Poetry is closest to perfect truth

When downsizing - from foothold to toehold - in London, I had the shock and thrill of having to part with many possessions. Most painfully, thousands of books couldn't fit into my new flat.

When downsizing - from foothold to toehold - in London, I had the shock and thrill of having to part with many possessions. Most painfully, thousands of books couldn't fit into my new flat.

This cull was slightly eased by the fact that my new base was to be above a library. A good book is a life-long comfort blanket, but I could now borrow one whenever I wished.

While boxes of beloved novels went west, I held fast to every last volume of poetry. From Auden to Yevtushenko, they were uniformly slender. Each slim voice was uniquely precious.

Poetry is crucial for civilisation. Almost all of us carry verses in our brains as maxims for how we wish to live.


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Sometimes these are song lyrics, but they still lodge under our skin. This is why the words of John Lennon will always be greater than the melodies of Paul McCartney (whose song lines are embarrassingly banal).

Even atheists like me need to recite poetry as a kind of religious incantation. Every home should have a Bible, if only for the Song of Songs alone. When my mum died Richard Bawden, my Suffolk artist friend, etched the lines You are all fair, my love; there is no flaw in you (Song of Songs 4, 7) on my Southwold study window to which I have also attached a bird feeder. That's my kind of memorial.

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While walking I love to chant and shout remembered lines to the great outdoors. Limericks can lift feet and spirits a treat. Here's my favourite (a skit on Oxbridge):

There was a young man from St John's

Who wanted to ravish the swans

The college head porter said

“Please take my daughter.

“The birds are reserved for the dons.”

I adore two famously modest politicians for their wryly poetic parting shots. This from Clement Attlee:

Some said he was never a starter

There were many who thought themselves smarter

But he ended PM

CH and OM

An Earl and a Knight of the Garter.

And this from Alec Douglas-Home:

To my lameness I'm accustomed

To my deafness I'm resigned

I can manage my bifocals

But oh! how I miss my mind.

Muriel Spark once wrote a poem about the ghosts of writers returning to alter the lines of their best-loved works. How else can quotes we know so well invariably differ from memory when we look them up again? Maybe that's why I cling to every last ode - to keep up with an ongoing evolution.

Poetry hits at the heart of things, packing the most meaning into the fewest words. It is made for committal to memory. It's the closest we ever get to perfect truth.

Of course parents should read to their offspring - Roald Dahl is good but so are the late great poets George Barker and Charles Causley, whose volumes for children should be reprinted and distributed free to every primary school.

But readings at home (and especially before bedtime) are best. Bravo the man who told Radio 4's Today programme: “I still enjoy being read to by my mother and I'm 66!”

We think we know Philip Larkin so well now after all the tittle-tattle about the drear sear of Hull, who had a dirty-old-man's taste for xenophobia and pornography as part of a general misanthropy - and we find it all the more telling because he left orders for the burning of personal diaries presumably packed with smut or filth.

But I suspect Larkin's “real” self was a character he invented to mock the resounding truth of his poetry. This, after all, was the man who wrote What will survive of us is love. That's the last line to end all last lines.

I love the sound and feel of poetic stanzas even when I can't fully clock their meaning. TS Eliot's most baffling lines from The Love Song of J Alfred Prufrock - I should have been a pair of ragged claws scuttling across the floors of silent seas - are brilliant when I'm feeling crabby. The poem that has lingered longest and deepest in my heart and brain reveals the deliciously dark irony of Dorothy Parker. So I leave you with the sweet wit and sour wisdom of You Might As Well Live:

Razors pain you,

Rivers are damp,

Acids stain you,

Drugs cause cramp.

Guns aren't lawful,

Nooses give,

Gas smells awful.

You might as well live.

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