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Malcolm Guite: Poet’s Corner

21 January 2022

Does the presentation of a poem enhance the reader’s experience, asks Malcolm Guite

WHERE do poems live? As a pattern of print on a page, or only as a song in the air?
There is one sense in which poems don’t live on the page at all, but, rather, slumber there, waiting for the reader to breathe them into being. The flat white paper and the little black letters in their serried rows are no more than a form of transport, a convenient means of delivery. Living and capacious meanings, gentle allusions, compressed images, and numinous and musical phrases are all jostled together like passengers on a train, constrained for a while, but only constrained in order to be released — to expand, to step out, and to explore with the reader the opening landscapes of their heart and soul; for the reader’s heart is the true destination of every poem.

And, in that sense, it doesn’t matter what edition you read them in. It is true that a sumptuous edition of Keats with thick creamy pages, beautiful black-letter printing, and a fine leather binding does seem a fitting vehicle to carry such rich freight, but “Ode to a Nightingale” would still work its magic: the nightingale would sing for you, and the magic casements would still open on perilous seas in fairy lands forlorn, even if you read the poem in some tatty old school edition, torn and smeared with inky thumbprints and defaced with pointless annotations. I have been happy to find that poem and bid it rise from the page in both kinds of book.

But, sometimes, the presentation of a poem is so apt, so thoughtful, or so surprising that it does, indeed, enhance our understanding and experience of the poem itself. Or so I felt when I was presented with what appeared to be no more than a little matchbox. It was beautiful, to be sure: the outer box had the lovely image of a finely drawn blackbird on a green background, on which were also drawn, as though miniatures from a botanical handbook, willows, willowherb, and grass; and, on the other side of the box, against the same meadow-green, were meadowsweet and many of the grasses and flowers that one might find in an English meadow.

But, when I slid the box open, I found, not matches, but a long thin strip of paper folded, in a concertina, to nestle in the matchbox, and, on the topmost side, facing me as I opened the box, the words “‘Adlestrop’, Edward Thomas.” Lifting that leaf delicately out and letting the whole unfold and expand, I found on one side just the word Adlestrop, printed across the fold lines in the lettering of the old railway-station signs against the same green background, again with the blackbird, the willowherb and meadowsweet, and, delicately drawn, a steam engine; then, on the other side, the poem itself.

One had to draw out and unfold the little concertina to read it, but there it all was, from its opening affirmation “Yes. I remember Adlestrop” to its evocation of that June afternoon at the lonely station, the hissing of steam, the silence, the glimpses of the meadows and the meadowsweet, the unexpected song of the blackbird, and, at last, its evocation

. . . mistier,
Farther and farther, all the birds
Of Oxfordshire and Gloucestershire

The exquisite little edition that I held in my hand was itself a perfect emblem of the poem that it contained: something small and delicately formed, which, once opened, could expand and unfold till it opened and evoked the heart of England.

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