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Your favourite poem

In this activity, Michael Symmons Roberts and Helen Mort share their thoughts on one of their favourite poems.

Welcome to the course! In the video above, the course tutors Helen and Michael introduced themselves. They have also each written a short piece on one of their favourite poems. When you have read this, share your thoughts in the comments below: Do you have a favourite poem to recommend? What do you think of Michael and Helen’s choices?


I often explore ideas about landscape in my poems, and the writer I go back to when I’m looking for inspiration is Norman MacCaig (1910-1996) because I think he succeeds in making the familiar new. A great example is his poem ‘Explicit Snow’, a particular favourite of mine. I think great poems often hold a paradox at their heart and here, MacCaig explores how snowfall can seem both familiar and utterly novel at the same time – how it seems to fall ‘from a place we feel we could go to’. I admire MacCaig’s use of metaphor in ‘Explicit Snow’, comparing it to an actor who steps ‘not from the wings, / But from the play’s extension – all he does / Is move from the seen to the mysterious.’ It’s a subtle, unshowy kind of image in keeping with the quiet tone of the poem. But the phrase that always comes to mind when I think of ‘Explicit Snow’ is his description of ‘the hill we’ve looked out of existence.’ Sometimes, it’s easy to take the known world around us for granted. Poetry is there to make us look (and think) again.


I’m going to cheat a bit and choose a poem which could have been any one of 385. I first stumbled across the American poet John Berryman’s (1914-1972) ‘Dream Songs’ in my late teens, and I never thought the same way about poetry again. I still return to these poems today and find them inexhaustible in their vitality and resourcefulness. Most of the Dream Songs, like this one, are 18 lines long, set in three stanzas, but despite that constraint (and because of it) almost anything can happen. Most of the poems revolve around an imaginary mid-life American male called Henry, who has a lot in common with the poet, including having suffered ‘an irreversible loss’, but this gives Berryman sufficient distance to explore the most difficult and inaccessible territories of loss and grief, faith and despair, mortality and – yes, as in this one – even boredom. The Dream Songs are short, shocking sketches, often employing two or three voices. They are by turns, and often in the same song, playful and heart-breaking. Berryman said that the Dream Songs were meant to ‘terrify and comfort’, and they do. But for me they do more than that. They open up – as the best poems can, and as Berryman does in the out-of-the-blue mad brilliance of the end of Song 14 – new directions of thought and feeling.

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