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London: a history in verse by Mark Ford (editor) (Harvard University Press, 2013)

We start each Book Club with an ice-breaker question and this time we asked people for their favourite London streets. Answers included Birdcage Walk and Lincoln's Inn Fields right in the centre of the city to Graham Road in Hackey and Poets Road in Islington (one of the group members actually lived there - lucky them!).

We continued with a brief biography of Mark Ford who edited the anthology:

Mark Ford was born in Nairobi, Kenya, in 1962. He attended Oxford University and Harvard University during which time he completed a doctorate on the poetry of John Ashbery. He is known for his interest in American poetry and has edited two anthologies of New York School poetry for Carcanet. He has also written a critical biography of the French writer Raymond Roussel and translated Roussel's New Impressions of Africa (possibly one of the strangest books of poetry ever written). His collections include Landlocked, Soft Sift, and, most recently, Six Children. He is currently Professor of English in the Department of English Language and Literature at University College London, and regularly contributes to The New York Review of Books, Times Literary Supplement, and the London Review of Books.

We also watched a clip from the Harvard University Press website of Ford discussing the Anthology:


The poems we looked at were:

1. Mary Robinson- London's Summer Morning

Mary Robinson (1757-1800) was a poet and novelist known at 'The English Sappho'. Her eventful life has been written about often, most recently in Paula Byrne's biography  Perdita - the life of Mary Robinson (Robinson was also an actress,  Perdita in The Winter's Tale being her most famous role). Her performance as Perdita caught the attention of the Prince of Wales (later King George 6th) and she became his lover. She championed the rights of women and was an ardent supporter of the French Revolution.

The questions we looked at:
1. How does the poem evoke the 'busy-ness' of the street?
2. This is an eighteenth century street but are there facets of the poems that might evoke a contemporary street-scene?
3. Does the poet successfully 'paint the summer morning'?
4. How do you feel about the use of adjectives in this poem?

2. Richard Aldington- In the Tube

Richard Aldington (1892-1962) was a member of the Imagists, a group of poets who sought to create a poetry of precise, unadorned imagery. He was married to fellow imagist H.D. (Hilda Doolittle) and, although they divorced, remained her friend until her death in 1961. His experiences during WW1 are considered by some to have had a lasting effect on his mental health. As well as poetry and novels (his most famous novel was Death of a Hero which depicted his WW1 experiences), he wrote several biographies, with subjects ranging from T. E. Lawrence to Robert Louis Stevenson and The Duke of Wellington.  The Times obituary in 1962 described him as an 'an angry young man of the generation before they became fashionable', who 'remained something of an angry old man to the end'.

The questions we looked at:
1. Aldington is famous as one of the most prominent poets of the Imagist movement which opposed the excesses of Victorian Poetry and sought to use only words that directly contributed to the poem's effect. Does this poem strike you as an Imagist poem?
2. What effect do the short, sharp lines have on you?
3. Do you think this poem speaks for the dispossessed of London - those who get sideways glances on public transport?
4. What do you think would change in descriptions of the tube if the poem was written today?

3. Carol Ann Duffy- Woman Seated in the Underground, 1941

Carol Ann Duffy was born in 1955 in Glasgow to a Scottish father and an Irish mother.  She grew up in Staffordshire and read philosophy at Liverpool University. Her first full collection was Standing Female Nude (1985) and her other poetry collections include Mean Time (1993), which won the Whitbread Poetry Award and the Forward Poetry Prize (Best Poetry Collection of the Year); The World's Wife (1999), which explores feminine archetypes and includes poems in the voices of women married to world-renowned men, and Rapture (2005), which charts a love affair and won the 2005 T. S. Eliot Prize.    She was appointed Poet Laureate in May 2009, the first woman to hold the position.

We began the discussion by watching a clip from the BBC Learning Zone website of Duffy reading the poem:

(Other relevant clips are featured in the Learning Zone including this animated film of the poem:


The questions we looked at:
1. How many women are in this poem?
2. Is it necessary to know the Henry Moore painting which inspired the poem? Does it help to have some awareness of the work of Henry Moore?
3. Duffy says she was able to enter the painting 'imaginatively'? Do you feel that she was successful?
4. What is the effect of the short sentences which make up this poem?

4. James Berry- Beginning in a city, 1948

James Berry is a Jamaican born poet who came to England in 1948. His is quoted on his Wikipedia page as saying: 'I knew I was right for London and London was right for me. London had books and accessible libraries'. He writes for children and adults and has also edited anthologies of West Indian writing. His most recent book of poetry, A Story I Am In: Selected Poems (2011), draws on five earlier collections: Fractured Circles (1979), Lucy's Letters and Loving (1982), Chain of Days (1985), Hot Earth Cold Earth (1995) and Windrush Songs (2007). In 1990, Berry was made an Officer of the Order of the British Empire (OBE) for services to poetry. His archives were acquired by the British Library in October 2012.

The questions we looked at:
1. What is the effect of keeping the dialogue section until the last stanzas?
2. The language of the poem changes in the dialogue exchange? What is the effect of this in the poem?
3. Can you see similarities between this poem and the Duffy poem?
4. The number of lines per stanza varies: 4, 4, 6, 7, 6, 6, 6, 5, 5. Does this affect our experience of the poem?

5. Heather Phillipson- German Phenomenology makes me want to strip and run through North London

Heather Phillipson is an artist and poet. Her work has been exhibited in many galleries including the ICA, the Serpentine Gallery and the Baltic Centre for Contemporary Art. Her poetry has been published by Faber and Faber, Penned in the Margins and her first collection Instant-flex 718 has just been published by Bloodaxe.

The questions we looked at:
1. Has anyone read any German phenomenology???
2. 'Dasein' is a word Heidegger invented, with a rough meaning of 'being there' - in what way do you think this poem is about "being there" or not "being there"?
3. Is this an intellectual poem - one that makes you think - or do you find it to be more a poem that uses intellectual terms, but has a different objective?
4. Are Marlborough Road and Archway Roundabout important to the theme or feel of the poem, or could they be replaced with places in Putney, or Dalston, or further afield, and still work?

We finished up by asking if people had favourite poems about London which we hadn't covered. There was a general consensus that Wordsworth's Composed Upon Westminster Bridge, September 3, 1802 was a great London poem and so we ended the Book Club with a reading of the poem:

Composed Upon Westminster Bridge, September 3, 1802   

Earth has not anything to show more fair:
Dull would he be of soul who could pass by
A sight so touching in its majesty:
This City now doth, like a garment, wear
The beauty of the morning; silent, bare,
Ships, towers, domes, theatres, and temples lie
Open unto the fields, and to the sky;
All bright and glittering in the smokeless air.
Never did sun more beautifully steep
In his first splendour, valley, rock, or hill;
Ne'er saw I, never felt, a calm so deep!
The river glideth at his own sweet will:
Dear God! the very houses seem asleep;
And all that mighty heart is lying still!

Finally, as people departed into the London night we played a recording of Bow Bells ringing.

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