Radical Nostalgia





Katrina Porteous's top ten poems of "Britain" for National Poetry Day



If any one thing defines "Britain" as a single entity, it is the sea. So I'll begin with Coleridge's 'Rime of the Ancient Mariner'. I love this myth: the killing of the bird, which severs man from nature, and leaves him a wanderer, an exile.


I was born in Scotland, and grew up in North East England, which gave me a peculiar sense of place and borders. So my next choice is a Border Ballad, 'Johnnie Armstrong', from Northumberland where I now live. I love the Ballads' feeling for the named, known ground; and the indivisibility within them of poetry, story-telling and popular song.

The Ballads remind us that Britain is a loose and shaky concept. Less than 500 years ago, the English-Scottish border was in the midst of war. Poetry exists to recall us to our deepest nature and, for that reason, I love Geoffrey Hill's 'Funeral Music'. In "florid, grim music broken by grunts and shrieks", Hill reminds us both of the fragility of human society, and of the tenacity of place as history:


… A field

After battle utters its own sound

Which is like nothing on earth, but is earth.


These choices might seem nostalgic; not "relevant" to urban, multicultural Britain. But what I love about poetry is that it is at once bigger than national identity and smaller; concerned with universal issues which it locates in the minutely local.


This is as true of popular song as of "literature". The anonymous eighteenth century 'Collier's Rant' hints mysteriously at death, in North East mining vernacular:


Marra, O marra, what doest thou think?

Aah've broken me bottle an' spilt a' me drink


This voice is, in its way, as distinctive as Welsh, Irish or Scots. But it is vanishing, as the industry associated with it has vanished. To mourn it is more than nostalgia. While Britain is continually redefined, internally and within Europe, local identity becomes ever more important. That which does not have its own voice is lost.


Likewise, as Britain becomes increasingly urban, the voices of its dwindling rural minority become – far from nostalgic – radical, subversive. There are good precedents for this: radical romantic tradition found spiritual "truth" and renewal in nature. This runs contrary to contemporary urban colonialism, which regards the countryside as a foreign land which needs to be civilised. Ted Hughes understood poetry's sacred task to restore us to the natural world. I love his sequence for children, 'What is the Truth?', for its exquisite observations and effortless song. For more personal reasons, I also love Thomas Hardy's poem, 'The Darkling Thrush'. Years ago, when I lived in an American city, the thing I missed most about Britain was its birdsong.


I admire the Greek poet C P Cavafy for his lightness: 'Waiting for the Barbarians' (Keeley and Sherrards' translation) is a dazzlingly ironic warning of the dangers to any nation of pomposity, moribund institutions and political impotence:


What's the point of senators making laws now?

Once the barbarians are here, they'll do the legislating.


In his portrait of an abandoned crofting community, 'Dead Fires', Orkney poet George MacKay Brown looks back, moving effortlessly from human to natural, particular to universal:


From that good stone the children of the valley

Drifted lovewards

And out of labour to the lettered

kirkyard stone.


MacKay Brown's grounding in Norse mythology reminds us that Britain's history has been one of continuous resettlement. One poem which encapsulates this in the present is David Dabydeen's 'Catching Crabs'. Dabydeen's lost world is Caribbean; but it is also the lost innocence of childhood, represented here by an activity which, paradoxically, reflects our greater exile, human from natural. At the same time, it is an activity so familiar to me in Northumberland that all sense of distance and difference evaporates.


My last poet, Carol Ann Duffy, writes brilliantly about what it means to be British. Her sonnet, 'Prayer', suggests that, although Britain has become a secular nation, our spirituality is sparked by contacts – social, cultural or natural. The poem ends with the Shipping Forecast, both a cultural product and a reminder once again of that great defining feature of the British Isles, the sea:


Darkness outside. Inside the radio's prayer –

Rockall. Malin. Dogger. Finisterre.


Katrina Porteous holds an Arts Foundation Award for poetry in 2003. Her poems are published by Bloodaxe.

Poetry News, Autumn 2003