Eight Poems That, If You Had To Be Trapped In Some Way For a Prolonged Period of Time With Little Hope Of Rescue is a series that demands people imagine some place they could never escape from where they only have eight poems for comfort. We tend to find that each person’s poems bring out the isolation situation within themselves, but also it’s a good excuse to talk about poems we like. Where possible, I’ll link to a copy of the poem or a place where you can buy a hard copy within the UK. However, it’s always worth remembering that your nearest library might be able to get a copy for you.
‘A Quiet Poem’ by Frank O’Hara
Frank O’Hara is a poet I never lose interest in. ‘A Quiet Poem’ (one of the first poems of his I read/fell in love with) is exactly that; a soft decrescendo to a final point of absolute stillness. It is a long, satisfying exhalation. I become the coin, floating to the bottom of the ocean and I don’t even like the sea, which should indicate how relaxed I feel when I read it. I realise that sentiment sounds a little end-of-life-desire, but I mean it more in a mindful, taking-a-moment-to-be-alone-with-my-sense-of-self sort of way. I mean hey, maybe it is about dying? But I prefer to imagine it as going for a nap on a pleasantly warm beach. So, the perfect accompaniment to my exposed body baking on the sandy ground of this planet that it too close to the sun.
‘Melanchthon’ by Marianne Moore
Send Ezra Pound to hell and push T.S. Eliot into a boiling sea, so that Marianne Moore can take up her crown as Modernism’s Absolute Hero. She’s dark, she’s funny, she’s inordinately intelligent; her images, her tone, her form are all complex to the point of vexation, which I love, because it means I can read and re-read her work for years and still not necessarily have any idea what she’s talking about.
‘Melanchthon’ is…kind of about an elephant, but maybe also about the poet disguising herself as an elephant so she can be more honest about life. It’s definitely about nature, with some strands of cultural appraisal thrown in for good measure. It’s about animal spirits and human souls, about religion and a questioning of religion (even though Moore was a devout Presbyterian, there’s strong evidence to suggest she supported the theory of evolution). It might also be one of her exacting appraisals of poetry and criticism. We’re invited to question the self in relation to others, to The Other, while at the same time trying to ascertain “what is a self?” …I think? In all honesty guys, the focus shifts on a line-to-line basis and it all gets a bit obscure just like the muddy skin of the elephant, whaaaaat?!
‘The Solex Brothers’ by Luke Kennard
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I’m not sure there’s another poet to have more influence over my work than Luke Kennard. I first read The Solex Brothers back in 2007, when I was but a tender undergraduate and was genuinely astounded that poems were allowed to be this way.
I chose ‘The Solex Brothers’ simply because it was the first poem of his that I read, which means, as well as being brilliant, it’s intrinsically nostalgic. “The Solex Brothers, twice the size of ordinary men” feel like old friends. Worryingly odd friends, yes, but friends that offer a route out of a humdrum life. The world they inhabit is strange, of course, and Kennard shifts between time and space with a vertiginous speed, but within a few stanzas, it feels completely natural to find oneself sitting in the back of a chauffeur-driven Mustang, singing songs about inedible vegetables while “[t]he roadside diners [glimmer] like bookshelves, little glowing bookshelves” (amongst my favourite similes of all time).
‘Morning Birds’ by Tomas Tranströmer
Move over Ted Hughes’ ‘The Thought Fox’ (TTF), there’s a new (still pretty old) kid (poem about the process of writing poetry) in town (the collected works of Tomas Tranströmer). ‘Morning Birds’ is amongst my fave poems about process. However, like TTF, it goes beyond this more overt theme to suggest that an engagement with nature is vital to human enrichment. But Tranströmer wasn’t responsible for any of his wives’ deaths, so…
I’ve been obsessing lately over the idea of art as a means of immortality and I think this poem touches on that. In it, the magpie comes “[t]hrough a backdoor in the landscape”, sneakily foregrounding itself in the same way the initial impetus for a poem might do. By the end, the poem “throws [the speaker] out of the nest”, which I find endlessly interesting, because it implies that the poem itself is the creator, the mother bird, and the artist is the little naked fledgling who better find its wings quickly or it (they?) will die. There’s no poem without the poet and no poet without the poem. And I’m sure I’m not alone in wishing I could explore this idea ad infinitum in the lonely, burning hot heat of a distant desert planet. (See me after class for a more detailed exploration of this poem, because there’s so much more to say!)
‘Planet of the Apes’ by Hera Lindsay Bird
In general, I love juicy imagery. Something that leaps off the page and makes me go “oooo yeah!”. ‘Planet of the Apes’ is overflowing with the stuff. In fact, everything I’ve read by Hera Lindsay Bird so far sings with luscious metaphors and fresh descriptions that wish they were citrus fruits, so everyone would immediately be like “ahhh yes, juicy”. There are lines in this poem that makes me really jealous I didn’t write it myself. For example, I would love for my face to be described as a nineteenth century cornfield. So pure, so pure.
‘A Part Song’ by Denise Riley
Denise Riley’s Say Something Back is an important collection, not only for people who have been bereaved, but for everyone. ‘A Part Song’ is sort of a compact version of the collection as a whole, and the motions of grieving that Riley goes through are startingly raw; there are no hidden messages, this is a very genuine pain, felt deeply by the writer and distilled into the twenty short sections that make up the poem. But as the title suggests, getting to the end of the poem doesn’t mean the grief is over. This is only a brief exposé of a loss that, for the speaker at least, cannot be neatly resolved to a final coda. Whenever I come back to it I find this poem just as exhilarating as the first time I read it. There is a multiplicity of voice, tone and form that do different things for me on different days.
In basic terms, it makes me weep, and if poetry’s job is anything, it’s to move us deeply, as someone or other has said a million times over the years. And yes, when I’m lonely and dying on a desert planet, I do want to read about the fact that we’re all lonely and dying, thankyouverymuch.
‘At the Fishhouses’ by Elizabeth Bishop
I’m sure we can all agree Elizabeth Bishop is simply excellent. And just in case I happen to survive on the planet, and find some local, humanoid creatures to mate with (oo-er!) her work would be a vital part of the canon that I would want to pass on to whatever hybrid offspring we might produce.
There were tons of poems I thought about choosing. ‘The Map’ or ‘Crusoe in England’ might be good for someone stranded in unknown terrain. And ‘The Man-Moth’ is one of the cutest, most tragic poems about loneliness which might serve a lonely spacewoman well, particularly if I end up spawning some part-human/part-sand insect babies. But I went with ‘At the Fishhouses’ because it has a little bit of everything I love about poetry. There’s an evocative description of place, (so transformative I feel like I’m having a flashback to this place that I’ve never visited); there’s an almost cartoonish interaction with a seal who seems to know more than he’s letting on, and there’s a subtle suggestion of death throughout that culminates in a transcendental reach towards a deeper understanding of what life is…you know, all the best things.
‘On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous’ by Ocean Vuong
So, this is another choice where, really, I would want to bring the entire collection. I think Ocean Vuong is pretty much incomparable to any other poet of the moment. In fact, it’s almost basic that I’ve chosen a poem by him, because of course I would have to bring something by one of the hottest tickets in Poetry Town.
‘On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous’ is by turns shocking, desolate, beautiful, though in the end the residing feeling is one of hope. The language is so precise, so sensitively utilised that the poems drips with implications and unsaid things. It’s a long poem that doesn’t feel long because it morphs from section to section, changing pace to maintain absolute immersion in the poem (yes, I admit it, sometimes I find long poems really boring). Also: “Dusk: a blade of honey between our shadows, draining” – yes! This. Is. A. Juicy. Image. Lads! Take a moment to yourself and unpack it (I’m running out of words so can’t do it here). The poem is full of descriptions like this; the whole collection is, so don’t waste anymore time not reading it.
Marianne MacRae is a poet and academic based in Edinburgh. Her work has been widely published in journals including Magma, Ambit and Acumen. In 2017/18, she was the inaugural poet-in-residence at the Royal College of Physicians and Surgeons of Glasgow. She holds a PhD in Creative Writing from The University of Edinburgh. You can find her on Twitter @MarianneMacRae.