A tour of the Archive with Robert Cole

Robert Cole, poet


Poetry springs to life in recordings such as those curated in the Archive. Poems have a perfectly respectable existence lying largely undisturbed between the pages of short-run volumes. But here, read by the writers, poems are vivified. There are so many modern poets I like to hear – from Auden to Zephaniah and via Dylan Thomas, Adrian Mitchell, Tony Harrison, Vikram Seth and all stops in between. I also wonder how much we’d enjoy listening to Keats, Catullus, Pope and Marlowe in the original brogue, and whether we should make more room for excellent recitations of great poems in voices other than the originator. For this guided tour I’ve chosen six poems.



A blade of grass

Brian Patten

First, Brian Patten. I discovered the Liverpool poets as a teenager – though of course they were already poetic superstars by the time I first heard them read at the Edinburgh fringe in 1982. Brian Patten, for many years the third man of the trio, has emerged – in my mind - as the best of the three. In the written words of A Blade of Grass, the context and meaning are only half visible. In his reading, scales fall from inadequate eyes.

The Land of the Bumbly Boo

Spike Milligan

Long before that I’d fallen for Spike Milligan, and the tatty copy of his Silly Verse for Kids that I found lying around in my childhood home. Long live Milligan’s intensely serious, anarchic, nonsense. Here, reading The Land of the Bumbly Boo: Milligan has recorded a manifesto as a piece of comedy. And it is more a song than a reading.

The Lake Isle of Innisfree

William Butler Yeats

I heard Yeats’ The Lake Isle of Innisfree at an early age too, intoned playfully by my dearly departed Dad. In the recording archived here, Yeats explains how the piece came to be written. He was 23, living in London, remembering running water, heather, and Sligo. Read without the trace of an Irish accent that one somehow expects, and with more portentousness than would be thought appropriate now, Innisfree is, or at least was, an enormously popular piece – a fact which Yeats mentions. I think Philip Larkin – about whom more later – once said that his own This Be the Verse was destined to be his Innisfree. It was a comment I took to mean that This Be the Verse, like Innisfree, was an inferior poem which bought more fame than satisfaction. That may well be right. But if you want to escape, travel with the Poetry Archive to Yeats’ “bee-loud glade.”

The Waste Land Part III - The Fire Sermon

T. S. Eliot

I am conscious that this is a fairly traditional selection. It is an impression that may be deepened by the inclusion of lines from TS Eliot’s The Waste Land. But this is quite simply the most important poetic work of twentieth century poetry. Take this to your desert island and you will have a text which is a) an almost inexhaustible source of meaning-exploration; and b) an aide memoire for the literature you did not take with you. Included here is just one section of the poem, the third part, entitled The Fire Sermon. Heard read by the man himself, the sometimes-obscure references become more manageable. You also get to really appreciate the exquisite lyricism possessed by the high priest of modernity.

If You Came

Ruth Pitter

Larkin is a huge poetic influence – both in his own poetry and the poets he gathered together to make the Oxford Book of Twentieth Century Verse. Ruth Pitter is one of the poets I met through Larkin’s brilliant anthology. Her If You Came, is a beautifully simple, tender, verse. Hear her use rhythm and metre to render a poetic shape which marks so much good poetry apart. It is slightly reminiscent of Innisfree and Larkin’s more pastoral works (such as The Trees, or At Grass), but Pitter’s work has a gentle warmth all its own.

The Whitsun Weddings

Philip Larkin

The Whitsun Weddings tells the story of a train journey from Hull to London that I took many times as a student. It weaves its narrative with sturdy but almost-invisible lyricism. There is an ordinary-ness to it too: a reminder that Larkin had a real life, as a hard-working university librarian, as well as a poetic persona. Is The Whitsun Weddings the best of Philip Larkin? An Arundel Tomb and Aubade are also great. Reading the title poem of his best volume, however, Larkin enlivens the work to the point that you can almost smell “the reek of buttoned carriage-cloth” from which the poet makes his sensitive observations. In this listening, Larkin’s lines are flecked with matters of fact that are all too easily left unappreciated.


Robert Cole, poet

Greenwich Reach, a volume of poetry written by Robert Cole, Sean Coughlan and Matthew Wall, is published by the Ashburnham Press. A new volume, called Deptford Creek, was published in the summer of 2012.

Enjoy new recordings of classic poems from the past read by contemporary poets

The Man He Killed

Thomas Hardy

read by Anthony Thwaite

Song of the Old Mother

William Butler Yeats

read by William Butler Yeats