I grew up steeped in poetry – I’m Irish. It’s not quite the island of saints and scholars that the mythology suggests, but it’s hard to spend your early years in a country where Seamus Heaney is a household name without tripping over a poem.
Last month I read, in one big gulp, a proof of Anne Enright’s latest novel, The Green Road (out in May), and there’s a scene where a character recites Yeats from memory at a dinner party in New York. It might seem overblown but, to me, it was familiar. Yeats was Granny’s favourite and, as her Alzheimer’s progressed, hearing the rhythm of his verses calmed her even if the meaning was lost. After she was gone, at family dinners, my uncle would go in for ‘Broken Dreams’ in her memory (‘There is grey in your hair./Young men no longer suddenly catch their breath/When you are passing’). For granny had been nothing if not beautiful – and for sure, a little vain with it.
But when I really made poetry mine wasn’t at the heels of my family, or even at school, or in university lecture halls. It was in a rented room in my mid-twenties, unable to sleep and on the phone to my ‘5am friend’, Lizzy. We’d promised one other that if we ever needed a listening ear, at any time of day or night, we’d be there for each other. The favour didn’t have to get called in too often – it was enough to know we could pick up the phone.
It was only midnight, this time. And I can’t remember what the trouble was – back then, probably an unworthy man or where our money-light first jobs were taking us. But I do remember what we were using to get us out of the mess – a poem. Specifically, one from a book of mostly contemporary poems we both owned (Lizzy had bought a copy for me), and that we would swap page numbers to. That book got us through the days. We could tell each other things it was hard to express, just by calling out a number.
So when I heard that an edited collection of the book was on the World Book Night list, I was suddenly back in my room on Dublin's Capel Street, phone in one ear, dogeared paperback in the other. I pulled out my old copy and found the poems that spoke to me then – Brendan Kennelly’s ‘Begin’ (‘Begin to the loneliness that cannot end/since it is perhaps what makes us begin’), Miroslav Holub’s ‘The Door’ (‘even if nothing is there/go and open the door’) and Kim Addonizio’s ‘You Don’t Know What Love Is’ (viz a viz the unworthy men).
But I also found new poems that I skipped over ten years ago, that mean something now – Anne Stevenson’s ‘Poem for a Daughter’ (‘"I think I’m going to have it,"/ I said, joking between pains’). It’s the perfect gift for a dear friend who’s just given birth in glorious style, swinging out of a doorway as her yoga teacher taught her, an old-school midwife looking on in astonishment. Or Jaan Kaplinski’s ‘The Washing Never Gets Done’, which says everything you need to know about our to-do list centered, must-stay-busy culture in 17 life-changing lines.
The book? Essential Poems from the Staying Alive Trilogy (Bloodaxe Books, £7.99). Get it. Read it. Pass it on to your dearest friends.
Lauren Hadden is Psychologies’ Deputy Editor