Our Favourite Poems
Jennifer Thurstun’s choice
by Wislawa Szymborska
Performance without rehearsal.
Body without alterations.
Head without premeditation.
I know nothing of the role I play.
I only know it’s mine. I can’t exchange it.
I have to guess on the spot
just what this play’s all about.
Ill-prepared for the privilege of living,
I can barely keep up with the pace that the action demands.
I improvise, although I loathe improvisation.
I trip at every step over my own ignorance.
I can’t conceal my hayseed manners.
My instincts are for happy histrionics.
Stage fright makes excuses for me, which humiliate me more.
Extenuating circumstances strike me as cruel.
Words and impulses you can’t take back,
stars you’ll never get counted,
your character like a raincoat you button on the run –
the pitiful results of all this unexpectedness.
If only I could just rehearse one Wednesday in advance,
or repeat a single Thursday that has passed!
But here comes Friday with a script I haven’t seen.
Is it fair, I ask
(my voice a little hoarse,
since I couldn’t even clear my throat offstage).
You’d be wrong to think that it’s just a slapdash quiz
taken in makeshift accommodations. Oh no.
I’m standing on the set and I see how strong it is.
The props are surprisingly precise.
The machine rotating the stage has been around even longer.
The farthest galaxies have been turned on.
Oh no there’s no question, this must be the premiere.
And whatever I do
will become forever what I”ve done.
In this poem Wislaya Szymborska puts into words a feeling I have often experienced both in real life and dreams – the terrifying freshness of a moment in which I find myself in a situation for which I am totally unprepared. The poet presents the whole perilous, unpredictable journey of life as one of these moments – a play in which one must play a role without ever having been able to read or rehearse it.
I think the power of the poem comes from the way she remains so intently focused on the idea she is getting across, never deviating from the message. And she is describing a shared experience – it’s all of us, we are all caught up in this frightening, astonishing, unrehearseable performance. However there’s also a lightness and light-heartedness there, the fear of the moment balanced with obvious gratitude for the privilege of being in this life. The final lines capture the overwhelming importance of the present moment:
And whatever I do
will become forever what I”ve done.
The poem has been translated from Polish, so it may have lost some of the poetic devices of the original. However the music is there in the rhythm of the lines and the pauses as evidenced in Amanda Palmer’s reading below.
Never Seek to Tell thy Love
By William Blake Circa 1793
Never seek to tell thy love
Love that never told can be
For the gentle wind does move
I told my love I told my love
I told her all my heart
Trembling cold in ghastly fears
Ah she doth depart
Soon as she was gone from me
A traveller came by
O was no deny
First published by Dante Gabriel Rosetti in 1863
Almost a century after its first publication, on 4 June 1962, at 9 am, I turned the examination paper for Oxford Scholarship Level English Literature, to reveal this poem, presented anonymously with an exam question inviting criticism.
I could not believe my luck and jumped in to provide the examiner with my critique of the poem. The poem was close to my heart and one of the many poems introduced to me by my father, an artist with a romantic streak wider than a Van Gogh brushstroke.
But more than close. I could recite it unseen, and debate with the examiner the way Blake sets us up with a trap that borders on paranoia. Does the recognition of love sow the seeds of its own downfall? What is the real meaning of the last stanza? How can such a simple poem be so complex? Questions still unanswered almost 60 years later as it remains a mystery to me and, today as then, I have to settle with the idea that things can change immutably as a consequence of our actions.
When I read this poem again I think back to myself as an 18-year-old, in love for the first time, and about to go to Oxford University, the latter no doubt partly as a result of this fortunate coincidence of having read and loved a poem intended to be ‘sight unseen’.
WB Yeats When You Are Old
I was 18 and enrolled in English 1 at Sydney University. Part of our course was an introduction to modern English poetry. We had a lecture by a visiting PhD student who was researching William Butler Yeats and was particularly interested in Yeats’ relationship with Maud Gonne, a beautiful English-born Irish republican revolutionary, suffragette and actress. Yeats had met and fallen in love with her in 1889. Our young lecturer, whose name I have long forgotten, read poems Yeats wrote for Maud which I still regard as some of the most beautiful love poems in the English language. He also noted that Yeats proposed to Maud several times – she refused, saying it would be bad for his poetry.
Our lecturer then went on to relate how he discovered that Maud Gonne was still alive and he arranged to interview her. It was a cold wintry night when he arrived at her home. She ushered him in, took her seat by the fire, and motioned him to sit in the other chair. In the course of the interview, she reached up, took down a book of Yeats’ poems, and read this:
When You Are Old
When you are old and grey and full of sleep,
And nodding by the fire, take down this book,
And slowly read, and dream of the soft look
Your eyes had once, and of their shadows deep;
How many loved your moments of glad grace,
And loved your beauty with love false or true,
But one man loved the pilgrim soul in you,
And loved the sorrows of your changing face.
And bending down beside the glowing bars,
Murmur, a little sadly, how Love fled
And paced upon the mountain overhead
And hid his face amid a crowd of stars.
After she had read the poem, she paused and added: “And I am old, my hair is grey and we are sitting by the fire reading this. Billy would have liked that.”
I think this was the moment when I first realised how powerfully a poem can communicate; that through a poem we can express our most profound feelings, speak our heart to the heart of another; even speak from beyond the grave to others not yet born of what it is to be human and to experience life with intensity, to speak in words that may move others we shall never meet.