It’s National Poetry Day today. I have so many favourite poems it’s impossible to pick just one. So many poems and poets over time have inspired and influenced me. I was always encouraged to read poetry as a child and I think poetry is great for children. When I have run author workshops based around poetry, I love seeing the way poems can inspire children to think and write creatively. Showing children a breadth of poems perfectly expresses how their language can be crafted, twisted and shaped to express thoughts and themes. A good poet examines every single word for its importance and uses each one so carefully.
As a child I loved Allan Ahlberg’s poetry, in particular the ‘Please Mrs Butler’ anthology and I also owned a collection of humorous poetry on the theme of animals and another with a Christmas theme. Spike Milligan, Robert Louis Stevenson, Cicely M Barker and AA Milne also featured heavily. As I reached teenage years, I loved studying Shakespeare, whilst at sixth form TS Eliot was so inspiring. The explosion of poetry in the 19th century brought forth too many names and poems to list here, but suffice to say my best friend read Elizabeth Barrett Browning at our wedding. From the aching sorrow and shocking realism of the war poets through to poets that have emerged in the latter half of the 20th century onwards, who deal with more modern issues no less creatively, I always appreciate a well-crafted poem.
So, as I am short on time, I have picked one poet, not necessarily the favourite, who has always inspired me to write poetry: Seamus Heaney. His poem ‘Mid-Term Break’, about a young boy having a day off school for his little brother’s funeral, makes me cry every time I read it. ‘The Wife’s Tale’ has a beautiful simplicity to it that makes me smile and want to re-read it. ‘Blackberry Picking’ is the one I am going to write here though. It always reminds me of my own childhood and you’ll see it has inspired me in my own poem ‘When Nature Met Childhood’ which I will follow it with.
Late august, given heavy rain and sun
For a full week, the blackberries would ripen.
At first, just one, a glossy purple clot
Among another, red, green, hard as a knot.
You ate that first one and its flesh was sweet
Like thickened wine: summer’s blood was in it
Leaving stains upon the tongue and lust for
Picking. The red ones inked up and that hunger
Sent us out with milk-cans, pea-tins, jam-pots,
Where briars scratched and wet grass bleached our boots.
Round hayfields, cornfields and potato-drills
We trekked and picked until the cans were full,
Until the tinkling bottom had been covered
With green ones, and on top big dark blobs burned
Like a plate of eyes. Our hands were peppered
With thorn pricks, our palms sticky as Bluebeard’s.
We hoarded the fresh berries in the byre.
But when the bath was filled we found a fur,
A rat-grey fungus, glutting on our cache.
The juice was stinking too. Once off the bush
The fruit fermented, the sweet flesh would turn sour.
I always felt like crying. It wasn’t fair
That all the lovely canfuls smelt of rot.
Each year I hoped they’d keep, knew they would not.
When Nature Met Childhood
We ran up and down the vegetable rows,
Shrieking and laughing,
Sunlight glinting off slim, tanned legs.
We popped peas from pods.
How did they ever reach the kitchen, let alone the plates?
We picked warm, ripe plums from laden branches
And pricked our fingers to forage for gooseberries.
Small, hard, green and sour.
Or large, soft, translucent and sweet.
Later, swinging to and fro on the gate,
We held a rhubarb cane in one hand, sugar bowl for dipping in the other.
We paddled in the stream,
Dresses tucked in knickers,
Margarine tubs for boats.
We performed stunts on the tyre swing, whilst Mum,
Reeling out the extension cable, ironed in the orchard.
With blackberry picking summer changed
To autumn. Stained fingers and fruit pies.
Hallowe’en turnip lantern lit,
We ventured down the lane.
My candle blew out, leaving me wailing in cloaked darkness,
Until Dad, torch in hand, rescued me.
There were rainy days, when sullen grey skies were cheered by
Flame-red creeper on the farmhouse wall.
Winter – we woke up to snow;
An eery, pale silence beyond the curtain.
Dad striding out in wellies, head bowed,
Tracked the fox that made a daring raid on our chickens.
To us children the snow did not seem to linger long
Before spring shook off the cold with fresh colour:
Leafy greens, gaudy yellows, regal purples and velvet blues.
We picked posies of spring flowers for our teachers
And cooed over the joyful lambs in the fields.
Now my children explore nature.
Enthusiastic, they shove feet into wellies
And grab a coat in an instant,
To splash in puddles or hunt for ladybirds.
To walk through the still, reflective cemetery
Filling coat pockets with conkers, beech nuts and acorns
For our autumn table.
We pack a picnic for a day by the stream.
A new generation of dresses tucked in knickers.
On a winter expedition across the village green,
Our sledges weaving tracks behind us,
We marvel at icicles and lacy trees.
A different, purer world.
We make snowmen and igloos,
Returning indoors with rosy cheeks and tingling fingers,
Laughing and glad we went out,
The fire seeming suddenly warmer than before.
What will our children remember of this glorious time
When Nature met their childhood?
So there you go, two poems for National Poetry Day. I have a long way to go to match Heaney, but I enjoy the writing process. I love playing with words, lines and verses to portray my thoughts and ideas. Who is your favourite poet? Do you have a favourite poem?