Poetry to me has always been a form of travel. I first learned to love poetry at boarding school in the Eastern Cape in South Africa. Like most schoolboys, I never expected to like it much, but such vivid staples as Browning’s My Last Duchess, Coleridge’s Kubla Khan and Tennyson’s Ulysses became gateways to a broader world of sights, emotions and adventures that I could only guess at sitting at my hard wooden desk in the sweltering African heat.
1979: The year I finished school I went on a freewheeling adventure to Swaziland with two or three schoolmates. It was only three years after the Soweto uprising and it was the first time I had left apartheid South Africa, and the relative freedom of Swaziland was heady stuff indeed.
We drank too much, watched Emmanuelle, and gambled at the casino. At a bookshop in Mbabane I came across a slim volume titled The Soweto I Love by Sipho Sepamla. The book was banned in South Africa, and I snapped it up eagerly. I was never going to be a revolutionary, but discovering a banned poet was just the ticket for my 18-year-old state of excited rebellion and discovery.
They were poems of rage at the violence of the apartheid state that shocked and moved me and helped me to understand the black experience of that time. I will never forget the mingled sense of righteousness and terror I felt when I smuggled the book back across the border into South Africa. Over 30 years later, I still have it on my shelf, and I still am moved by the lines that I read then: “i have known hurt/to wring the heart of all blood”.
From then on I have been open to the possibilities that poetry provides. I’ve discovered that deliberately seeking it out usually doesn’t work. Poetry must find you; and the way poems find you is through other people — and that’s the adventure of it.
For some reason, I never saw Four Weddings and a Funeral, so I didn’t know Auden’s Funeral Blues until one freezing winter Sunday after a long lunch my sister-in-law began slowly to say: “Stop all the clocks…” and since then it’s a long Sunday lunch we’ve never forgotten.
One late stormy night in Freetown I was sitting with a fellow journalist and friend. We were there to cover the kidnapping of British soldiers by the notorious “West Side Boys”. It was one of those stories where you have to wait, and in Sierra Leone at the time that meant both boredom and the constant possibility of danger. It was late and there was a vast tropical storm hammering into the coast from the wide Atlantic. Rain lashed at the windows and the wind was so powerful that it bent the palm trees on the beach nearly in half.
It was a strange and ominous night, and my friend chose to read Alastair Reid’s poem Curiosity with the wind howling outside. “Face it. Curiosity will not cause us to die – /only lack of it will.” That’s always seemed a motto for the reason journalists run towards all sorts of trouble and dig into places where others are too unwilling or frightened to go.
Poetry is a gift — a boon bestowed on us by the small and big connections of our lives. For years, in my late teens and early twenties, it was Bob Dylan’s lyrics that served as the core of my poetic life. The wonderful music helped hugely, of course, as it did with Dire Straits, U2, Joe Jackson… the list is endless. Rock musicians play the role in our culture that Byron and Keats and Shelley did.
Gone indeed are the days when rapturous crowds gathered in Albemarle Street at the offices of publisher John Murray to buy their copy of Byron’s swashbuckling poem The Corsair which sold an astonishing 10,000 copies on the day it was published.
Someone like Keith Richards would doubtless approve of the dramatic spectacle that was Shelley’s cremation on the beach in Italy with Byron and Leigh Hunt watching the flames mount to the sky and Edward Trelawny snatching the corpse’s heart from the very pyre itself.
Poetry today has lost much of its public influence and appeal, but there is a deep and intimate power about it, the words still and silent on the page, but shared in the imagination from poet to each reader.
Perhaps the best line on friends, journeys and poetry must rest with my poetic friend from Sierra Leone who looked at me over a hot chicken pie at lunch in a pub just a few streets away from Winchester Cathedral. “Iambic pentameter,” he said in a determined voice as he cut into his steaming pie.
“Yes?” I replied questioningly.
“Don’t you see? Lub-dub,lub-dub,lub-dub. The rhythm of iambic pentameter echoes that of the human heart.”
Just as it is the hearts of the people you meet along the way who make journeys memorable, so it is with poetry: the people who give it to you make the lines and the reading of them so powerful. As a freelance journalist I have covered many war zones in Africa and the Middle East with a number of remarkable journalists as my companions, many of whom loved poetry. Poetry somehow found its way into and lightened so many of my journeys.
I remember before the Iraq war a friend of mine who would soon go through a divorce, partly because of all the journalistic travelling he did. It alienated him from his wife, and, although he didn’t know it for sure yet, he could sense the terrible emptiness growing that would come to separate them forever.
They had adopted a daughter a few short years before and in his refuge from fear of what the war might bring and of what truth might bring to him when he was back home, he would constantly be dipping in and out of a copy of Yeats that he had carried with him from the shelves of his study in Johannesburg. A Prayer for My Daughter is the one that still brings tears to my eyes as I remember him reading it to us.
We were struck by the unique power of Yeats and his vision of beauty within his own world so torn by the violence of Ireland’s struggle for independence, and the terror of our own world visited on Baghdad that tore across the skylines we filmed and the screens of those who watched at home.
My friend, like Yeats, thought at these times, only of his daughter.
“I have walked and prayed for this young child an hour/ and heard the sea-wind scream upon the tower”
As we listened, in our own different ways we were praying for the innocence we had lost in witnessing war and for the young child in all of us whose belief in the goodness of the world had been so deeply wounded by what we were witnessing.
Then there was the spirited discussion I had with a female colleague on the desert road between Baghdad and Basra in the early days of the war when you could still drive, but where the fear of bombs and kidnapping was growing daily. She thought Ulysses was largely a Victorian paean to English colonial aspirations.
Ulysses has taken me on a different, more personal journey: from schooldays to the comforting text message I received from one of my closest women friends in the terrible days of my divorce from my first wife when each day felt dizzy with grief and pain. My phone beeped and up on the screen flashed: “Though much is taken, much abides;” and I knew then that my friends and family were going to see me through it all.
I still don’t think I convinced my colleague about the poem, but then that’s exactly the point of poetry — it speaks to us all in different ways and through its beauty resonates with the multiplicity of our experiences. It certainly was a great discussion to pass the time on a long, boring and somewhat fear-filled car journey and cemented a friendship and enthusiasm for one another and for the craft of writing that continues to this day.
Sometimes poetry comes to us through the journeys of other books. Years ago I read of a certain English noblewoman who always kept a copy of Dryden’s Aureng-zebe on her bedside table. I cannot for the life of me remember who she was, but the words of the Empress in the play, Nourmahal, which that noblewoman read whenever she felt depressed, remain a tonic for our own difficult times, especially as we emerge from the exhausting and seemingly never-ending drag of Covid:
“‘Tis not for nothing that we life pursue;
It pays our hopes with something still that’s new:
Like travellers, we’re pleased with seeing more.
Did you but know what joys your way attend,
You would not hurry to your journey’s end.”
I searched for my own copy of Aureng-zebe for years, until I finally found a battered volume of Dryden’s Collected Works at Strand Books in New York. I, too, keep it near my bed for those moments when life seems just a little tougher than it should be.
But somehow it migrated to my wife’s dressing table where it props up the leather-bound book of Tennyson which I gave her on our very first Valentine’s years ago. The two books keep each other company amidst a colourful disarray of laptops, pink iPad, lipsticks, nail files, perfume bottles and mirrors.
Each morning when my wife sits down and prepares herself to go to work I am reminded inexorably, and charmingly, of Alexander Pope as “A heav’nly image in the glass appears”. DM