Vulpes Libris

A collective of bibliophiles talking about books. Book Fox (vulpes libris): small bibliovorous mammal of overactive imagination and uncommonly large bookshop expenses. Habitat: anywhere the rustle of pages can be heard.

Sharing Poetry

Pseudo-Sappho_MAN_Napoli_Inv9084About a year ago, I joined a book group – after years of resistance. When it comes to reading, I am still a bit of a stroppy teenager, instantly resistant to being told what I must read by when. I prefer to follow my own way, and rummage for what takes my fancy, often slightly off-the-wall. Something deep down in my psyche makes it very difficult, if not impossible, to Do The Reading by the first Thursday in the month or whatever. This is a problem with me, I hasten to add, not with book groups as such.

But this group is different, and it it making me go to places that I either have not been for years, or have never been at all. It is a poetry group. Instead of choosing a single work for all to read and discuss, we choose each month a poet, and a theme. Then each of us brings a personal choice of poems to read out to the others. We do not spend much time discussing poem or poet – the reader might say what the attraction is in the poem, or a few words on why it was chosen. But the pleasure for the group lies in reading aloud our discoveries for each other.

I’m a new girl in this group, and it has taken me a few months to stop following well-worn paths and start making new discoveries. I thought I’d share some of them here – risking snorts of ‘Fancy not knowing that!’ But who knows – perhaps others might be delighted by a new find. Mostly they come from hunting for themes – the named poet each month does tend to send me to the tried and trusted, then the enlightenment comes from what the others in the group have found. The other discipline comes in searching in the work of poets I don’t enjoy, and finding out how wrong I might be (Whitman, Graves, (*whispers*) Dylan Thomas).

The three most recent themes we have followed have been Cities, Theatre and Australian poets. For Cities, I was able to indulge my love for Italy, sharing Louis MacNeice’s lines on Ravenna, that Michael Carley so kindly shared with me in the comments on my post ‘Travels with Edith’; and the lines that stayed with me from schooldays until I finally made it to Venice, from Byron’s Childe Harold Canto III: I stood in Venice on the Bridge of Sighs | A palace and a prison on each hand …..

Theatre looked as though it might stump us – but who knew that Berthold Brecht had written poetry on theatre arts (Gedichte aus dem Messingkauf)? My favourite is called (in translation) The Lighting Poem.

Give us light for our stage
How can we disclose
We playwrights and actors
images to the world in semi-darkness?
The sleepy twilight sends to sleep
Yet we need our watchers wide awake.
Indeed we need them vigilant.
Let them dream in brightness.

Theatre also led me to the wonderful McGonagall poem Lines in Defence of the Stage, the sole purpose of which, in McGonagall’s sage view, is to strike at the conscience of murderers in the audience. He goes on and on about it:

Sometimes in theatres guilty creatures there have been
Struck to the soul by the cunning of the scene;
By witnessing a play wherein murder is enacted,
They were proved to be murderers, they felt so distracted,

And left the theatre, they felt so much fear,
Such has been the case, so says Shakespeare.
And such is my opinion , I will venture to say,
That murderers will quake with fear on seeing murder in a play.

And so on….

Searching for Australian writers reminded to me to look back for Clive James’s wonderfully moving poem Japanese Maple, in which he looks towards the end of his life. I’d have loved to offer lines from his deft and articulate new translation of the Divine Comedy, but one of the rules of Poetry Group is not to hog the floor, and it is so hard to choose a short passage from such a monumental achievement. My other Australian discovery is Peter Goldsworthy – I thoroughly recommend his lively and clear-sighted poems. My favourite find is Jokes:


Don’t tell me jokes.
I know about jokes.
They think they are funny.
They think they can get away with things.

I don’t know everything about them,
just enough. I know this:
that they refuse to be remembered,
slipping the mind’s fingers,
a shoal of laughter, vanishing.

And this: that they hide still inside,
deeply. Delinquent poems,
absconders from custody.

So, just a few of my finds. I do recommend this approach, to any book group. If you want to break things up a bit, try something different, why not have a Poetry month? Choose a theme, or not, but set each one in the group looking for something they love, new or old, to share with the group. Reading aloud is a pleasure, listening is a pleasure, and once in a while it is refreshing not to have rake up an opinion, positive or negative, but just to present something beautiful and say ‘This.’

Good sources of poems online are
The Poetry Archive
The Poetry Foundation
All links in this post accessed 4 December 2014.
The image of a woman with a stylus and tablets, once thought to be Sappho, from Pompeii, is taken from Wikimedia Commons. Clicking the image will load the source page.

4 comments on “Sharing Poetry

  1. everydayhas
    December 4, 2014

    What a great idea for a book group! I have your same problem with noncompliance in traditional book groups. Thanks for sharing.

  2. Carol S
    December 4, 2014

    Peter Goldsworthy is a fabulous novelist too. Every novel different.

  3. gertloveday
    December 4, 2014

    Philip Hodgins is another terrific Australian poet probably not much known overseas Died much too young.

  4. Kate
    December 7, 2014

    what a wonderful idea! (oh, someone’s already said that). I could definitely get behind this.

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  • (The header image is from Aesop's Fables, illustrated by Francis Barlow (1666), and appears courtesy of the Digital and Multimedia Center at the Michigan State University Libraries.)
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