Monday, 18 February 2013


The Scots poet everyone's heard of: Robert Burns
Portrait by Peter Howson
One of the great things about my current Open University course on 20th century literature is that virtually every text I tweet about reading has fans who tweet back to say how much they love it. The novels Orlando (Virginia Woolf), Rebecca (Daphne du Maurier) and Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep (Philip K Dick) seem particularly popular. And several people agree with me that Katherine Mansfield’s short stories should be more widely read. However, it was TS Eliot's poem The Love Song of J Alfred Prufrock that got the most responses, with several folk tweeting me their favourite lines from it. You may recognise some of these, even if you've not knowingly read the poem:
I have measured out my life in coffee spoons
I should have been a pair of ragged claws / Scuttling across the floors of silent seas.
I grow old . . . I grow old . . . / I shall wear the bottoms of my trousers rolled.
So here's a confession: I rarely read poetry out of choice. Yet when I do, I am full of admiration for its precision, its skilful use of language, its sheer cleverness. Perhaps what holds me (and many others) back is that most poems don't give up all their treasures on one reading. You have to read them over and over again just to understand what they're going on about. And even then a poem's 'meaning' may elude you. But don't let that put you off. I see poetry as proof of that old saying: 'tis better to travel hopefully than to arrive'. 

I'm not going to paste in endless poems - that would make this a very long post. Besides, many are available, free to enjoy, at the click of a mouse. What I've done is list a few of my favourites, with links to sites where you can read them. Choose one and have a go! They’re in no particular order and cover everything from love poetry to sheer nonsense. 

And for you writers out there, poetry is a splendid source of book titles. For example, Val McDermid must surely have taken The Mermaids Singing from this line in ‘Prufrock’: ‘I have heard the mermaids singing, each to each’.

To His Coy Mistress by Andrew Marvell – one of the great romantic poems
The X Files: Bonnybridge, October ’95 by Hugh McMillan – Scottish and hilarious (thanks to Rosemary Kaye for this one!)
The Thought-Fox by Ted Hughes – for every writer 
To A Louse by Robert Burns – Burns is best enjoyed out loud so this link also offers a reading by Robert Carlyle
Jabberwocky by Lewis Carroll – a splendid nonsense poem
Warning by Jenny Joseph – a battle-cry for middle-aged women

Wilfred Owen
commemorative window

Dulce et Decorum Est by Wilfred Owen – one of the greatest anti-war poems ever
Skipping by Marina Sofia – this poem is on the wall above my desk, a source of comfort when I worry about my writing

Do you have a favourite poem? I’d love to read it, so please leave a comment below or tweet me: @janetokane.


  1. I think we may have spoken before about this.. on Twitter.. My English teacher, Iain Chrichton Smith was the first person outside the family to introduce me to poetry. This is a small and jewel like piece but it's simple complexity has haunted me since sixth form!

  2. I enjoyed this post Janet as like you, I don't normally read poetry and have also recently had to read for study, not just pleasure. The post also made me smile as I'm originally from Bonnybridge, the UFO capital! I've never heard of the The X Files poem so thanks for introducing it to me. Good luck with your studies.

  3. Hi Janet - great post, and thanks very much for the 'credit'! Have you come across the poems of Judith Viorst? They are funny and often poignant too - all about life, marriage and growing older. I think she's written quite a few collections, but the one I have is 'It's Hard to be Hip over Thirty, and other Tragedies of Married Life' - here is a link:

    I studied the metaphysical poets in VIth year at school, and still know most of the Andrew Marvell poem you mention off by heart, ditto a lot of Donne. Before that I loathed poetry - they really made it live for me. Still hated the poetry bit of OU A215 though - I'm definitely not cut out to write it!


  4. You mention several of my favourites - including Mr Prufrock!

    I also love Betjeman - especially "In a Bath Teashop"
    And Scaffolding by Seamus Heaney,

    And finally, the brilliant Snail Love by Amando Baker!

    Love seems to be a recurring theme in my favourites!

    I rarely choose to read poetry but I love to attend readings - it makes much more sense to me once I hear the poets talking about their work.

  5. Janet, I am speechless and overwhelmed that you have put my modest little poem in the company of some of my favourite poems and all-time greats. You are too kind!
    As you know, I love poetry, although I did go for a long time not reading any new poetry.
    Here is one that truly impressed me, by the Turkish poet Nazim Hikmet:
    Living is no laughing matter:
    you must live with great seriousness
    like a squirrel, for example--
    I mean without looking for something beyond and above living,
    I mean living must be your whole occupation.

  6. Great post! I'm passionate about poetry - the only possible words in the only possible order. If a poem achieves that, then it beats prose every time. Something to do with having to make every word count.

    I have so many favourite poems, but would suggest a look at a villanelle by Elizabeth Bishop: "One Art" ('The art of losing isn't hard to master...') I love the restraints imposed by the form of the poem, and how the poet's true feelings are finally revealed in the anguished last line.

    I can't make the link to it work, so will tweet the link instead. Thanks again for such a thought-provoking post.