Castaway Cantos

We asked Michael Laskey for a selection of poems (and a record) that would sustain him in isolation. Here he describes his own personal shipwreck anthology.

From my late teens I had a Caedmon LP of poets reading that I played repeatedly. Frost was on it, doing his low-key conversational 'Birches' and 'After Apple-picking'. So, wonderfully, was Yeats, more or less singing 'The Song of the Old Mother'. And I can only hear 'In Memory of W.B.Yeats' in Auden's voice, the oddity of those adopted American "a's" of his - "his last afternoon" and the "ranches of isolation" - interrupting the flow of his Oxford English. I must have bought it for those three, but it introduced me to all sorts of other voices, quirky and unexpected like Stevie Smith's weird performance of 'Not Waving but Drowning', William Empson galloping through 'Missing Dates', and a surprisingly high-pitched William Carlos Williams. And others too, unhurried and measured: Elizabeth Bishop, Wallace Stevens and Richard Wilbur reading 'Love Calls Us to the Things of This World', a beautiful poem that turned out, astonishingly to me then, to be about clothes on a washing-line. It was the individuality and approachability of these voices, I think, that first led me to the poetry readings that have given me so much pleasure since. So, to narrow down the choice, I'll limit myself to poets that I've heard live, all of them readers that audiences love.


First of all the wonderfully varied Alan Brownjohn. After satisfying hours of indecision I find I can't do without 'The Exit of Dr Fitzsimmon', who elegantly escapes from an interminable staff meeting by holding the door open for the tea trolley lady and escorting her in a flamboyantly long sentence, "through other doors, ...long passages, swing doors, main doors... ultimately on / To the great Front Door of the Polytechnic / And the Car Park beyond": an inspiration to us all. Then I'll have Charles Causley's perfect lyric 'Eden Rock' in which he joins his parents in heaven - I never tire of the picnic, "the milk straight / From an old H.P. sauce-bottle, a screw / Of paper for a cork". Connie Bensley's 'A Friendship' is essential too, a painful, stylish and witty novel concentrated into three six-line verses. And life's hardly worth living without Vicki Feaver, something from her next book preferably, but failing that, 'Crab Apple Jelly' from The Handless Maiden where the jam, despite everything, turns out "as clear and shining / as stained glass".


Then I must have some Americans. C. K. Williams to start with, whose unflinching self-interrogation is a constant encouragement to full attention. I'll have 'The Dress' from his latest collection Repair, the long lines reaching back towards an understanding of the antagonisms and inhibitions of family life in his early childhood.


Let Sharon Olds be represented by 'The Race', her heroic sprint for a plane to carry her across the continent to her hateful beloved dying father's bedside. I'd want the whole of Stephen Dobyns' Velocities, but since my 18-year-old son has taken it with him to college, the magic realism of 'Tomatoes' will do, the first poem of his I ever heard, shocking and exciting for the new possibilities of language it offered. And, to finish with, a Billy Collins, 'Forgetfulness' that begins "The name of the author is the first to go" and does the trick of being simultaneously funny and moving about our failing memories. I've been listening to him reading it on a tape in my car for months now and it still makes me laugh out loud.


There's enough music here for me already, but if I've got to choose something I'll settle for Mozart's Clarinet Concerto in A, K.622. Derek Mahon recommends it in his sequence 'Light Music'. As he puts it: "Turn it up / so they can hear / on the other planets".


Michael Laskey founded the Aldeburgh Poetry Festival in 1989 and directed it for the first ten years. His most recent collection, The Tightrope Wedding, is published by Smith/Doorstop (1999).

Poetry News, Summer 2001