Poetry By Heart Blog

Desert Island Poems

27th June 2014

Julie Blake chooses the eight poems she would take with her to a desert island from the Poetry By Heart anthology.

My “Desert Island Poems” challenge had all the usual problems of narrowing the choice to just eight, though at least I only had 206 poems to choose from and I already knew some so well that they would have been wasted choices. Instead, I’ve chosen poems because I love them but don’t have them by heart, and in my long months of solitude I’ll change that.

My first two poems will remind me of family. My grandmother can probably still recite ‘The boy stood on the burning deck’, the first line of Felicia Hemans’ ‘Casabianca’. Catherine Robson’s history, ‘Heartbeats: everyday life and the memorized poem’, has helped me understand why my grandmother would always break off at this point and mutter darkly about all poetry being rubbish. I should like to be able to finish the poem for her. Meanwhile, my grandfather left Scotland at a young age to find his fortune in London; only when he went back at the age of 72 to marry his second wife did he start celebrating Burns night but he died soon after and I’ll never know whether he had a poem. I’ll take ‘Ae fond kiss’ with me and make sure I do. Though the BBC’s recording of Alec Salmond reciting ‘A man’s a man for a’that’ is so gorgeous I may need that as my luxury.

The Scottish connection continues though it’s less about roots and much more about sound: Louis MacNeice’s ‘Bagpipe Music’. I’m a sucker for strongly metrical rhyming poetry – always have been, always will be, and I’m not going to apologise for it now! And it’s funny…

I didn’t know the next two poems at all before Poetry By Heart. Poets Andrew Motion and Jean Sprackland selected the anthology and I guided them in avoiding curriculum clunkers and making sure the timeline was balanced. Charlotte Smith’s ‘On being cautioned…’ duly entered as a must-have sonnet. Its setting is Beachy Head, a place I know well having taught for ten years next door to the hospital to which the suicides are helicoptered. The poem will remind me of the pleasures of teaching – and the madness of walking on headlands. Meredith’s poem simply took my breath away with its super-saturated darkness.

My sixth poem has a different kind of darkness. I taught ‘The Handmaid’s Tale’ many times and, being a bigger fan of Margaret Atwood’s poetry than her fiction, always started with her poem ‘Notes towards a poem that can never be written’, dedicated to Carolyn Forché. Forché’s poems can be unremitting in their gaze on the horror of our times, and ‘The Colonel’ is especially so. Jennifer O’Sullivan’s performance of it at the 2014 finals is one I’m sure I’ll never forget.

My final two poems will remind me of Poetry By Heart as they are written by two of our poet-judges. I adore tricky forms and Patience Agbabi’s ‘Josephine Baker Finds Herself’ makes me grin with delight at its technical accomplishment, the second half of the poem a delicious mirroring of the first. And, oh, those Brixton nights…

I can hardly believe how much Poetry By Heart has achieved three years after Andrew Motion and I first talked about it: it’s been immensely hard work by a committed team but also such intense pleasure in hearing young people share the poems they’ve loved and learned. My final choice is Andrew’s new poem ‘The fish in Australia’.  I’ve heard him read it twice and now always hear the cadences of his voice in it. I might learn this one silently and keep it that way.

So if you get the call from the Kirsty Young of the poetry world, which eight poems would you take to keep you company on your sun-kissed desert island?

Julie’s choices

Casabianca (Felicia Hemans)
Ae fond kiss (Robert Burns)
Bagpipe music (Louis MacNeice)
On being cautioned… (Charlotte Smith)
Lucifer in starlight (George Meredith)
The colonel (Carolyn Forché)
Josephine Baker finds herself (Patience Agbabi)
The fish in Australia (Andrew Motion)

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