A tour of the Archive with Rachel Smith

Rachel Smith, chef and poet


Visiting the Poetry Archive feels like browsing through your favourite bookshop and finding that all the books are now talking to you!



Mossbawn Sunlight

Seamus Heaney

Heaney comes first because he was the first major poet I studied and came to love. Hearing him read his poems is like having contact with the earth, and the rain, and the power of language, all first hand. Towards the end of this poem, dedicated to his aunt Mary, there is the line "here is a space/again, the scone rising/to the tick of two clocks". Creating space is what Heaney marvels at, achieving it with words and most of all his voice, as he describes an ordinary day at what feels like the quiet centre of the world, the yard at Mossbawn in Co. Derry where he grew up.

The Red Wheelbarrow

William Carlos Williams

Listening to a poet read their own work sometimes comes as a surprise, as the poet themselves may not sound as you expect them to, or they may read the poem with a different emphasis from how you might read it yourself. 'The Red Wheelbarrow' is one of the defining poems of the 20th century, well known, easily learnt by heart, and a great one to read with kids. With a poem this short every word really does count, and the emphasis Willams gives the first four, "so much depends/upon", just adds even more significance to the red wheelbarrow that come after. He almost seems to be sighing as he reads this line, as though he is breathing out the weight of that dependence. We have become very used to recordings of people, but there is still something magical about being able to listen to voices from the past for the first time, a quality that all the historical recordings share, almost like you're eavesdropping.

earth cries

Jean Binta Breeze

I discovered this poem for the first time on the Children's Archive, and I could listen to it over and over again, partly because of what it is about, and partly because of the way Breeze reads, infusing this quite serious poem with the rolling rhythms of traditional children's verse and the rise and fall of her Jamaican lilt. The last line comes as a bit of a wake-up call and makes you think about how the earth feels about us.

Bats' Ultrasound

Les Murray

Poems about animals are commonplace, but in this one, Australian poet Les Murray takes us into an animal soundscape, as well as some primordial bat vowel-cave where all language might originate. I don't want to say too much about this poem, apart from suggesting that you listen to it first without reading it, and then listen and read, so you can appreciate just how good Murray's 'Bat English' is.

The Land of the Bumbly Boo

Spike Milligan

New Zealand children of a certain generation grew up listening to Spike Milligan's "Bad Jelly the Witch" on the radio on Saturday mornings. It is a short story read by Spike (there's also a handwritten book) and it is funny and silly, real and scary all at the same time, and you were drawn into this world by Spike's voice and reading. This poem takes us to a similarly surreal, imaginary place. It is all about the delight there is hidden inside words and the sounds they make - so much so that you can hear Spike laughing at one point!

Paternoster

Jen Hadfield

Poems can be like little prayers and this one is just that, taking as it does the most well known prayer in Christianity and rewriting it from the perspective of a draught horse. The poem is full of warmth and humour "Hallowed be dy hot mash", but it also resonates with the often-repeated rhythms of the Our Father. The poem is full of the horse's life: "Give our daily wheat, wet/whiskers in the sonorous bucket". And maybe that's what poetry does; hallows the everyday by noticing it and noting it down. In the same way that Heaney does, Hadfield's voice creates a space out of time when she reads this poem, at once powerful and intimate.


Rachel Smith, chef and poet

Rachel Smith is a chef working in central London. She has a BA (Hons) from Canterbury University, New Zealand where she specialised in New Zealand literature, and is currently a member of Jane Draycott's Saturday Workshop group at the Poetry School in London.

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