A tour of the Archive with

Stephen Fry

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Youth and Age on Beaulieu River
by John Betjeman
Betjeman's melancholy moaning rhythms can be funny, sad and tense all at the same time. His milieu is so specific and so comically out of step with modernity now (as it was then) that it is easy to dismiss the catch in his voice as nostalgia and nothing more. The pain Betjeman feels in his verse is not so much for past time as for missed time: missed moments of love between people too entrenched in the forms and order of life to remember love. The rhythmic convention of his formal verse is the very prison he and his characters inhabit. In this poem, so comically introduced and perfectly read, we witness old age "raising large long-distance glasses" to beauty gliding away as Mrs Fairclough seems to watch a vision of her former self that will return, as will we all, to mud.
You're Beautiful
by Simon Armitage
A thrilling recitation of a magnificent insistent chant that plays on the difference between the sexes with a power and music that sings with all the authority of Greek choric utterance and liturgical versicle and response in the alluring shape of modern popular song. As the stanzas cycle and the overall form of verse and chorus clarifies in the ear, something more than comic observation emerges. Is he cheating? Is his excoriation of himself and his sex in reality an act of seduction? If there's one thing men do well it's make themselves attractive to women through wry self-abasement...
I, Too
by Langston Hughes
The great poem of Civil Rights is not noisy, violent or angry; neither is it filled with grand rhetoric - it has the astounding courage to be amused and calmly certain. We may fill in the gaps with our outrage, our politics and our sense of history, but Langston Hughes writes from inside and claims America for his race with resigned assurance.
by U A Fanthorpe
"The poetry of earth is ceasing never", as Keats wrote. The peerless U. A. Fanthorpe roots herself in the very earth of English poetry, connecting herself to Hughes and Browning, but also and more pertinently to the real experience of English living. With immense concision she ranges from gypsies to supermarkets (where the rudeness is local but the bread isn't). A love song, as she herself says - but so clear-eyed and so, well, completely poetic.
A Supermarket in California
by Allen Ginsberg
One of the great anthems of modern American verse, Ginsberg's lovesong to Walt Whitman sings the modern America with cunning irony. I can't but notice that this masterpiece strangely counterpoints Fanthorpe's quiet English 'Earthed' with its connecting of poetic past and prosaic present. A gay supermarket cruise, where Lorca lurks too, Ginsberg walks the aisles of modern America in the company of its grand poetic patriarch and finds a new poetic language for a new America.
Reading MND in Form 4B
by Peter Porter
Peter Porter's poem shuttles between the Northern and Southern Hemispheres with increasing force. We all recognise the schoolroom teaching of Shakespeare he brings to life with such comic precision, but there is something else happening. Porter is feeling his way into a new Australian identity. What can Shakespeare's midsummer night mean in the broiling heat of an Australian classroom in 1944? What can a European war mean? This wise, literate and perfectly made poem shows that a poetic scene can be about itself, every detail exactly observed, and be about something much wider too: something political and cultural, something to do with identity itself. All this achieved without statement. And how great a line is "to be young is to be in hell"?
Perfection Isn't Like A Perfect Story
by P J Kavanagh
To rhyme Cavafy with Café - a poetic flourish of the first order. This is a quite devastatingly lovely lyric that puts me in mind of Auden's Lullaby. We can't tell gender, age or relationship (though perhaps Cavafy is a clue?), but we know an artist's love of his subject's beauty when we encounter it. Like much of this superb poet's work, the language is deceptively simple while the effect lingers for ever.

Stephen Fry is a man of many talents: actor, novelist, comedian, librettist, thinker and wit. In an interview with Michael Parkinson, he was described as being "a man with a brain the size of Kent".

Author photograph © Johnny Boylan

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