What Makes a Great Poem Great: Poem #2

As I said in my last post, YouTube is an amazing place to discover poetry.  I feel very privileged to live in an age in which these online resources exist.  Playing a poetry reading on YouTube will never replace going to a live reading, but it does allow you to watch both historic readings and readings in other countries.  Plus, it does allow you to skip any boring bits or move onto another reading completely.  I've watched many readings by the former U.S. Poet Laureate Billy Collins, whose popularity prior and subsequent to that post speaks for itself.  In one of many engaging talks uploaded to YouTube, he says that when he's flicking through a book of poetry, he always reads the short poems first, just so he can get a flavour of what the book is like as a whole.  It seems right to do this, because trying to getting into the zone in a bookshop is hard thing to do.  To my mind, poetry is an ascension, then a descension -  or is it the other way around?  Either way, a poem requires the reader to find a place that sits aside from the everyday, and that's very difficult to do in a bookshop.

Billy Collins himself is a master of the short poem.  In a blog post I wrote back in 2012 in which I listed all my favourite short poems at the time, I included Collins' superb haiku in the list.


Mid-winter evening  
alone at a sushi bar— 
just me and this eel. 

That's a picture of the poem in my scrapbook.  It was the Poem of the Day in a page-a-day calendar I had sat on my desk when I worked in an office back in 2009.  I was so impressed with it that I kept it and stuck it in my scrapbook.  My love of the short poem runs deep.  On the face of it, they seem simple, but they are incredibly hard to get right.  But they are often the most fun to write, especially when you have to work within the rules of a haiku.  It's easy to add words to a poem; quite often the real skill is in the removal work.  To create a whole world in just 13 words takes a huge amount of skill.  Many long poems don't even manage it.   

As fine a poem as that is, I used it by way of an introduction to the short poem I actually want to choose.  I've had two in mind - Emily Dickinson's "To Make a Prairie (1755)"  and Carol Ann Duffy's "Mrs Darwin" - and it's really hard to choose between the two.  The poet Carola Luther recited Dickinson's poem to me while I was at a reading in Oxford last November and it's stuck with me.

To Make a Prairie (1755)
To make a prairie it takes a clover and one bee,—
One clover, and a bee.
And revery. 
The revery alone will do, 
If bees are few.

It's a beautiful poem on so many levels.  The simple rhyme scheme of AAABB is a perfect match for not only what's being said but also for how it's being said: I love seeing repetition in poems and here Dickinson uses it to warmly get her point across and slow the reader down.  And that slowness is restorative - I find it such a relaxing poem to read.  Hats off to Dickinson - it's a masterpiece of a short poem.  She captured so many thoughts and ideas with that butterfly net she had at the end of her pen.  She actually inspired a short poem I wrote that went on to be published by Ink, Sweat & Tears, a fantastic online poetry journal.  

The poem I'd like to choose is Carol Ann Duffy's "Mrs Darwin", which is taken from her 1999 collection "The World's Wife".

Mrs Darwin  

7 April 1852.  

 Went to the Zoo.
I said to Him –
Something about that Chimpanzee over there reminds me          
         of you.

It's brilliant.  Just brilliant.  I did start writing an analysis for this poem, but it felt superfluous.  I don't try to analyse films or music, and as my confidence in reading poetry increases, the desire or need to analyse it decreases.  I've done it a little bit for the Dickinson poem, but that was just to convey how much I love it.  Nothing matters more than the spirit of the poem, and if that spirit reveals itself either while I'm reading a poem or after I've read it, then I know that I've found a great one.  The three poems in this post have created an entire world within them.  Part of me still lives in these worlds even after I left.

More information on Billy Collins, Emily Dickinson and Carol Ann Duffy can be found by clicking on their names.  


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