Books

How to rediscover the classics | Ana Sampson

We all like poets, and we know its

In a five minute pause on the bus, in the waiting room, even – whisper it – on the loo we can now order a grocery shop, timetable our social lives or pay our bills. But how about stepping off the treadmill for an instant, and reading a poem instead? Poetry delivers all the benefits of reading fiction in a concentrated hit, providing a mental holiday from our humdrum lives and a chance to flex our empathetic and emotional muscles.

Poetry is personal. Our favourite verses will be dictated by our schooling, our age, where we grew up and our parents and peers, but they will also have been chosen because of our experiences. There is a poem for every feeling and occasion and it’s a huge pleasure to discover that someone has walked this way before us, felt as we feel and had the ability to express it far more clearly and beautifully than we ever could.

Culture is an intricate web, and knowledge of classic poems shines a light into all sorts of unexpected corners. What can a quick scan of Yeats’s Sailing to Byzantium – from which the title is lifted – add to the viewing of No Country For Old Men? Which poets inspired your favourite records? It’s mildly niche, but I had such a thrill when I discovered William Blake’s London, which provided a jumping-off point for The Verve’s History. The musical based on T S Eliot’s peerless Book of Practical Cats might be more to your taste, though – as I said – poetry is personal.

Poems recalled from childhood often have a special place in our personal canons, tumbling us back to a time when our then supple brains were thirstily soaking up knowledge. Verses we learn as children – or at least snatches of them – stay with us all our lives. It’s also fantastic fun to share them with the next generation. My four year old is still baffled by me quoting Lewis Carroll’s Lobster Quadrille, but it does make her pick up her pace when I wheedle, “Will you walk a little faster, said a whiting to a snail?”

Learning poetry by heart is brilliant for widening the vocabulary and getting those synapses snapping, and it means you have a library of gorgeous, useful verses just in case you get dumped, or send your kid off to school for the first time, or have to grieve the cat. But to recharge the mental batteries and parachute out of your life for just five quiet minutes to let a poem wash over you: often, it’s enough.

Best-Loved Poems is Ana Sampson’s fifth anthology of well-known poems, and is published by Michael O’Mara Books in September.

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