It started when I saw 'Four Weddings and a Funeral' for the first time. About halfway through the film, I began to suspect that this was one of the best comedy scripts I had ever heard. It was up there with Fawlty Towers for its tight and unremitting wit. I was reminded of P.G. Wodehouse, who crafted sentences for hours to make the words sound as if they just flowed from his pen. I later discovered that Richard Curtis had been through fourteen major drafts of his script before settling for the final version which sounded so effortless. I began to think that he might indeed be a brilliant writer. Then suddenly there was the funeral scene where John Hannah read 'Stop all the clocks' by W.H. Auden, and in sixteen lines all these other writers were eclipsed, and I knew that now, truly, we were in the presence of greatness.
My only previous exposure to his poems was the rather jolly 'Night Train' which was used in an advertisement for Royal Mail. A few days after seeing the film I went to the library and found a book of Auden's poetry, just to check that 'Stop all the clocks' was as good as I thought it was. And it was, of course. But I didn't borrow the book, because I wasn't the sort of person who read poetry.
But then, who is the sort of person who reads poetry? Every library has a large selection, and someone must borrow all those books. But it wasn't me - until I came across 'The Nation's Favourite Poems'.
This is an everyman's selection of verse, voted for by viewers of the BBC programme 'The Bookworm'. I had some vague memories of many of the poems. 'If' by Kipling. 'The listeners' by Walter de la Mare. 'The daffodils' by Wordsworth. The rather tiresome 'Macavity the mystery cat' by T.S. Eliot. All part of most of our education at some point I suppose, and maybe conjuring up memories of endless days of schoolroom boredom. I parted uncertainly with my cash, and was rewarded when some of the poems, like the haunting 'Remember' by Christina Rossetti and the harrowing 'Dulce et decorum est' by Wilfred Owen were so powerful, that they made me think that there might be something in this poetry lark.
Most prose writers seem to agree that poetry is the highest form of literary art, although it does not appear to be an easy one to master. Evelyn Waugh wrote of Stephen Spender, one of the most celebrated British poets of the twentieth century, that 'To see him fumbling with our rich and delicate language is to experience all the horror of seeing a Sevres vase in the hands of a chimpanzee'. Coleridge famously said that 'Prose equals words in their best order; poetry equals the best words in the best order'. The opening two lines of Auden's poem illustrate the point. 'Stop all the clocks, cut off the telephone. Prevent the dog from barking with a juicy bone'. Within the space of seventeen words, Auden produces three powerful images, and he doesn't use what might be taken for 'poetic' words. That unlikely 'prevent' is indeed the 'best' word, although not the one a lesser poet would have chosen. In fourteen further lines, Auden piles on more graphic images, and you are left in no doubt as to his despair at the death of a friend. This is human life laid bare by an artist of rare talent.
Although the BBC collection is by its nature a populist selection, there is no doubt that it contains some of the finest poetry ever written, and is a good starting point for anyone who, like me, is daunted by the whole subject. Popular art that stands the test of time has an uncanny way of being the best.
To find out a bit more about the subject, I read the fascinating 'How to enjoy poetry' by Vernon Scannell. Preferring poetry of the twentieth century, but finding much of it unfathomable, I was reassured when this book advised me that many poems need to be read a number of times to extract the 'meaning' from them. Indeed, in many cases there is no clear 'meaning' to be had. The author compared it to music, which can convey emotion without having a clear message to offer, and I could see that there could be something in this. Unfortunately, abandoning a rational, down to earth approach to poetry leaves it open to abuse by charlatan poets in much the same way that modern art is open to such abuse by charlatan artists. If you can't understand a poem, how do you tell if it is any good?
I wasn't the only one to grapple with this problem. Auberon Waugh, editor of the 'Literary Review' became so disillusioned with modern poetry that he stopped printing it, and launched a weekly competition to write 'real' poetry, with rhyme and metre, rather than free verse, which has neither, and which he saw as 'too easy' to write. I found a book of the results in the local library, and it did indeed show that there were many modern poets around who could still cut the mustard by writing in a more traditional style. The trouble with free verse, as was proved by 'The Literary Review' when they published a nonsensical spoof that no-one noticed, is that it can look superficially impressive while remaining entirely devoid of meaning.
As for subject matter, it must be said that there is plenty of scope for readers of a melancholic disposition. Christina Rosetti wrote a number of haunting pieces about her own mortality which convey an almost unbearable sadness. Wilfred Owen's poems from the first world war are, even now, deeply disturbing. And, to be honest, the subject matter of many poems borders on the morbid. However, the best of them, because they deal with universal subjects like birth, love, suffering and death, remind you that you a a part of a human march through history that began long before you were born and will continue long after you are gone. Depending on your psychological disposition, this may or may not be a good thing.
In a lighter vein, there are many poets who illustrate the human condition with a touch of wit and humour, even if there is still a sting in the tail. Philip Larkin's laconic verses such as 'This be the verse' which begins with the memorable line 'They f*ck you up your mum and Dad' is an example. More subtle is John Betjeman, who I must admit is my kind of poet. His poems are deceptively simple, yet always superbly crafted as he gently pokes at more trivial human frailties, such as the absorption with class, and the mundane problems of everyday life. 'Christmas' is a particular favourite, with its 'hideous tie, so kindly meant'.
Taking it to extremes, there are the nonsense poems, where everything is played for laughs. For my money, Lewis Carroll is the master of this genre. 'Jabberwocky' and 'The walrus and the carpenter' of course, are perhaps the best known, but there are his many parodies like 'You are old father William' which are better remembered than the Victorian doggerel which they lampooned. 'The Faber book of nonsense poems' is an excellent introduction to this sort of thing.
Whatever your taste, there will be poets who you will find entertaining, moving, and maybe even enlightening. For me, the best poems are a page or so long, and make you stop and think. Taking time to think is a rare privilege these days, and as W.H. Davies so aptly put it, 'What is this life if, full of care, we have no time to stand and stare?'