Desert Island Poems

Gillian Clarke's Journal

Eight poems for a desert island! Impossible. Eight hundred might do. But this island is guarded by the Thought Police, so I must set about unlearning by heart a lifetime of nursery rhymes and poems.

Every good poem leaves at least a line in the memory. To meet the present brief I must delete whole scenes of Shakespeare, Richard 11’s speech in prison: ‘For God’s sake let us sit upon the ground/And tell sad stories of the deaths of kings’, all of Coleridge’s ‘Rime of the Ancient Mariner’, Wordsworth’s ‘Prelude’, Keats’s ‘Ode to a Nightingale’, the love poems of Dafydd ap Gwilym. To put a poem out of mind is like instructing yourself not to think about tigers. The more you ban poems, the more they prowl the heart. The only way forward in the present task is to narrow the gate. Poems to share my exile will be short and simple, make me shiver, and most of them are hand-written in a notebook I carry everywhere.

Long ago in university my tutor read us John Donne’s ‘The Relic’. Once heard, the lover’s words,  ‘a bracelet of bright hair about the bone’, can never be forgotten. Nor can Shakespeare’s ‘Full fathom five thy father lies’, or Richard Wilbur’s 3 perfect couplets ‘For the Etruscan Poets’, lamenting the loss of a language and its poetry, ‘Like a fresh track across a field of snow/Not reckoning that all could melt and go’. I’ll pack one of the first poems I ever remember being thrilled by, too young to understand how or why words could be so exciting: Christina Rossetti’s ‘In the Bleak Midwinter’, containing the magic lines ‘Earth stood hard as iron,/Water like a stone’, and ‘In the bleak midwinter/ long ago’.  Years later it was Yeats’s ‘Curlew’, ‘O curlew, cry no more in the air, / Or only to the waters in the West’, my current screen saver. Then R.S.Thomas’s ‘The White Tiger’, ‘the crumpled flower of its face’, ‘glacial eyes that had looked on violence and come to terms with it’.  The three opening words of Ted Hughes’ ‘October Dawn’, ‘October is marigold’, say everything about autumn colour, while leading us innocently from the first skin of ice on a wine glass left in the garden straight into a new ice age, where ‘mammoth and sabre-tooth celebrate reunion.’  Finally, I choose one of Seamus Heaney’s elegiac sonnets for his mother, ‘The cool that came off sheets just off the line’, where mother and son are folding sheets, a corner in each hand, until the moment when they ‘end up hand to hand/ for a split second as if nothing had happened/ Beforehand, day by day, just touch and go’. How brilliantly he redeems language, making the cliché brand new.

Eight poems. I don’t need books. I have them by heart. Poetry lovers will spot  concealed contraband: poetry costs and weighs nothing. We carry it everywhere. I will stow every poem I love in the ‘rag-and-bone shop of the heart’, and they can’t stop me.