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In a first-past-the-post contest, Eliot's mighty fragments are the 'readers' favourite'. But in truth, your opinions are incorrigibly plural
Is it possible to have one favourite poem? Responding to the National Poetry Day blog ("What's Your Favourite Poem?"), most of you thought not. "So patronising it hurts," was the reaction of one poster, who went on to ask whether the topic would promote "critical engagement with poetry" or even "enjoyment of poetry". Another, ofile, versified the argument for diversity: "Poems suit moods, occasions, age,/ even a certain time of day,/ are howls, histories, sighs, / even entertainment … " Many nominations came with the caveat that tomorrow the favourite could well be different.
Others kindly played along with the idea that it might not be entirely philistine to select a particular poem as best able to satisfy all seasons and moods. Having read the work in question at an early, formative age was for many a deciding factor. For a couple of the posters, what mattered was the companionship around the discovery of the poem – the parent or child who shared the reader's enjoyment.
My aim had been for posters to assemble a kind of agenda-free, ad hoc anthology; an online variant of the classic Heaney-Hughes collection, The Rattle-Bag. Judged by that goal, the blog was a success. The choices were refreshingly independent-minded: duplications were unusual. The "winning" poems received a mere three votes apiece. There was a notable absence of the old-fashioned, didactic poem, exemplified by Kipling's "If" (once voted the Nation's Favourite).
At the same time, there were sufficient votes for the kind of poem that offers, however subtly, some kind of moral guidance or comfort, to suggest that this is not a redundant function – and perhaps one to which poets might pay more attention. Cavafy's "The God Abandons Anthony" is such a poem, and it received two votes.
An online anthology is limitlessly capacious, luckily, so there was room for the 20th-century classics you nominated, such as Basil Bunting's "Briggflatts", TS Eliot's "The Waste Land" and Louis Zukofsky's objectivist epic, "A", as well as for Chaucer's The Canterbury Tales, Milton's "Lycidas", Pope's "The Dunicad" and a generous selection by WS Graham.
There was no consensus about Larkin, represented by "The Whitsun Weddings" , "An Arundel Tomb" and "Churchgoing". Auden, however, received two editorial votes for a single work, "The Shield of Achilles". From today's younger generation of writers, you nominated Alice Oswald ("Dart") and Matthew Francis ("Poem Without Words").
Familiar figures such as Gerard Manley Hopkins, George Oppen, RS Thomas, John Betjeman, Charles Simic and Mark Strand jostled with the lesser known, like Violet Szabo, Sorley MacClean, John M Ford and Charles Mungoshi. Fernando Pessoa, the remarkable Portugese poet famous for his multiple personae or "eponyms", was introduced with eloquent enthusiasm by gavinscottw, whose first choice was "Tobacconist's".
We also met some Italians (Dante and Ariosto) and a bigger sprinkling of French poets than expected (Éluard, Rimbaud, Baudelaire, Prévert and Apollinaire – who was Polish, admittedly, but wrote in French). We heaved romantic sighs with Lord Byron ("When we two parted") and slipped "Outside the Narrative" with Tom Leonard. We travelled to Nineveh with John Masefield's "Cargoes" and to Hollywood with John Ashbery's Daffy Duck.
Women poets were popular: Stevie Smith, Liz Lochhead, Carol Ann Duffy, Helen Dunmore, Wislawa Symborska, Mary Oliver. Your favourite Americans (after Eliot) were Robert Frost and Wallace Stevens: you also found room for Elizabeth Bishop's "The Moose" and Sylvia Plath's "Mad Girl's Love Song".
As for the Irish, I was glad to see the nomination for Derek Mahon's magnificent "A Disused Shed in Co Wexford". John Montague received a vote for "All Legendary Obstacles", Patrick Kavanagh, for "Epic", and Paula Meehan, for "My Father Perceived as a Vision of St Francis". Louis MacNeice had two nominations – for "Snow" and "The Wiper".
Around half-a-dozen nominations were amassed by a solid trio of 20th-century "greats": TS Eliot, Dylan Thomas and WB Yeats – plus William Shakespeare. Yeats and Shakespeare were represented by a greater variety of poems than Eliot and even Dylan Thomas. From Yeats you liked "The Cloths of Heaven", "The Wild Swans at Coole", "Lapis Lazuli", "Easter 1916", and "The Second Coming" – all fine choices, and suggestive of the potency of the singing line.
Shakespeare took a bow both as sonneteer and playwright. One poster, deadgod, chose King Lear and wrote that "to read Lear is 'to do' as much with the heart and mind as words can provoke". Perhaps there are grounds for arguing with the reassignment of genre – but if the multi-vocal "Waste Land" is a poem, why not 'Lear'?
Your favourite poems, each receiving three nominations, were "The Waste Land", Keats's "Ode to a Nightingale" and Coleridge's "The Rime of the Ancient Mariner". I think I'll leave it to you to find a common thread in these poems!
Since other works by Eliot also received nominations, on the basis of your choices last week it seems that this week's Poem has to be "The Waste Land". It's in copyright, of course, but you can listen to it here.
Leaving aside the "critical engagement" issue (a valuable by-product, but not the primary aim) I hope everyone enjoyed the "anthology" as much as I did. This enjoyment, for me, not only took the form of meeting new work, but of re-reading a poem through the prism of someone else's enthusiasm, and feeling it come differently alive. The collection you made is there in the archive for all to visit. I have only skimmed the surface in this little round-up, and apologise for the many omissions. All your suggestions and comments were much appreciated.
© Guardian News & Media Limited 2009