Cover page.

All I know is what the words know.

Samuel Beckett, Molloy





Part One – Journeys

  • The Journey of a Poem and the Journey of Reading It
  • The Two-Thousand Year Old Complaint
  • Different Ways of Being Difficult
  • What's Wrong with Cliché? Why Shouldn’t "Most Popular" Mean "Best"?
  • "The Syllable, that Fine Creature" and One of its Favourite Relationships: Rhyme
  • Poetry is Movement
  • Making Strange: The Leap of Metaphor
  • Metaphor We Live By: the Journey of Life
  • Adventure, Quest, Pilgrimage and Homecoming; Treasure-Seeking, Asylum-Seeking, Exile
  • The Path Within: Journey to the Underworld
  • "To Be Your Guide": the Words, the Book, the Poem
  • So…
Part Two - Poems

Prologue: Beginning the Journey

  • Michael Donaghy Machines
  • Gwyneth Lewis The Flaggy Shore
  • John Burnside The Old Gods
  • Christopher Middleton Disturbing the Tarantula
  • Penelope Shuttle Taxing the Rain
  • Adrienne Rich Midnight Salvage: Poem 6
  • W N Herbert Breakfrost
  • Anne Stevenson Granny Scarecrow
  • Peter Reading Salopian
  • Elizabeth Bishop Brazil, January 1, 1502
  • W S Graham Second Poem from What is the Language Using Us For?
  • Seamus Heaney District and Circle
  • Geoffrey Hill Mercian Hymns VI
  • Jacob Polley Smoke
  • Mark Doty No
  • Jean “Binta” Breeze Baptism
  • Katherine Pierpoint Swim Right up to Me
  • Louise Glůck Vita Nova
  • Carole Satyamurti Broken Moon
  • Hugo Williams Making Friends with Ties
  • Sujatta Bhatt Swami Anand
  • Cieran Carson O
  • R S Thomas Blackbird
  • Jorie Graham Prayer
  • Helen Farish Mesoplodon Pacificus
  • Mimi Khalvati Mahout
  • Craig Raine A Martian Sends A Postcard Home
  • Kit Wright Mantles
  • John Ashbery The Evening of Greuze
  • Robin Robertson Moving House
  • Pauline Stainer Sighting the Slave Ship
  • Ian Duhig The Lammas Hireling
  • James Fenton Serious
  • Jamie McKendrick On/Off
  • Rosemary Tonks Badly Chosen Lover
  • Alan Jenkins Portrait of A Lady
  • J H Prynne The Holy City
  • Alice Oswald Wedding
  • Julia Darling Two Lighthouses
  • Andrew Motion On the Table
  • David Harsent Poem XVI from Marriage
  • Eavan Boland That the Science of Cartography is Limited
  • Kate Clanchy When You Cried
  • Carol Rumens From A Conversation During Divorce
  • Maurice Riordan Time Out
  • Judith Wright Trapped Dingo
  • Christopher Logue, from Book XXI of Homer’s Iliad
  • Carolyn Forché Poems XVI and XXVI from The Notebook of Uprisings
  • Nick Laird Oswiçiem
  • Moniza Alvi How the World Split in Two
  • Kathleen Jamie Frogs
  • Jane Duran The Orange Tree in Cordoba
  • Simon Armitage Birthday
  • Paula Meehan Child Burial
  • Roger McGough The Wrong Beds
  • Bernard O’Donoghue “Dogs, Would You Live for Ever?”
  • Tony Harrison Timer
  • Tess Gallagher Black Silk
  • Elizabeth Jennings Rembrandt’s Last Self-Portraits
  • Czeslaw Milosz Orpheus and Eurydice


Further Reading


Index and Glossary

Pages 47-54

To Be Your Guide: the Words, the Book, the Poem

At some point on most mythic journeys, the goal is words. A poem’s journey is made of words; the act of writing according to Margaret Atwood is, "a process that leaves a trail... There's a path. "Ever since Dante followed Virgil into hell, poets have included other poets, dead ones, in their descent to the underworld, their katabasis. They are "masters" who give advice about their future path in life or poetry.

Eliot's "Little Gidding" is a katabasis driven by personal experience of special sort of hell, fire-fighting in the London blitz, as well as his knowledge of the katabasis tradition. What the dead had no speech for, when living, he says, They can tell you, being dead. In the uncertain hour before the morning (and after an air raid) the poet meets a shadowy figure who looks like some dead master and talks about poetry. Our concern was speech, and speech impelled us/ to purify the dialect of the tribe.

In Heaney's "Station Island", the pilgrim poet confronts figures from his personal and literary past who help him understand what has gone into the making of himself as a poet and man, and where he should go now. He has a series of meetings and conversations with the dead. This is a road you travel on your own, he is told. The last encounter tells him to cast away all advice and just write:

Let go, let fly, forget.
You’ve listened long enough. Now strike your note.

All Heaney’s work suggests that the past is not something which the present replaces but which our own minds, now, are made of. We take past images and words with us into the future journey; we read, write and see new life with them.

Coming back from katabasis in the last poem of “Station Island”, the pilgrim feels like a convalescent. He takes the hand of a composite figure. Like the master in “Little Gidding”, this is a compound ghost, a special Heaney mix of Irish writers, Homer, Virgil, Dante and Eliot himself:

                          I took the hand
Stretched down from the jetty, sensed again
An alien comfort as I stepped on ground

To find the helping hand still gripping mine,
Fish-cold and bony but whether to guide
Or to be guided I could not be certain

For the tall man in step at my side
Seemed blind, though he walked straight as a rush
Upon his ash plant, his eyes fixed straight ahead.

If no knowledgeable guide is available to show the path, the traveller’s mind may call one up - many mountaineers have met an imaginary guide at difficult moments...

In reading, says the inspirational teacher to his pupil in Alan Bennett's play The History Boys, the "best moments" happen:

When you come across something - a thought, a feeling, a way of looking at things - which you thought special and particular to you. Now here it is, set down by someone else, a person you have never met, someone even who is long dead. And it is as if a hand had come out and taken yours.

A book is the perfect guide. But of all books, a good poem with memorable resonant words is one of the best. It is portable, compact, and there is always more to find in it. For Dante, it was Virgil. Charles Darwin took Milton with him on his five-year voyage on the Beagle. In the anonymous morality play Everyman, the hero has to go on a long difficult journey: to the grave, it turns out. Most of his friends desert him, even Fellowship. Good Deeds stays loyal, but is too weak to be any use. Only Knowledge says she will come along to help.

Everyman I will go with thee and be thy guide,
In thy most need to go by thy side.

In 1905 the London publisher Joseph Dent was planning a series of world classics in cheap editions he hoped would appeal "to every kind of reader". He appointed Ernest Rhys as series editor. They discussed many possible titles for the series and despaired. One day, walking through Garrick Street to the office in Bedford Street, Rhys suddenly remembered these lines from Everyman. He rushed into the office quoting them. Dent stared, "Everyman's Library," he repeated, "You've got it!"

That title worked because the journey of life is a universal image. And because a book - words which can be read, reread, and thought about on the road - is portable and shareable. Heaney’s guide strides along beside him but only for a while: words stay with you. Literature is the guide that stays by your side. Every aspect of the ancient cluster of associations about the journey of lie leads back eventually to "knowledge" and poetry.

The most famous katabasis of all is that of the archetypal poet. After Orpheus fails to bring back his dead love Eurydice from Hades, he can still sing. He sings a universal witnessing to loss. (See Poem 60 below.)

The maenads, maddened female followers of Dionysus, tear him to pieces, possibly because he insists on singing about Eurydice rather than attending to them: the world is often jealous of the poet’s attention. They toss his head into the river but even as it floats downstream to the sea it goes on singing. Like the voice of murdered Orpheus, poems survive when their maker has died. One thing they do is witness to the singer’s journey: its wonders, beauty and suffering.

The suffering to which poems sometimes testify may be caused by external things – politics, cruelty, wickedness or civil war (as in Poem 22 by Cieran Carson, set in the Northern Irish Troubles of the Seventies). Throughout the twentieth century, Russian and East European poets testified to brutal repression which created, said Czeslaw Milosz, a special perspective on poetry. "We tend to view poetry as a witness, and participant in one of mankind's major transformations." In horror, you need language you can rely on. "The poetic act changes with the amount of background reality embraced by the poet’s consciousness."

People who live through cruelty and suffering on this scale, who live "the fragility of those things we call civilization," know that what surrounds us is not guaranteed. As Milosz says, "It could just as well not exist - and so man constructs poetry out of the remnants found in ruins."

But even in today’s shopping-padded Western life, we all come up against that fragility and discover for ourselves that "what surrounds is not guaranteed". Reality is precarious provisionality - a makeshift hut, says Rilke in the first of his Sonnets to Orpheus:

A shelter nailed up out of darkest longing,
With an entryway that shudders in the wind.

The makeshift precariousness, says Rilke, is poetry's home: where it sets up its temple.

I believe poetry is a universal human need, that everyone has a poetry-shaped hole in them. And though today many people fill this hole with other things, like pop music. They often turn to the real thing when the precariousness makes itself intensely felt: in moments of national disaster (hundreds of people turned up to a poetry reading in New York after 9/11) or personal grief and joy at funerals and weddings...


I have organized the poems in this book around different stages on the journey of life. They begin as children begin, with wondering. Wondering about our origins and what we are doing here; about nature and the environment; about childhood itself, and ways we reach out to where we are – religion, prayer, history. They carry on wondering through love, marriage, birth and loss, into divorce, bereavement, war, illness, ageing and death.

They are contemporary poems, using the furniture and language of life we share. But they reflect ancient questions which any traveller might ask at each stage of the journey...

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