This is a dear and a hard one for me. It represents, in many ways, the nexus of two of the worlds and the characters that I and my father had, and shared, and did not share. I only heard my father read this poem once. But it stuck with me. Many years later I told him it was one of my favourite of Kipling’s works, and he seemed surprised… and that in itself stuck with me, as did the way he looked at me then. In some ways the verse runs along the line of any such relationship: son to father, mother to daughter, and any complex of the same. It is uncompromising, brutal, honest, and real. For me it is immensely important. Particularly this recording. This is the first time I had even read this poem in thirty years. It was an entirely unrehearsed performance. It is flawed, and carries some noise as well. I have several times tried to rerecord since this point. Even though in some technical ways the subsequent recordings were more “perfect” none of them captured what this one did for me. This one captures what I believe is the soul of this verse, the unvarnished and absolute naked intergenerational conflict, as well as the flaws, complexity, and love native to the human soul. It was recorded at anchor aboard a smallish vessel, in the “Far East”, and in fact not so very far from the Makassar Straits… and in the background what you can mostly hear is the cables rocking back and forth in the mast…
This most evocative of poems is redolent of a memoried past which we, ourselves the listeners, have never experienced, and yet somehow understand. This is the absolute genius of the poem: it is a mystery, and yet, somehow we understand the mystery and are intimately a part of it. Despite this, the character whom it chiefly concerns will never know that and will never know we exist. And to us, he exists only in his words, and the vehemence of his intent, in his loyalty to something only he, now, knows anything about. Is any of it real? Is he real? Are the listeners real? Are we real? In this wonderful magic trick, De La Mare whisks us bodily away into the spirit world, to become, ourselves, the Listeners whom our storied Traveller dimly perceives, and who listen to him, thronging in our own mysteries.
This was one of the earliest poems I remember hearing. Perhaps a bit of an adult theme but I was absolutely riveted, as a young child, by the cadences of the verse. There is something in this poem which reminds me of my earliest memory of all: the sound of rain on a tin roof, the musical tip top tapping of it, spinning worlds of feeling out of a simple sound, a blending of reality and music. The sense I had as a child of this poem has of course evolved, and now it holds real echoes of echoes for me, from my own life. But yet poetry has the power to evoke a sense of a lost past, even in a child who has never had one. I will be recording a few more poems of this sort shortly. But for now, I hope you enjoy this one.
Several hundred miles of the Irish coastline in the past few days, hands roughened and cut, and face flushed with the sun and wind, I am very tired. My thoughts turn to sleep. Here is a poem about sleep… and not about it. Who is the thief? One of my very favourite poems by the incomparable Dylan Thomas.
Sailing round the West coasts of Ireland puts me in mind of the way in which the sea remains capable of erasing much of the difference, much of the perceptible change between past and present. The sights and atmosphere of sailing between the Skelligs lit by starlight alone, blacker presences jaggedly anchoring the dimlit sea to the starlit sky, must surely be the as near the same now as anything could be to the perceptions of the early foreign sailors along these wild coasts. Much of Ireland was colonised by the Vikings, called the “Danes” in this verse by Kipling, and last night’s passage put me in mind of their still echoing presence, and of this poem which echoes to me from the early reaches of my own childhood.
Rupert Brooke is perhaps best known for his “war” poetry, though he in fact died of sepsis on his way to his first engagement, at Gallipoli, and never saw action. I personally find his more peaceful and often quite humourous poetry far more engaging than anything he ever wrote on the subject of war. Indeed I do not even really regard him as a “war” poet at all. Here he is in his finest mode: subtle, amusing, beautiful and deep all at once. A celebration or a subtle critique? You decide. It is perhaps both, but certainly aimed at giving humans perspective on their own condition, and self beliefs. Apologies for the sound quality on this one. It was, like a number which will be published here, recorded on deck, in the open air, at anchor. It is an occupational hazard of being a professional sailor. I hope you enjoy in any case, and perhaps the faint sound of water in the background might not detract too far from its intended atmosphere.
So I am, among other things, a professional sailing skipper, and this weekend I will be heading out to Dingle to take a vessel from there round to Dublin. On the way I will be passing Yeats’ quarters. I have always loved this poem, and thought to record it on this occasion. I hope you will enjoy.
As my debut podcast I choose this fine work by one of my very favourite poets, James Elroy Flecker. This is not only because it is appropriate in its intended function as a prologue to subsequent poetic art, but also since I feel it embodies, in many ways, what it is that poetry does at its very best. It achieves something more than at first appears possible in so short a space, and more than can actually be expressed in the words themselves. It asks a rhetorical question which is then both answered and not answered. It asks what poetry does, and answers that poetry “beguiles”, and in the answer it leads away, it leads the reader’s mind away from that starting point, to strange and far images, and lands, to places only half defined by concept, and half by emotion and feeling. It answers and does not answer the question. It answers and then answers it more fully by enacting the answer and transporting the listener. It answers by showing them what in some sense cannot be shown directly. It beguiles.