Only poetry, sunk deep into our bones, can articulate our most intense moments
I'm excited about reading the TS Eliot Prize shortlist, especially winner Sharon Olds's Stag's Leap. Olds says she "wants a poem to be useful", and to me poetry's usefulness cannot be overstated. I think everyone who loves poetry is partly made up of certain lines, absorbed at a bone-deep level, to be drawn on when they're needed. I must have more of these in my reservoirs, and I hope this shortlist will give me many.
When my father died, a few lines repeated on a low timpani roll inside my head:
"That is what the thunder said
Are dead are dead are dead
They return to the pool of atoms."
It wasn't consoling, but it gave me something to clutch – a spar in a howling gale. The fragment, spoken by Apollo, comes from Ted Hughes's version of Euripides' Alcestis. As a classical mythology geek, particularly interested in contemporary "reception poetry", I had read Tales from Ovid and Alcestis until they were as familiar to me as ABC, without ever realising that I would need that tiny fragment in the way that I did. In fact, I found in rechecking the quotation that my mind had cut out a "Forever", with a terrible, final full stop, after the last "are dead". I'm grateful to my subconscious editor for such vigilance.
When I was pregnant, I recalled with exaltation the Sylvia Plath poem I'd studied in a vague, doodling, grudging way at school – "O high riser, my little loaf". The baby remained "my little loaf" after she was born – the line still makes my nose prickle with involuntary tears, transporting me instantly back to a deranged and joyful post-natal state.
Shakespeare often shoulders his way into times that need heightened utterance. I had particular trouble, while breastfeeding, with Lady Macbeth, who constantly murmured "I have given suck and know/How tender 'tis to love the babe that milks me …", needing to be cut off sharpish before I was tempted to dwell needing to be bitten off sharpish before the baby-smashing resolution came jolting along behind. She played merry hell with my hormones.
And train journeys, which I find both exciting and slightly sad, inevitably call out the first half of a poem by RS Thomas, The Bright Field:
I have seen the sun break through
to illuminate a small field
for a while, and gone my way
and forgotten it. But that was the pearl
of great price, the one field that had
treasure in it. I realize now
that I must give all that I have
to possess it.
It's a discomfiting poem to remember on something so fast-moving – each small bright field whips by the window in a blur, even as I try to possess it and remain in it forever.
In a rather less exalted vein, I also love the odds and sods that turn up on the tip of your tongue or the back of your mind at inopportune moments (greeting periods with "The curse has come upon me!" is a particular favourite.)
I don't think kids need to learn whole poems to acquire the lines that will matter and mean most to them – the idea behind the recently launched Poetry by Heart campaign– they just need people who love poetry around, teaching it and reading it and being unafraid to be messily moved by it in front of them. These are some of the bits of poetry I'm made up of. Which are yours?