Gary Jules has this one song, “No Poetry”, where verse fails to bring together pen and paper. Unfortunately, this was a case of a whole lot of poetry coming between me and the keyboard. In the time it has taken me to finally write this, I have ventured out to both Wales and Germany in search of old friends, stomach muscles cramped with laughter, and books (which I have even finished now). The reason it has taken me so long to get round to writing this particular review is that I made the choice to pick up, from the dimly lit bowels of Quinto & Francis Edwards Books, a time-warping compendium of poetry.
Soho, the location of the bookshop, is a nightmare of a place for the indecisive book lover. Too many doors to strange paper-locked lands everywhere, all equally alluring. Quinto & Francis Edwards was as random a possibility as any of the others. Nothing in particular led me to it, except maybe a whole heap of historical unanalysable choices. The bookshop is a wonderful place for the collector of antiquarian books (the Francis Edwards branch on the ground floor), but none of those fit my hand with that enchanting poof of dust. I had to make my way downstairs, to the old and more modestly priced stock of Quinto, to find what I didn’t know I was looking for.
The thing with poetry is that to me, it is always as sweet as Turkish delight, and needs to be measured out. As you can see from my copy of The Cherry Tree, it is very lovingly battered. Not that it was lustrous and shining in the first place, but all the lugging around certainly hasn’t helped. Geoffrey Grigson, the wonderful poet and critic who has collected the poems, also didn’t contribute to me whizzing through the book, as he urges in the foreword: “Being read – yes, by yourself, and aloud. After all, poems are made aloud. They are read over and over by the poets who are making them, and using that apparatus by which words are announced and pronounced.”
In my life of weird habits and obsessions, I have read so many things out loud – including all five A Song of Ice and Fire novels, and I did not need to be told twice that these poems were to be discovered in solitude, by my own vocal chords. And yet, I would also take The Cherry Tree with me everywhere, sometimes mouthing words in the incidental moments of quiet during the day, more often getting frustrated with the social conventions forcing me to keep a good poem behind teeth bars, suffocating on beauty in the morning suit-riddled carriages of the London Tube.
The book is divided in sections of moods and subjects, and many of those begin with a reproduction of a beautiful woodcut.
As an example, this one is from the Hypnerotomachia Poliphili, a romance by Francesco de Colonna, printed in 1488/89 by the Aldine Press in Venice. Seeing these transported me to Mo and Meggie Folchart’s Inkheart world, where an Old Europe feel, the craft of bookbinding, and poems preceding the chapters combined to shape my dreams for life.
Another thing that made it hard for me to read this book in a linear manner was the coincidences that accompanied its lines. This left me stunned for a good few minutes: “For many an honest Indian ass/Goes for a unicorn.” Indeed it does, as I recently discovered myself, but I did not expect to be told again so soon, and definitely not in a poem.
A few hundred pages later, Edmund Spencer’s Prothalamion appeared, at I time that I’d been reading T.S. Eliot’s interviews, and rereading The Wasteland. “Sweet Thames, run softly, till I end my song” became a constant accompaniment in my head whenever I saw the river in real life, wondering what songs the Thames has succumbed to now, for mine seemed only to be a mash-up of the lines of others.
Geoffrey Grigson continues: “Reading them by yourself […] until, at any rate, we can share them with someone we love.” I have chosen three poems to share, hoping that the vocal chords of strangers and friends will cut them loose in new air, in fresh momentary solitudes. They all have something to do with that fear which makes me hunger for poetry in the first place, for lines that burst open the raw core of that desperate beauty which lies dormant in the busy daily rituals.
On the Beach at Night by Walt Whitman, “something there is more immortal even than the stars”.
We’ll Go to Sea No More by unknown author, “An’ in your tales and sangs we’ll tell/How weel the boat ye row”.
Acquainted with the Night by Robert Frost, “One luminary clock against the sky,/ Proclaimed the time was neither wrong nor right.”
It is shameful, really, this delay of mine, slipping into old habits of enthusiastic beginnings and lazy follow-ups. And yet, what can you do against an insistent feeling of not wanting to let go of these poems, because they are like paperweights, holding you down against the blowing away, reminders that touching the poetic pulse of life makes it that much sweeter and yet that much harder to do anything at all.
And because I can, and because it is becoming something of a tradition, here goes Billy Collins on the moment of sighs that incapacitates me so.