We’ve teamed up with the National Poetry Library to bring you this guided tour of The Poetry Archive. In this tour, members of the National Poetry Library team, Chris McCabe, Lorraine Mariner and Will René, walk you through their favourites within our collections.

The National Poetry Library is the largest public collection of modern poetry in the world.

Founded by the Arts Council in 1953 and opened by poets T.S. Eliot and Herbert Read, the National Poetry Library has been at the heart of the UK’s poetry community ever since. The National Poetry Library has been a place of inspiration and support for many esteemed poets and writers throughout its history. Learn more about the library by visiting their website.

Briggflatts - Basil Bunting
Chosen by Chris McCabe - In the 1960s Bunting was almost a forgotten Modernist when a new generation of poets, led by Tom Pickard, teased Briggflats out of him. Lauded by Ginsberg, and a former protégé of Pound, Bunting’s sonorous epic bridged the ...

Chosen by Chris McCabe -

In the 1960s Bunting was almost a forgotten Modernist when a new generation of poets, led by Tom Pickard, teased Briggflats out of him. Lauded by Ginsberg, and a former protégé of Pound, Bunting’s sonorous epic bridged the early century’s poetics with the new explosion of spoken and performance poetry. I’ve chosen this poem because this is what the Poetry Archive is all about, presenting poems that were meant to be heard aloud. As Bunting was fond of saying: ‘Poetry is sound’.

Read more
Kitchenette Building - Gwendolyn Brooks
Chosen by Chris McCabe - In a different key from Bunting, and equally as musical, the poetry of Gwendolyn Brooks is characterised by a conversational rhythm, disjuncts and the unexpected. ‘We are things of dry hours’, the poem begins, ‘and the ...

Chosen by Chris McCabe -

In a different key from Bunting, and equally as musical, the poetry of Gwendolyn Brooks is characterised by a conversational rhythm, disjuncts and the unexpected. ‘We are things of dry hours’, the poem begins, ‘and the involuntary plan’. Appointed as the first black woman to be poetry consultant to the Library of Congress, Brooks’ work is also significant for its foregrounding of the realities of working class life. In Brooks’ creative world, writing can never be separate from the work of being a mother, a worker, an earner; the poem ends with the speaker hoping that when the fifth child gets out of the bath, the water will still be warm.

Read more
At the Grave of Asa Benveniste - Roy Fisher
Chosen by Chris McCabe - This poem is packed, just like a cemetery, with poets. ‘At the Grave of Asa Benveniste’ is about visiting — with Fleur Adcock — the cemetery of the Jewish poet Asa Benveniste. The poem begins through being mistakenly ...

Chosen by Chris McCabe -

This poem is packed, just like a cemetery, with poets. ‘At the Grave of Asa Benveniste’ is about visiting — with Fleur Adcock — the cemetery of the Jewish poet Asa Benveniste. The poem begins through being mistakenly directed towards Sylvia Plath’s grave, and garners emotional weight through trawling back in memory to past poetry readings and Benveniste’s bookshop, where he was resistant to people buying the books: ‘I can’t have anyone taking my good friends away from me’. Listen on to discover what it is written on Asa Benveniste’s headstone, but poets, take caution in what it says!

Read more
The Stinking Rose - Sujata Bhatt
Chosen by Chris McCabe - Suajatta Bhatt’s ‘The Stinking Rose’ is a poem of sensuality, a forensic look at a bulb of garlic, and its relationship with roses, which have historically been planted next to garlic to give their leaves a stronger scent. The ...

Chosen by Chris McCabe -

Suajatta Bhatt’s ‘The Stinking Rose’ is a poem of sensuality, a forensic look at a bulb of garlic, and its relationship with roses, which have historically been planted next to garlic to give their leaves a stronger scent. The poem asks us to meet us on its own terms, asking questions, ‘Are you hungry? / Does it burn through your ears?’ Bhatt plays with contrasts of scale, for one moment the garlic is just a metaphor, then it is in the blood, then being looked at under a lens. This is a poem of surprises, subverting Shakespeare, leading to a further question: is it possible that garlic can be an aphrodisiac?

Read more
Wedding Day - Tom Raworth
Chosen by Chris McCabe - I always think of Tom Raworth’s as abstract expressionism in language and ‘wedding day’ presents us with dozens of vivid images all happening on someone’s ‘Big Day’, but with no attempt to structure the hierarchy of the ...

Chosen by Chris McCabe -

I always think of Tom Raworth’s as abstract expressionism in language and ‘wedding day’ presents us with dozens of vivid images all happening on someone’s ‘Big Day’, but with no attempt to structure the hierarchy of the significant details. Instead, we are invited as readers to immerse ourselves in the present-tense moment — ‘sea fog twisting light above the pebbles’ — and gifted the role of omniscience. Through the objectivist images and the overheard phrases, the poem could be argued as being closer to life than poems in which the experience has already been processed by the poet. In Raworth’s poems, as in life, we are caught in the excitement of multiple things happening simultaneously, intuition counting as much as intelligence.

Read more
The Idea - Mark Strand
Chosen by Will René - In his enigmatic poem ‘The Idea’, former US Poet Laureate Mark Strand uses his characteristic blend of simple language and surreal imagery to conjure an inner landscape at once familiar and alien. Strand’s hypnotic reading of this ...

Chosen by Will René -

In his enigmatic poem ‘The Idea’, former US Poet Laureate Mark Strand uses his characteristic blend of simple language and surreal imagery to conjure an inner landscape at once familiar and alien. Strand’s hypnotic reading of this poem offers listeners occasional glimpses of clarity before lapsing back into obscurity, suggesting that our best ideas will always be just beyond the grasp of our full comprehension. Mark Strand is one of many amazing poets whose work I’ve discovered through enriching conversations and recommendations from library users at the front desk of the National Poetry Library.

Read more
The Video Box: No. 25 - Edwin Morgan
Chosen by Will René - ‘The Video Box No. 25’ is a great example of Edwin Morgan’s expansive imagination and off-kilter sense of humour, and depicts - in meticulous detail - an imaginary TV event: the world jigsaw final. The narrator’s obsessive ...

Chosen by Will René -

‘The Video Box No. 25’ is a great example of Edwin Morgan’s expansive imagination and off-kilter sense of humour, and depicts - in meticulous detail - an imaginary TV event: the world jigsaw final. The narrator’s obsessive description of this painstaking process has a deadpan quality, and although this poem is full of pathos in its portrayal of absurd and seemingly impossible human endeavour, it ultimately holds hope that this kind of endeavour can lead to moments of beauty. 2020 marked Edwin Morgan’s 100th birthday, and the National Poetry Library contributed to the Edwin Morgan Trust’s celebrations of this milestone by commissioning four LGBTQ+ poets to respond to his work.

Read more
The Missing - Roger Robinson
Chosen by Will René - When we hosted a book club for Roger Robinson’s brilliant T.S. Eliot Prize-winning A Portable Paradise at the National Poetry Library, there was general agreement among attendees that ‘The Missing’ is one of the standout poems. ...

Chosen by Will René -

When we hosted a book club for Roger Robinson’s brilliant T.S. Eliot Prize-winning A Portable Paradise at the National Poetry Library, there was general agreement among attendees that ‘The Missing’ is one of the standout poems. Written for the victims of the Grenfell Tower fire disaster, ‘The Missing’ is at once ethereal and solemn, and full of striking, heartbreaking imagery, respectfully paying tribute to those who died in the 2016 tragedy. Robinson’s poetry is fantastic on the page, but really comes alive when he reads it aloud, his voice lending heft and gravity to each word.

Read more
Not Waving But Drowning - Stevie Smith
Chosen by Will René - In its stark simplicity and incisive perception, this classic poem by Stevie Smith is still haunting today. Although the poem itself is brief, much of this archival recording (originally recorded by the BBC but now hosted by the ...

Chosen by Will René -

In its stark simplicity and incisive perception, this classic poem by Stevie Smith is still haunting today. Although the poem itself is brief, much of this archival recording (originally recorded by the BBC but now hosted by the Poetry Archive) consists of the poet discussing her sources of inspiration, which is a joy to listen to - by turns wise and funny, what Stevie Smith says about inspiration here goes far beyond this one poem, and may well help inspire those who are struggling to put pen to paper themselves.

Read more
Surge 3 - Jay Bernard
Chosen by Will René - Taken from an early iteration of Jay Bernard's award-winning book-length sequential poem Surge, this extract burrows deep into the memory of the New Cross Fire of 1981, intimately bearing witness to the lives that were lost and ...

Chosen by Will René -

Taken from an early iteration of Jay Bernard's award-winning book-length sequential poem Surge, this extract burrows deep into the memory of the New Cross Fire of 1981, intimately bearing witness to the lives that were lost and destroyed by the tragedy. Bernard sensitively combines harrowing imagery with memories of youthful innocence ("i heard they found that boy you liked / but couldn't say if it was him"), and this disturbing juxtaposition is exaggerated in this reading, as familiar patterns of rhythm and rhyme emerge before quickly dissipating throughout. This is by no means an easy listen, but by giving voice to these lost lives, Bernard ensures their memories are preserved, and gives us pause to consider how injustices of the recent past still have their echoes today.

Read more
The Ex-Queen Among the Astronomers - Fleur Adcock
Chosen by Lorraine Mariner - 2020 marked 10 years of the National Poetry Library Book Club and we’re looking forward to getting together to discuss poetry again in the coming months. Our inaugural book club in 2010 focused on the anthology Dark Matter ...

Chosen by Lorraine Mariner -

2020 marked 10 years of the National Poetry Library Book Club and we’re looking forward to getting together to discuss poetry again in the coming months. Our inaugural book club in 2010 focused on the anthology Dark Matter : Poems of Space, and one of the poems we talked about, after listening to this Poetry Archive recording, was Fleur Adcock’s ‘The Ex-Queen Among the Astronomers’. I have always imagined the ex-queen of this poem to be a Tudor queen, so it’s quite a surprise to hear Adcock say in her introduction to the poem that it was inspired by an ex-queen of the 1960s, Queen Soraya, and that the astronomical detail came from reading articles in the encyclopedia, “picking up some ideas and some vocabulary”. The astronomers seem so real to me and one of the editors of Dark Matter’ was astrophysicist Dame Jocelyn Bell Burnell so I guess she was pretty convinced by these men of science too.

Read more
Filling Station - Elizabeth Bishop
Chosen by Lorraine Mariner - Elizabeth Bishop is famous for taking a long time to write her poems, she was happy to wait many years for the right word or phrase to come along to fill a gap, and in this reading of the ‘Filling Station’ she begins by ...

Chosen by Lorraine Mariner -

Elizabeth Bishop is famous for taking a long time to write her poems, she was happy to wait many years for the right word or phrase to come along to fill a gap, and in this reading of the ‘Filling Station’ she begins by revealing she’s not entirely happy with the ending. This poem was recorded in front of a live audience and after they laugh at the joke, “Somebody waters the plant, / or oils it, maybe” in the final stanza, Bishop joins in and starts laughing over the line “ESSO-SO-SO-SO”. However, what she reads here are the exact words printed in her Complete Poems (Chatto & Windus) so perhaps after the reading some members of the audience came up to her to tell her how funny, poignant and perfect the ending of this poem is.

Read more
Upstream - Jean Binta Breeze
Chosen by Lorraine Mariner - Jamaican Dub poet Jean ‘Binta’ Breeze was first introduced to UK audiences when Linton Kwesi Johnson invited her to read in 1985 at The International Book Fair of Radical Black and Third World Books, often referred to as ...

Chosen by Lorraine Mariner -

Jamaican Dub poet Jean ‘Binta’ Breeze was first introduced to UK audiences when Linton Kwesi Johnson invited her to read in 1985 at The International Book Fair of Radical Black and Third World Books, often referred to as The Black Book Fair. Dub poetry is a type of performance poetry that evolved out of dub music in Kingston, Jamaica, in the 1970s and this poem has been written to be heard. It’s a celebration of Stevie Wonder and how his music has saved Breeze at difficult moments in her life. You can almost hear Stevie Wonder’s music behind the repetition and rhythm of Breeze’s words in this performance and the title ‘Upstream’ brings to my mind Wonder’s song ‘Uptight’ and the lyric, “Baby, everything is all right, uptight, out of sight”.

Read more
Waking with Russell - Don Paterson
Chosen by Lorraine Mariner - I heard Don Paterson read this poem at an event at Southbank Centre where it brought a tear to my eye, even though it was already a familiar poem to me. There is a brusqueness but warmth to Paterson’s voice as he describes ...

Chosen by Lorraine Mariner -

I heard Don Paterson read this poem at an event at Southbank Centre where it brought a tear to my eye, even though it was already a familiar poem to me. There is a brusqueness but warmth to Paterson’s voice as he describes the moment when true love hits you in the early days of parenthood. Paterson is the master of the sonnet and in these 14 lines you get that feeling that it’s not just the poem that’s turning but Paterson’s whole life. Some poems always have the power to move me, no matter how many times I’ve heard them.

Read more
The only confirmed cast member is Ook the Owl, who has been tapped to play the snowy white owl who delivers mail for Harry - Jane Yeh
Chosen by Lorraine Mariner - An article about the pre-production of the first Harry Potter film might seem an unexpected source of inspiration for a poem but Jane Yeh turns it into something funny and absurd that is also a profound critique on the dark ...

Chosen by Lorraine Mariner -

An article about the pre-production of the first Harry Potter film might seem an unexpected source of inspiration for a poem but Jane Yeh turns it into something funny and absurd that is also a profound critique on the dark side of Hollywood and fame, “I allowed fake friends to pet me”. Ook the Owl is not so far removed from the film’s child stars with his handler (“personal trainer”) Tracey. Yeh’s deadpan, clipped delivery make the owl seem wise and professional but also somewhat baffled by what has happened to him. Yeh’s three collections have seen her write poems about both high art and pop culture and give voice to a whole array of characters. Don’t ever let anyone tell you you can’t write a poem in the voice of an owl.

Read more
Share Collection
Share on Twitter Share on Facebook Share by Email
Copy to clipboardCopied
Close