in didacticism and ending with tender praise, and blends them without one overshadowing the other. That is both risky and skillful. Poems that do that usually fall flat on their backsides, while this one achieves lift-off and in plain sight.

10 (*) ‘Buffalo Dusk’ -Carl Sandburg

The final new entry to the Lifesaving Poems top ten, and the one I am most surprised to see there.

‘Buffalo Dusk’  is a short poem of epic regret and deep mourning. You can read it once and get it straight away; you can read it a thousand times, as Robert Frost said you should, and still have your breath taken away by the suddenness of its closing, a bookend of its opening.

It is a great poem of witness. The key line seems to me ‘And those who saw the buffaloes are gone’. The poem is a lament for the passing of a  mythological and actual beast, at the same time as it is the telling of that passing. Reading it we become complicit in the process of how this came about, as we are challenged to keep the myth alive in future tellings.


You can read the list of last year’s most read Lifesaving Poems here.

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AuthorSteve Lavigne