We reveal the 10 most requested poems by listeners to the world's longest-running radio poetry show
What is a poem for? Every time we produce an edition of Poetry Please– the longest running (and now probably only) poetry request show on any radio station anywhere in the world – we are forced to think about this question. Poems, stowed quietly in their various volumes, slim and not so slim, do not seek any role. Indeed, one of the best things about a poem may be that it is not for anything other than itself. But Poetry Please proves that this isn't the end of the story and demonstrates that not only does poetry have work to do, but that it does it remarkably well.
Robert Frost's "Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening" is the most broadcast requested poem. This might be a surprise to some, though not perhaps to the programme's listeners. It is a quiet and inward piece, and apparently miles away from a poem such as Kipling's "If", which topped a poll of the nation's favourites in 1995. Though we are not exactly comparing like with like (a one-off television-viewers' poll and the accumulating totals of a radio request programme) we might still ask what has happened to poetic taste and preference in the last years to promote a poem such as Frost's. Why do we continue to want to hear it? Though Frost was an American and lived long decades into the 20th century, long after many he knew and wrote alongside were dead (including Edward Thomas, whose "Adlestrop" is also among the top 10 most requested), and though his poetry is very place-specific, it commonly transcends both its pre-modern feel and its American plots. Here are 16 short-rhymed lines recalling a moment's pause on a horseback journey through a winter woodland. The scene is captured with economical precision. The silence of the snow is broken only once – by the jingling bells of the restive animal. We sense the fairytale terror-allure of the muted woods. And in the last three lines we are ushered towards something wider and deeper still, where the suggestion of unfinished business makes a parable and becomes incantatory. It is like listening to a lullaby designed to keep you awake. All of this has things to say to poetry, to radio, and to the listening to and craving for poetry on the radio.
The 30 minutes of Poetry Please is broadcast on half of the Sunday afternoons of the year – and has been for 35 years. Each edition is repeated the following Saturday night. People who listen to the programme (and more than a million do) ask to hear a poem they like and we give them a reading of the poem they have requested. It is one of the simplest things on radio.
Each broadcast begins life in a room in a large 19th-century house in Bristol. The programme's producers share that room with its administrator and several photographs of its presenter, Roger McGough. Every few weeks these pictures come to life when the real McGough joins the production team from his home in London. The office has two striking features. In an increasingly bookless BBC (BBC libraries have been the victims of repeated cuts, almost to the point of extinction), its bookshelves seem like something miraculously alive in a world of digits and screens: two-and-a-half walls, floor to ceiling, crammed with voices waiting to have their volume turned up. The second oddity is a filing cabinet – there aren't many of those left at the BBC either. Here are kept all the poetry requests that the programme has received but is yet to grant, filed under the name of the poet: Abse to Zagajewski.
Often the requests are accompanied by more than a name or address: my wife died last month and she loved this poem; my son is getting married and I want this poem to cheer for him and his bride; I am sad and nothing makes sense, but these verses still manage to lift me up; I half recall these words but can you finish the couplet for me and help me to get it out of my head; I am ill and old but give me some John Donne to remind me that I was once young and in love; I am young and in love and please don't use my name but play this poem for my heart's desire. And on they go, a kind of cardiogram of the country written through its poetry and lodged in four grey metal drawers in the corner of a room in Bristol.
This year is my 25th as a radio producer at the BBC; for half those years I had nothing to do with Poetry Please. Before I was asked to make it, I heard it as a mildewed and musty monument of public service, giving the wrong poems to the wrong people. Then one day I looked through the filing cabinet. Discovering a thousand times over that someone's words had meant so much to someone else changed my mind completely.
There are still those who don't care for Poetry Please – or its poems. I recently heard John Cooper Clarke raise a sneery laugh with talk of Roger McGough as the silver fox of poetry. There are jokes about the programme on I'm Sorry I Haven't a Clue– that sacred cow of radio comedy. But spare me the angry performance poet who thinks their shouty rhymes are fluttering poetry's dovecote and are relevant in a way Donne cannot be; spare me also the received idea that the programme trades solely in poetic warm beer (cricket, the sun going down, spinsters on bicycles, guildhalls, the carved, bare ruined choirs where late the sweet birds sang etc). To think like this is rather evidence of cloth-eared listening. It also betrays a more depressing thought: that poetry, old or new, has nothing to say to us today. Poetry Please asserts the opposite.
The programme runs throughout the year. Sometimes we pitch the mood for wintry Sunday afternoons, the dusking hour and the drawing of curtains; sometimes we make it more summery, closer to Test Match Special, thinking of a radio playing through an open window and sprinkling words across a sunny lawn; sometimes the late night repeat of the programme is in our minds, with many listeners already in bed and being floated into sleep and dreams by the poems – the programme is then like the Shipping Forecast cradling all of our islands as we drift off.
The Shipping Forecast itself has inspired more poems than any other radio programme. Carol Ann Duffy's "Prayer" and Seamus Heaney's "The Shipping Forecast" are among several often requested. It makes you think there must be some common traffic involved, that the weather is a poem itself, and a poem is a broadcast, that these airwaves – radio, poetry and weather – come together to make something like our national climate.
How has that climate changed? Shakespeare and poems of the long 19th century still dominate the list of the most broadcast. Kipling doesn't make the top 10, though he wasn't far off, though neither was TS Eliot, nor Simon Armitage, nor Charles Causley, nor Stevie Smith, nor Sylvia Plath. Modernism (and whatever has followed it) remains a strange fruit for many; the most recently published poet on the top 10 list is Dylan Thomas, who was born 100 years ago and wrote more from the lush side of life than most of his contemporaries. The change is more obvious in the sorts of poems (rather than in the poets) that are being requested. The top 10 list is beautifully weathered: it contains poems of doubt and trepidation, reflections on human vulnerabilities and on a world denied the certainty of God, there are cautious announcements of love, some rescue remedies and annotations of what remains, footnotes for fallen lives and echoes of the song of the earth, and much tenacious hunger for life. Modernity, or life as it is now, is written into all of these poems. They speak to us today, with each of their poets reaching with their living hands back towards us, as Keats said he would, from beyond the grave.
The 10 Most Broadcast Poems on Poetry Please
Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening – Robert Frost
'How do I love thee? Let me count the ways' – Elizabeth Barrett Browning
Adlestrop – Edward Thomas
Fern Hill – Dylan Thomas
The Darkling Thrush – Thomas Hardy
Dover Beach – Matthew Arnold
'Let me not to the marriage of true minds' – William Shakespeare
The Listeners – Walter De La Mare
Remember – Christina Rossetti
To His Coy Mistress – Andrew Marvell