Catherine Olver, Foyle Young Poet finalist

A tour of the Archive with Catherine Olver

Catherine Olver, Foyle Young Poet finalist

I think it's defensible to say that there's something about any poem worth the title that asks to be read aloud. Perhaps it's to do with the origin of poetry, as part of oral traditions, or perhaps the act of reading completes the poet's act of shaping their thoughts into words. Hearing them read their own work adds to this sense that a poem is a thought that they've chosen, for whatever reason, to share. When I started exploring the archive to make this list I didn't anticipate how hard it was going to be to narrow down to the seven poems I most wanted to pass on, but here they are, and I hope you enjoy them! 

Parliament Hill Fields

Sylvia Plath

It's extraordinary to hear how the precision of Plath's accent and her controlled way of reading make the emotions conveyed in her poems even more powerful, and work against the accusation that her writing can be over-indulgently confessional. 'Parliament Hill Fields' appeals to me particularly for the slow transition from loss to healing described in the course of the poem, and for the introduction that Plath gives. As well as giving the listener the slightly unnerving sense of being spoken to from beyond the grave, when introductions start with such intriguing ideas as "a poem can't take the place of a plum or an apple", they remind us to listen for the poetry in prose...

At the Fish Houses

Elizabeth Bishop

This one I love for the feeling of having it read to me - with such a visual poem, it's liberating to be able to ignore the words on the page and just imagine the scene as Bishop describes it. And it's wonderful to hear the nuances in her tone, particularly the moments of wry humour that run through her poetry but aren't necessarily easy to detect from the printed versions. Ignore whatever / whoever may be around you, close your eyes, and listen.

The Underground

Seamus Heaney

The mixture of allusions in 'The Underground' - the Greek myth of Orpheus and Eurydice, the fairytale of Hansel and Gretel, the Royal Albert Hall - seems to wonderfully capture the way in which London has grown from a combination of the Classical, the Germanic, past British history and the personal memories of its inhabitants and visitors, all running under the surface of the everyday, as the poem leads us to consider the things that influence us from underground in our own lives.

One Evening

W. H. Auden

Auden's description of this poem as "a simple lyric that doesn't need any explanation" seems a little dismissive, but 'One Evening' reminds us how powerful traditional forms like the ballad can be - the song-like rhyming quatrains and the immediacy of the flowing images are what make it work so beautifully read aloud. If I ever have to memorise a poem, I'll come back to this.

Crossing the Loch

Kathleen Jamie

I wasn't specifically searching by theme but 'Crossing the Loch' struck me as making an interesting partner to 'At the Fish Houses'. Again, hearing it rather than reading it means that you're free to concentrate on imagining the loch and on the remarkable sounds of the words as Jamie reads them, while her energy brings the narrative and the personality of the speaking character doubly alive.


Galway Kinnell

This is just brilliant. My family were all out so I was exploring the Archive while eating dinner alone, which added another layer of eating and conversing with an imaginary poet to the poetry breakfasts described in the poem - though I did stop eating as I started laughing...


John Mole

At this point I was searching by form, having discovered that it's a surprisingly satisfying exercise to listen to the sestinas and see how quickly you can work out what the six repeating words are and which one's going to be next! I chanced upon John Mole's 'Serenade' while working my way (by picking poems at random) through the much larger number of poems written in tercets, trying to find one to end with as it got closer and closer to midnight. So here it is as a beautifully-crafted final thought.

Catherine Olver, Foyle Young Poet finalist

Catherine Olver lives in London with her parents and two younger sisters and was one of the Top Fifteen Winners of the Foyle Young Poets of the Year Award 2010. Catherine’s poem ‘Ascent of Toukbal’ rose to the top of the pile out of a staggering 21,510 poems by 6,885 young poets aged 11-17 from the UK and worldwide.

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Alexander Pope

read by John Fuller

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Lord Byron

read by Fleur Adcock

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