Saturday, May 30, 2009

Poetry season

The perfect antidote to the current obsession with MPs' tax evasion and fiddling of expenses, is the BBC Poetry Season. Last night, actress Sheila Hancock presented her choice of poetry in the moving and inspiring launch of the series My life in verse. Poetry has played an important part in her coping with grief and finding a way to move on after the death of her husband, John Thaw and in this programme (available on iPlayer for a few weeks), she maps her progression from despair to light through the poems that comforted or inspired her along the way.

Some of her choices were familiar pieces and I simply enjoyed the beautiful delivery of the verse and the wonderful settings including the Fens, Provence. Tennyson is not a favourite of mine, but Sheila's setting of Break, Break, Break into her own childhood experience of friendship, followed by the exploration of its origin in Tennyson's grief over the death of his friend, gave a new insight into the poet and I am encouraged to look at his work again.

The focus of this programme was human relationships and I heard this poem by Primo Levi for the first time. It brings all of our human associations into the compass of friendship and wishes for all the kindest hope of a long and mild autumn.


Dear friends, I say friends here

In the larger sense of the word:

Wife, sister, associates, relatives,

Schoolmates, men and women,

Persons seen only once

Or frequented all my life:

Provided that between us, for at least a moment,

Was drawn a segment,

A well-defined chord.

I speak for you, companions on a journey

Dense, not devoid of effort,

And have also for you who have lost

The soul, the spirit, the wish to live.

Or nobody or somebody, or perhaps only one, or you

Who are reading me: remember the time

Before the wax hardened,

When each of us was like a seal.

Each of us carries the imprint

Of the friend met along the way;

In the trace of each.

For good or evil

In wisdom or in folly

Each stamped by each.

Now that time presses urgently,

And the tasks are finished,

To all of you the modest wish

That the autumn may be long and mild.


  1. I've just read that Simon Armitage is doing a programme on Beawulf, it's on BBC 4 and I can't remember the day. Anyway, he'll tracing Beawulf's steps and it sounds really great. I've been very much enjoying this poetry series the beeb have been doing, but I didn't catch the Shelia Hancock programme, I'll try to watch tomorrow on Iplayer.

    PS. I never used to like Tennyson, either, but he's been growing on me over the past couple of years.

  2. Dulce D, I'm afraid we have both missed Beowulf. It was on Thursday evening but I think it will be on iPlayer.
    I saw Simon Schama's programme on John Donne (one of my favourite poets) and have recorded the Milton. Methinks the garden will be neglected if I am to watch all these great programmes. I hope there will be a DVD set to watch in the winter.

  3. It's been a welcome and fascinating, if patchy, series but, if nothing else, I will be grateful for the Levi poem, which I hadn't heard before. Quite wonderful. (If I had to do a book version of Desert Island Discs, it would have to include something by Primo Levi, one of my favourite writers.)

    Like you I love John Donne but the programme was spoilt for me by Fiona Shaw's overly dramatic readings. (Rattling On and I had a discussion about this over at her blog; we were as one!) We also agreed - and AA Gill says much the same in his weekly television review in today's Sunday Times -that the best voice for a poem is the one in your own head. Poetry is somehow so much more personal than prose.

    But good on the BBC for commissioning the series; let's hope there will be more in the future.

  4. D, I don't know how I missed that post about Donne. I obviously didn't scroll down far enough when I did my catch-up of favourite blogs after being away.

    I wasn't so upset as you both were by Fiona Shaw - I just thought she was OTT in her delivery. I'm just delighted that Donne's poetry, in fact any poetry, is getting a prime-time slot.

  5. Beowulf- brings back memories of English Lit A level. Along with Sir Gawain and the Greene Knight. In Old English. Ah, those were the days. Fortunately I can choose what to read these days.
    I am in complete agreement that any poetry on TV is good and I quite like a bit of history, or personal history to go along with it.
    They could always make shorter programmes, along the lines of 'Thought for the day', which may be more accessible.
    Tennyson, now, I love his poem 'Maud', apparently his own favourite. (I mean the epic with 28parts, not the shorter version.)That would be on my desert island list.

  6. I was put off Tennyson when I was about 13 and had to learn The Charge of the Light Brigade for an elocution exam. More recently (much!) I read Tennyson's Gift by Lynne Truss and that would put anyone off him. However, my sympathies were roused by the story of his experiences at Cambridge and I'm prepared to look again at some of his poetry.

  7. Maureen, I also loved the Sheila Hancock programme - very honest and moving - I loved the last poem which I hadn't heard and sadly don't recall the details - 'Mutilated World?' - best go off and look it up!

  8. Here we are 'Try to Praise the Mutilated World'by Adam Zagajewski.

  9. I wonder if the previous comment is Chinese or Japanese.

  10. e, that is one of the 12 or so spam comments I've had today. I have changed my settings so that comments will be moderated for a while. I have deleted the duplicate of your comment. Back to normal soon, I hope.

  11. Hi Monix
    Ahh, I always miss the good stuff on the telly. However, he IS doing Sir Gawain and the Green Knight this week, which I'm looking forward least if I've actually got my dates and times right for once.

  12. Thanks for the reminder, Dulce Domum, I might have missed that as I am spending the evenings in the garden while the sunshine lasts.


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