Belfast Telegraph

Home Life

Gerry Kelly, Cara Dillon and Carolyn Stewart reveal their favourite poems

By Una Brankin

Ahead of a free One City One Book event tomorrow in Belfast featuring UK Poet Laureate Carol Ann Duffy and Belfast Poet Laureate Sinead Morrissey, 10 well-known people reveal their favourite lines.

Tomorrow night literary lovers here will have a rare chance to hear two of today's most celebrated female poets read from their work at a free event in Belfast. UK Poet Laureate, Carol Ann Duffy, will join Belfast poet laureate, Sinead Morrissey, for a special One City One Book event at the Movie House Cinema, Yorkgate at 7pm. They will be accompanied by musician, John Sampson.

To get you in the mood we asked 10 well-known people to tell us what their favourite poem is — and why.


1. Radio Ulster presenter and broadcaster, Gerry Kelly: Mid-Term Break by Seamus Heaney. Gerry says:

“When I was doing my A-Level English, Heaney came to our school to give the class a talk. He recited Mid-Term Break for us and, for good reason, it has always stuck in my mind. We were more used to Wordsworth or Shelley or the like.

This was the first time I had met a living, breathing poet who talked about things I could relate to. Most of the ones we had studied seemed to belong to a different century and time.

Then to add further poignancy to Heaney's visit, a year or so before, a young lad from my class had been knocked down and killed in a road accident. So here was Seamus Heaney, a young man, a modern-day poet in his late 20s — maybe early 30s — talking about life and death in a truly meaningful way. I can still remember his visit vividly.”


Mid-Term Break

I sat all morning in the college sick bay

Counting bells knelling classes to a close.

At two o'clock our neighbours drove me home.

In the porch I met my father crying —

He had always taken funerals in his stride —

And Big Jim Evans saying it was a hard blow.

The baby cooed and laughed and rocked the pram

When I came in, and I was embarrassed

By old men standing up to shake my hand

And tell me they were ‘sorry for my trouble’,

Whispers informed strangers I was the eldest,

Away at school, as my mother held my hand

In hers and coughed out angry tearless sighs.

At ten o'clock the ambulance arrived

With the corpse, staunched and bandaged by the nurses.

Next morning I went up into the room. Snowdrops

And candles soothed the bedside; I saw him

For the first time in six weeks. Paler now,

Wearing a poppy bruise on his left temple,

He lay in the four-foot box as in his cot.

No gaudy scars, the bumper knocked him clear.

A four-foot box, a foot for every year.


2. Singer/songwriter Cara Dillon: He Wishes For The Cloths Of Heaven by WB Yeats. Cara says:

“I first heard this beautiful Yeats poem when I was studying English in St Patrick's school in Dungiven, back in the early ’90s. It was my first introduction to the world of Yeats — before that traditional songs had been the focus of my attention. I've loved this poem ever since and even put it to music on an album I recorded back in 1995. Every time I read the words, I see the same images in my head and get that very same magical feeling I did when it was first read to me in class.”


3. U105 presenter, Carolyn Stewart: also chose The Cloths Of Heaven. Carolyn says:

“When asked about my favourite poem, WB Yeats' The Cloths of Heaven immediately sprung to mind, as I have some very loving memories of a very special man — my father John Stewart.

This poem has been in my life for a very long time, as it was my dad's favourite poem and he often shared this verse with me on many occasions. It's an absolutely beautiful poem which holds a lot of meaning for me.”


He Wishes For The Cloths Of Heaven

Had I the heavens’ embroidered cloths,

Enwrought with golden and silver light,

The blue and the dim and the dark cloths

Of night and light and the half-light,

I would spread the cloths under your feet:

But I, being poor, have only my dreams;

I have spread my dreams under your feet;

Tread softly because you tread on my dreams.


 4. Broadcaster, Derek Davis: The Oxen by Thomas Hardy. Derek says:

“I love this poem — Eve as I call it — especially the last couplet. It's an old man's poem. A good poem should have a personal resonance and the power to move. Hardy was my age when he wrote this, equating the ages of man with the times of the day. In the third verse, he had originally written ‘believe' instead of weave — he'd lost his faith in the interim. At 18, this poem meant nothing to me. In my 60s, it breaks my heart.”

The Oxen

Christmas Eve, and twelve of the clock.

‘Now they are all on their knees,'

An elder said as we sat in a flock

By the embers in hearthside ease.

We pictured the meek mild creatures where,

They dwelt in their strawy pen,

Nor did it occur to one of us there

To doubt they were kneeling then.

So fair a fancy few would weave

In these years! Yet, I feel,

If someone said on Christmas Eve,

‘Come; see the oxen kneel,

‘In the lonely barton by yonder coomb

Our childhood used to know,'

I should go with him in the gloom,

Hoping it might be so.


5. May McFettridge, aka John Linehan: Untitled. John says:

“I'm not really into classic poetry but I like a good limerick. There was a group of us at the panto trying to make them up last year — it’s harder than you'd think. I remember this waiter in the Europa many years and about four stone ago — he wasn't known for his comic timing. In fact, he was the unfunniest man I've ever met but he came out with this one and I laughed and laughed.”

There was a young man from Dundee

Who fell off the side of a boat

Along came a shark

And bit off his leg

Hickory Dickory Dock


6. Cathy Martin, owner of CMPR: Invictus by William Ernest Henley. Cathy says:

“I’ve a dislike of all things gory and bloody — any form of violence, even conflict — so it seems strange to me that I like this poem so much. I’m drawn to it because it's so full of hope, despite the seemingly gruesome words and the dark situation described by the poet WE Henley.

I really like how it inspires triumph over adversity and dignity with pride. It also encourages the reader to master failures and misfortune and it is great to read — to oneself or to a team — before a challenge.”


Out of the night that covers me,

Black as the pit from pole to pole,

I thank whatever gods may be

For my unconquerable soul.

In the fell clutch of circumstance

I have not winced nor cried aloud.

Under the bludgeonings of chance

My head is bloody, but unbowed.

Beyond this place of wrath and tears

Looms but the horror of the shade,

And yet the menace of the years

Finds, and shall find, me unafraid.

It matters not how strait the gate,

How charged with punishments the scroll,

I am the master of my fate:

I am the captain of my soul.


7. Radio Ulster presenter and gardening expert, Cherrie McIlwaine: A Christmas Childhood by Patrick Kavanagh. Cherrie says:

“I'm very fond of the The Spirit Level by Seamus Heaney, especially the opening lines: ‘And some time make the time to drive out west, Into County Clare, along the Flaggy Shore'. But my favourite is A Christmas Childhood by Patrick Kavanagh.

I had a very happy childhood in Bangor and I like the way the poem suggests that Kavanagh's childhood was one long Christmas.


A Christmas Childhood

My father played the melodion

Outside at our gate;

There were stars in the morning east;

And they danced to his music.

Across the wild bogs his melodion called

To Lennons and Callans.

As I pulled on my trousers in a hurry

I knew some strange thing had happened.

Outside in the cow-house my mother

Made the music of milking;

The light of her stable-lamp was a star

And the frost of Bethlehem made it twinkle.

A water-hen screeched in the bog,

Mass-going feet

Crunched the wafer-ice on the pot-holes,

Somebody wistfully twisted the bellows wheel.

My child poet picked out the letters

On the grey stone,

In silver the wonder of a Christmas townland,

The winking glitter of a frosty dawn.

Cassiopeia was over

Cassidy's hanging hill,

I looked and three whin bushes rode across

The horizon — the Three Wise Kings.

An old man passing said:

“Can't he make it talk” —

The melodion, I hid in the doorway

And tightened the belt of my box-pleated coat.

I nicked six nicks on the door-post

With my penknife's big blade —

There was a little one for cutting tobacco.

And I was six Christmases of age.

My father played the melodion,

My mother milked the cows,

And I had a prayer like a white rose pinned

On the Virgin Mary's blouse.


8. Radio Ulster presenter, Kim Lenaghan: When You Are Old, W B Yeats. Kim says:

“There's a line from Yeats' When You Are Old that keeps coming back to me: ‘But one man loved the pilgrim soul in you'. That gets me every time. To me, Yeats is the perfect poet; I love this reflective nature of that poem in particular. It's so evocative and beautiful, and I love the way the lines flow, and of course, the man's heart was broken (by Maud Gonne). A little bit of trauma doesn't go amiss in poetry.”

When You Are Old

When you are old and grey and full of sleep,

And nodding by the fire, take down this book,

And slowly read, and dream of the soft look

Your eyes had once, and of their shadows deep;

How many loved your moments of glad grace,

And loved your beauty with love false or true,

But one man loved the pilgrim soul in you,

And loved the sorrows of your changing face;

And bending down beside the glowing bars,

Murmur, a little sadly, how Love fled

And paced upon the mountains overhead

And hid his face amid a crowd of stars.


9. Wendy Austin, Talkback, BBC Radio Ulster: An Irish Airman Foresees His Death, WB Yeats. Wendy says:

“A favourite poem — it's a hard one — I love O'Shaughnessy's Ode: ‘We are the music makers and we are the dreamers of dreams… the movers and shakers of the world, forever it seems'. But my all-time favourite is An Irish Airman Foresees His Death by WB Yeats. It reminds me of my late dad, Cecil, who was a Battle of Britain Spitfire pilot — and always made me grateful that he hadn’t met his fate, somewhere among the clouds above.

An Irish Airman Foresees His Death

I know that I shall meet my fate

Somewhere among the clouds above;

Those that I fight I do not hate

Those that I guard I do not love;

My country is Kiltartan Cross,

My countrymen Kiltartan's poor,

No likely end could bring them loss

Or leave them happier than before.

Nor law, nor duty bade me fight,

Nor public man, nor cheering crowds,

A lonely impulse of delight

Drove to this tumult in the clouds;

I balanced all, brought all to mind,

The years to come seemed waste of breath,

A waste of breath the years behind

In balance with this life, this death


10. Kerry McLean, BBC Radio Ulster : ‘A Kumquat For John Keats’ by Tony Harrison. Kerry says:

“I was in my early 20s and attending a conference on The Future of the English Language for the BBC World Service learning department when I first heard it. Tony Harrison read it out to a room stuffed full of English teachers from around the world, a hard crowd to please, but everyone fell so still and silent as they listened to his words, as sweet, fat and ripe as the kumquats he was describing. It had us all talking that night, over some very dodgy, stodgy canteen food, about the big questions it raised; Do people know when they’re about to die? Are our lives like the skin on the kumquat, partly sweet and partly sour?

It’s not the most profound poem I’ve ever read but maybe because of the setting — the conference was held in the very grand surroundings of Oxford University — the international company and the wonderful memories it evokes, this clever, fun to read poem is one I go to time and again.”

Extract from ‘A Kumquat For John Keats’

For however many kumquats that I eat

I'm not sure if it's flesh or rind that's sweet,

and being a man of doubt at life's mid-way

I'd offer Keats some kumquats and I'd say:

You'll find that one part's sweet and one part's tart:

say where the sweetness or the sourness start.



* Carol Ann Duffy became the first woman, the first Scot and the first openly gay person to have been appointed the UK’s poet laureate in 2009

* Her first poem as poet laureate, Politics, tackled the the MPs’ expenses row in England

* She also wrote Achilles (for David Beckham) about the Achilles tendon injury that left the England Footballer out of the 2010 Fifa World Cup and in 2011, she wrote the 46-line poem, Rings, for the wedding of Prince William and Catherine Middleton

* The 58-year-old is Professor of Contemporary Poetry at Manchester Metropolitan College and her poems are studied in schools at GCSE, A-Level, and at universities.

* Poet Sinead Morrissey won the TS Elliot prize for her fifth collection Parallax in January. She was appointed Belfast’s first poet laureate in 2013

* She had been previously shortlisted three times for the TS Eliot, before winning this most prestigious prize in poetry

* Her poem, Through the Square Window, won first prize in the 2007 British National Poetry Competition from the |self-named collection which itself won the Poetry Now Award for 2010

* The 42-year-old lives in Belfast with her husband and two children and is a creative writing lecturer at the Seamus Heaney Centre at Queen’s University, Belfast


From Belfast Telegraph