TS Eliot Britain’s favourite poet


TS Eliot is Britain’s favourite poet, according to a BBC online poll. More good news: John Donne came in second and Yeats and Dylan Thomas also ended up in the top 10. I am surprised Auden didn’t make the list. How couldn’t he?

More than 18,000 votes were cast and the top 10 favourite poets are:

  1. TS Eliot
  2. John Donne
  3. Benjamin Zephaniah
  4. Wilfred Owen
  5. Philip Larkin
  6. William Blake
  7. WB Yeats
  8. John Betjeman
  9. John Keats
  10. Dylan Thomas

Other contenders included Simon Armitage, WH Auden, Robert Browning, Robert Burns, Lord Byron, Samuel Taylor Coleridge, Wendy Cope, Carol Ann Duffy, Thomas Hardy, Seamus Heaney, Gerard Manley Hopkins, Ted Hughes, Rudyard Kipling, Roger McGough, John Milton, Sylvia Plath, Christina Rossetti, Stevie Smith, Lord Tennyson, and William Wordsworth.I have never read Zephaniah.

Here one can hear TS Eliot reading from The Waste Land and Four Quartets. The Poetry Archive site also has readings by Dylan Thomas, Yeats, Larkin and Betjeman.

It’s revealing that Keats was the only Romantic to make the list and none of the Victorians did. The fact that Blake is also on the list suggests people today still like the kind of poetry that was popular in the 1960s and ’70s.

Personally, I would have included Auden, Wordsworth and Kipling in place of Zephaniah, Owen and Blake.

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The enduring appeal of Roger McGough

Roger McGough, who stands a chance of being voted Britain’s favourite poet, has another claim to fame. He was a  member of the band, The Scaffold, that topped the BBC Top 20 chart with the hit single, Lily The Pink, in 1968. The trio also included Paul McCartney’s brother, Mike McGear (real name Mike McCartney), and John Gorman.

McGough is the curly-haired, bespectacled one who sings solo the the verse beginning “Jennifer Eccles had terrible freckles” at the end of the first minute in this video.

McGough, with fellow Liverpool poets Adrian Henri and Brian Patten, also wrote the biggest-selling collection of postwar English poems. Their Penguin anthology, The Mersey Sound, has sold more copies than any other postwar poetry collection, says the Guardian. First published in 1967, it has been reissued as a Penguin Modern Classic. I loved it at first sight and have written about it before (here and here).

Now McGough is one of the 30 poets BBC website visitors can vote for in the poll to choose Britain’s favourite poet. The shortlist prepared by a panel of judges includes:

The current poet laureate Carol Ann Duffy, TS Eliot, WB Yeats, WH Auden, Dylan Thomas, Milton, John Donne, William Blake, Wordsworth, Byron, Keats, Tennyson, Browning, Kipling, Hopkins, Wilfred Owen, Philip Larkin, the Nobel laureate Seamus Heaney, and the late poet laureates John Betjeman and Ted Hughes. (Visit the BBC Poetry Season site to read some of their poems.)

But not on the shortlist is the previous poet laureate Andrew Motion.

That’s only poetic justice, McGough might say.

He can’t forget the former poet laureate did not include him in The Penguin Book of British Contemporary Poetry, published in 1982.

McGough told the Guardian:

When Motion and Morrison edited the Penguin Book of British Poetry, we were totally omitted…Those years when Motion was editor of Poetry Review, and Craig Raine was poetry editor at Faber … I felt we were always in the position of having to defend ourselves. We got cheesed off at being referred to as small-town Mantovanis, or the pop brigade. I suppose because we didn’t do English at university, or because the poetry I was writing could be appreciated by my mother or my aunties. It came out of a sort of naivety.

By “we”, he meant the Liverpool poets: Adrian Henri, Brian Patten and himself.

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BBC poetry site polling for Britain’s favourite poet

Carol Ann Duffy is the poet laureate, but who is Britain’s favourite poet? The BBC poetry site is running an online poll which closes on September 1.

Voters can choose from a shortlist of 30 poets selected by a panel of judges. One can vote for

TS Eliot, WB Yeats, Dylan Thomas, WH Auden, John Donne,  Milton, Blake, Burns, Wordsworth, Coleridge, Byron, Keats, Tennyson, Browning, Christina Rossetti, Kipling, Hardy, Hopkins, Wilfred Owen, Betjeman, Larkin,Ted Hughes, Sylvia Plath, Stevie Smith

as well as contemporary poets such as

Carol Ann Duffy, Seamus Heaney, Roger McGough, Simon Armitage, Wendy Cope and Benjamin Zephaniah.

It’s interesting Shelley didn’t make the shortlist, nor did Matthew Arnold, while Christina Rossetti did.

The winner will be announced on October 8, Britain’s National Poetry Day.

Best of all, one can read more than 100 poems on the website, representing all the contenders.

I loved three poems I had never read before:  You’re Beautiful, by Simon Armitage; Valentine, by Carol Ann Duffy; and Bloody Men, by Wendy Cope (left).

Bloody Men is bloody funny, so I will take the liberty of posting it here:

Bloody men are like bloody buses –
You wait for about a year
And as soon as one approaches your stop
Two or three others appear.

You look at them flashing their indicators,
Offering you a ride.
You’re trying to read the destinations,
You haven’t much time to decide.

If you make a mistake, there is no turning back.
Jump off, and you’ll stand there and gaze
While the cars and the taxis and lorries go by
And the minutes, the hours, the days.


Poets have this wonderful gift of making the ordinary memorable with a phrase or an image. Consider this short poem by John Betjeman:

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Shakespeare’s Dark Lady

Shakespeare’s mysterious Dark Lady of the sonnets could have been a "black beauty" and a working girl, speculates author William Boyd in an article in the Guardian.

He writes:"Shakespeare’s working life was in Southwark, south of the river, and London Bridge, a noisome, rank and dangerous district, freer of the City of London’s legal edicts by virtue of its location, and home to its theatres, pleasure gardens, bear-fighting pits, innumerable taverns and brothels. Historical records establish that there were black and mulatto prostitutes in Southwark brothels at the time, and it seems highly feasible that the Dark Lady might have been such a working girl.

"Certainly, such an identification makes immediate sense of the sonnets’ rage and misogyny."

He points to the most famous of the Dark Lady sonnets — Sonnet 129 — which celebrates not love but speaks of lust and is full of self-loathing:  "Th’ expense of spirit in a waste of shame/ is lust in action … "

Here is the complete sonnet:

Th’ expense of spirit in a waste of shame
Is lust in action; and, till action, lust
Is perjured, murd’rous, bloody, full of blame,
Savage, extreme, rude, cruel, not to trust;
Enjoyed no sooner but despisèd straight;
Past reason hunted, and no sooner had,
Past reason hated, as a swallowed bait
On purpose laid to make the taker mad;
Mad in pursuit, and in possession so;
Had, having, and in quest to have, extreme
A bliss in proof–and proved, a very woe;
Before, a joy proposed; behind, a dream.
All this the world well knows; yet none knows well
To shun the heaven that leads men to this hell.

William Boyd, author of novels like A Good Man in Africa and An Ice Cream War, has also written screenplays; that is how he ended up writing A Waste of Shame, a BBC television drama about the love triangle found in the sonnets, involving a "Fair Youth", the Dark Lady and the middle-aged poet. Boyd, who was formerly a lecturer in English at Oxford, read all the 154 sonnets — 126  addressed to the "Fair Youth" and 26 to the Dark Lady. The last two are bawdy allusions to mercury baths that were a contemporary form of treatment for pox, he says.

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Indian actress Indira Varma (above), who also appeared in BBC’s Canterbury Tales and Bride and Prejudice, plays the Dark Lady in A Waste of Shame.

Boyd does not claim to have found any conclusive evidence that the Dark Lady was a prostitute. But Shakespeare knew at least one brothel-keeper, he says.

He writes: "One of Shakespeare’s known associates was a brothel-keeper called George Wilkins, a violent man, arraigned on at least two occasions for savagely beating up prostitutes (one of them pregnant). I cannot prove that Shakespeare was a brothel visitor but the numerous documented connections between Shakespeare and Wilkins attest to the fact that he would have been no stranger to Wilkins’s rebarbative and sordid world."