52 Ways of Looking at a Poem, by Ruth Padel

Second stanza of third poem ("Swineherd", by Eiléan Ní Chuilleanáin):

I intend to learn how to make coffee, at least as well
As the Portuguese lay-sister in the kitchen
And polish the brass fenders every day.
I want to lie awake at night
Listening to cream crawling to the top of the jug
And the water lying soft in the cistern.

Second paragraph of Padel's commentary on this poem:

In [poem] No. 2, Derek Mahon approaches the Troubles through the parallel of Dutch art; many Irish poets also approach them via Homer. The Trojan War and its aftermath offer a more familiar parallel for the years of conflict and their after-effects. The last nine books of Homer's Odyssey are about having to go through more conflict on your own home ground, in Ithaca, just as you've got back from a ten-year voyage from hell and, before that, ten other years of war. If you looked at this poem 'Swineherd' without Ní Chuilleanáin's other Odysseus poems, the title and all this in the first line would not absolutely have to speak to Odysseus's home island in the Odyssey. But modern life is not overstocked with swineherds, and literature has only two famous ones I know of: the Prodigal Son and Odysseus's servant.

I am not especially well-read in poetry, so I learned a lot from this. It's a revision of Padel's weekly columns from the Independent on Sunday of almost twenty years ago, explaining what is going on in each poem, not at too great length but enough to make the reader feel (or at least this reader feel) that a better understanding of how poems work is possible.

From the structural point of view, I was struck by the fact that quite a lot of the poems Padel looks at are sonnets, or at least have fourteen lines with roughly five beats to each. She's also very good at looking at the way in which poets use sound as a way of conveying meaning, whether it be vowels or consonants, going beyond the basics of rhyme and alliteration that we were taught at school.

From the political point of view, she makes the strong assertion that poetry in Britain and Ireland has been urgently informed by the Troubles; Heaney, Muldoon, Mahon, Longley, McGuckian (the last two being those who I personally knew back in the days when I was a Fellow at the Institute of Irish Studies in Belfast). She cunningly front-loads the book with Northern Irish poets, so that we read the rest of the poems having started with an Ulster emphasis. I must say I hadn't dared think of my own corner of the woods having an outsize influence in any literary area; but I was ready to be convinced by her arguments. Here is Michael Longley's Ceasefire, drawing again from Homer (and Padel's commentary):


Put in mind of his own father and moved to tears
Achilles took him by the hand and pushed the old king
Gently away, but Priam curled up at his feet and
Wept with him until their sadness filled the building.


Taking Hector's corpse into his own hands Achilles
Made sure it was washed and, for the old king's sake,
Laid out in uniform, ready for Priam to carry
Wrapped like a present home to Troy at daybreak.


When they had eaten together, it pleased them both
To stare at each other's beauty as lovers might,
Achilles built like a god, Priam good-looking still
And full of conversation, who earlier had sighed:


'I get down on my knees and do what must be done
And kiss Achilles' hand, the killer of my son.'

I was also very glad to encounter an old favourite, U.L. Fanthorpe's "Rising Damp" (here is Padel's discussion, which sadly loses the formatting):

‘A river can sometimes be diverted but is a very hard thing to lose altogether.’
(Paper to the Auctioneers’ Institute, 1907)

At our feet they lie low,
The little fervent underground
Rivers of London

Effra, Graveney, Falcon, Quaggy,
Wandle, Walbrook, Tyburn, Fleet

Whose names are disfigured,
Frayed, effaced.

There are the Magogs that chewed the clay
To the basin that London nestles in.
These are the currents that chiselled the city,
That washed the clothes and turned the mills,
Where children drank and salmon swam
And wells were holy.

They have gone under.
Boxed, like the magician’s assistant.
Buried alive in earth.
Forgotten, like the dead.

They return spectrally after heavy rain,
Confounding suburban gardens. They inflitrate
Chronic bronchitis statistics. A silken
Slur haunts dwellings by shrouded
Watercourses, and is taken
For the footing of the dead.

Being of our world, they will return
(Westbourne, caged at Sloane Square,
Will jack from his box),
Will deluge cellars, detonate manholes,
Plant effluent on our faces,
Sink the city.

Effra, Graveney, Falcon, Quaggy,
Wandle, Walbrook, Tyburn, Fleet

It is the other rivers that lie
Lower, that touch us only in dreams
That never surface. We feel their tug
As a dowser’s rod bends to the surface below

Phlegethon, Acheron, Lethe, Styx.

Not every poem of Padel's selection worked for me, but enough of them did to rekindle my enthusiasm for the genre, which probably means it had the desired effect. You can get it here.

This was my top unread book acquired in 2010, the shortest unread book acquired in 2010, and the non-fiction book which had lingered longest unread on my shelves. Next respectively on those lists are The Year's Best Science Fiction & Fantasy, 2010 Edition, edited by Rich Horton, Heartspell, by Blaine Anderson, and The Secret Lives of Garden Birds, by Dominic Couzens.

One thought on “52 Ways of Looking at a Poem, by Ruth Padel

  1. Weird. Looking him up, I find that I’ve only actually read one of his books, Frankenstein Unbound. He’s one of those authors I’ve always known as one of the major writers, but I’ve somehow not read much by him for no apparent reason.

    This, I think, has to be rectified. Helliconia and Cities and Stones appear to be good starting points from what you say here?

    I wish could’ve made it down, but it wasn’t to be, but from all the reports I’ve read it went rather well, so well done overall to everyone.

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