I’ve been thinking a lot recently about the nature of reading and the different types of reading.

For my microreviews/collection enthusiasms, I tend to read wanting to like the poems and looking for things in them that please. (Criticism mostly seems too late by the stage something has been published.)

By contrast, in feedback groups and initial stages of competition judging, I tend to read more critically/negatively, looking for things that don’t work or could be improved, or weeding out potentially weaker entries.

This week, submissions for V. Press opened (for the month of August only) and I am wondering how I and my editorial advisers will tackle these. Time will tell, of course.

My interest in the nature of reading is a long-standing one. One of my masters’ projects, ‘An Eyeful of Words’, looked at various things, including aspects of private reading (at home from the book) versus public enjoyment of poetry (at spoken word events) and the possibility that poetry exhibitions might offer a different space for poetry/reading enjoyment somewhere between these two.

(For those interested in the nature of reading, the University of Nottingham’s free short How to read a mind course, introducing cognitive poetics: the application of cognitive science to literary reading, is also interesting.)

This week, I have also started learning the poems I will be sharing in my Knives, Forks and Spoons Press reading at this year’s Free Verse Poetry Book Fair in London on Saturday, September 6. I’m not sure yet if I will actually perform my poems from memory. But, even if I don’t, there is something about the experience of learning them by heart that changes their intensity and my appreciation of them.

The idea of a type of reading that involves learning poems by heart had gone by the time that I was at school, but seems to be coming back into fashion again. (The Poetry by Heart project and competition for young people, for example.)

In deciding to try compiling a list of some of my favourite poems, I was struck however by how much knowing parts of a poem by heart seemed to come into this. The lines from Blake weren’t rote-learnt at school but I have read them so many times and they have struck me in such a way that they have lodged in my memory.

The following list is a quick top 8 of some of my favourite poems. It is not exhaustive and by no means the same as a top 8 of best poems (if such a thing were actually possible to compile). More, it is a list of poems which have something so memorable in them that they have become part of me in a more concrete way than those poems that have more subtly changed things in me.

At this point it’s probably also worth pointing out that this is about individual poems rather than collections. There are many fine collections which I highly rate as a whole yet don’t include a poem in this list, whereas there are poems on this list where I would highly rate that poem but not necessarily a whole collection.

I’ve enjoyed these poems, I hope you enjoy them too.

Matthew Arnold – ‘Dover Beach

Firstly, this has the sea, and I love the sea. Secondly, the sadness, the painful beauty, our individual smallness in the world with all its darkness and conflict…so much here that resonates within me.

‘Bat Eyes’ – a poetry film from Yeats’s poem ‘When You Are Old

I love this poetry film and return to it time and time again. Again, emotions that I can empathise with. I think this film also really does bring the poem to me. It is beautiful poetry, but I’m not sure it would have made this list by itself, without this film highlighting and underscoring the beauty and depth of what may on first read seem quite undemanding lines.

W.B. Yeats – ‘The Stare’s Nest by My Window

Right from its cracking title, this is a poem that grips me. The balance of its combination of beautiful clear imagery with an intriguing, more ambiguous/interpretable repeated line in different contexts leave me as a reader, the perfect amount of space to draw analogies, wonder and make this poem my own to return to again and again.

Jean Sprackland – ‘The Birkdale Nightingale

This poem’s first appeal is that it is not what it seems. Its clear details of something that does not appear particularly beautiful yet constantly surprises us with its beauty. Also, its sensuality and inevitability that does not rob it of this extraordinariness. Then, the parallels between man and animal; something that at first seems alien (a crashed spaceship) yet is actually very human.

Anne Carson – ‘The Glass Essay

Although this sequence is long, and I generally tend to lose attention in long poems, this is gripping from start to finish. The literary background, the compelling narrative, the beautiful individual striking lines that still continue to stun me on many re-readings!

William Blake – ‘The Tyger‘ and ‘The Sick Rose

Both these poems are ones from my earliest childhood memories. I never learnt them by rote but somehow the lines have always been there, just as the faith of my Church of England upbringing will always be in me even though I would no longer consider myself a Christian.

Jacques Prévert – ‘Alicante

I find French a beautiful language and this a beautiful sensual poem, for all its seeming simplicity. Prévert is probably the poet most responsible for my love of poetry. The beautiful sounds of his language and the film-like images.

It is very worth mentioning that this short poem also highlights the dilemmas faced when translating poetry. The translation here captures the semantic meaning of the poem, the narrative details and images. However, it doesn’t have the same beauty of language and rhymes as the original. For me, this is one that is definitely best tasted in its original French.

Robert Frost – ‘Mending Wall

This listing is a contradiction, in that it is Frost’s Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening, where I find the words most memorable. It is however ‘Mending Wall’, that is most memorable for me in the theme and its relevance still today. A continually thought-provoking poem.