A Candle to Light you to Bed: Four Candlestick Press Pamphlets

Reviewed by Angela Topping

Ten Sonnets by William Shakespeare
Ten Poems about Babies
Ten Poems about Knitting
Ten Bedtime Poems (Volume 2)

Candlestick Press produce stunning and elegant pamphlets, many with a single image in the centre of a colour block, so they are instantly recognisable. The covers are sturdy, thick card and the pamphlets have a sense of the hand-bound book about them. In a brilliant marketing idea, the press managed to get these lovely things stocked in many retail outlets, like chain bookshops, who are normally extremely wary of poetry. The marketing idea? Package them with an envelope and a bookmark and label them ‘instead of a card’. Cards are a terrible price these days for something which many people discard a few days after the occasion, and for a couple more pounds, to purchase and post with a normal first class stamp, such a beautiful collectible is an absolute no-brainer. It is a great way of smuggling poetry, like a mind-enhancing drug, into the lives of people who are not currently ‘users’ or to give as a small gift to anyone who is.

Because of the nature of the product, the pamphlets often include very well known classic poems, which sit well with contemporary ones, in a desire to offer the very best poems on the chosen topic. Often the selection is made by a guest editor, another great idea.

I am a big fan of Shakespeare’s sonnets, so was intrigued to see which had been chosen from the 154 in Ten Sonnets by William Shakespeare – no mean feat to whittle those down, I suspect. The cover is a pretty print reminiscent of Tudor style; the introduction acknowledges the difficulty of the task. The approach is to choose love poems which create an interior narrative, and include very well known ones such as ‘Let me not to the marriage of true minds’. I am a little disappointed that my favourite two sonnets are not included (‘That time of day thou mayst in me behold’ and ‘They that have pow’r to hurt and will do none’), but as a taster for the whole set, these are good choices, and I can see why the two really well known ones are here: they offer some familiarity to the reader for whom the full 154 might seem daunting.

‘Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day’ is often read as a poem of flattery, but closer reading shows that Shakespeare flatters no-one but himself in this poem. He claims his ‘eternal lines to time’ will make his subject immortal, but he never at any point describes the person, just his writing skill. For this reason I find this sonnet hilarious, as I do the omitted ‘My Mistress’ eyes are nothing like the sun’, in which Petrarch’s love sonnets are lampooned. Shakespeare’s wit is one of the reasons his poems sparkle still. ‘Shall I compare thee’ sits well with the poems which precede it, which sets about persuading the listener that the only way to preserve their good looks is by having children. The octet describes the horrors of ageing, but the turn in the ninth line presents the solution, hammered home in the couplet ending:

This were to be new made when thou art old,
And see thy blood warm when thou feel’st it cold.

The coinage imagery (new made) recurs throughout the sonnets, and here presents a subtle persuasive device by linking the progeny with riches. The second poem chosen also links with the theme of time. In ‘When I do count the clock that tells the time’, the bard offers no solution, but describes death and ageing with subtle colour imagery, in a really chilling way:

When I behold the violet past prime
And sable curls all silver’ed o’er with white…
And summer’s green all girded up in sheaves
Borne on the bier with white and bristly beard;

Isn’t that just a perfect word to describe sheaves tied round the middle with string: ‘girded’

Sonnet 30 is a sad one, about mourning friends who have died. Here the turn is confined to the couplet, which packs all the more punch for it, and its consoling:

But if the while I think on thee, dear friend,
All losses are restored and sorrows end.

Sonnet 71 picks up the same theme, and I might never have spotted this if not for the clever selection. It reads like a response from the dead loved friend to the mourner:

… for I love you so
That I in your sweet thoughts would be forgot,
If thinking on me then should make you woe.

The next sonnet picks up the notion of sweet thoughts, the connection being pleasure and enjoyment; the one after that, sonnet 102, explores a theme also seen in Shakespeare’s plays, that mature love does not need to keep declaring itself, a subtle link to ‘Let me not to the marriage of true minds’. The last poem is a surprise, a more negative note introduced by using ‘Th’ expense of spirit in a waste of shame’, to end the selection. It is as though the love affair suggested so far has come to an end, and Shakespeare summarises the ‘hell’ but concludes that none of us is wise enough to avoid it, even though we know love ends: ‘yet none knows well / To shun the heaven that leads men to this hell’.

Overall, this is an imaginative selection which breathes new life into the original 154. I think it will lead readers to rediscover them, and maybe consider what selection they might have made themselves.

Ten Poems about Babies were selected by Imtiaz Dharker. Her brief introduction explains her choices and shows how hard it was to whittle her favourites down to ten. The opener is that playful and joyful riddle about pregnancy, ‘You’re’ by Sylvia Plath. Perhaps less well known, but just as delightful, is John Agard’s ‘Moonbelly’, a deceptively simple poem about conception that includes children, no easy task for the subject matter:

when mummywater
an daddywater

With good blessing
spirits willing
navel string
soon sing

I thought I knew Agard’s opus pretty well, but I’ve never read this one before. Another pregnancy poem new to me is Maura Dooley’s ‘Freight’, which is a delight. The extended metaphor is that of a boat, which is not a new image (I have used it myself) but the way she handles it is so playful it makes me smile:

I am the ship in which you sail,

Your sieve, your pea green boat.
I’ll pay whatever your ferry needs.

I love her references to ‘The Owl and the Pussycat’, which anticipates reading poems to a baby after birth. William Blake’s ‘Infant Joy’ is the perfect birth poem, though my mind leaps to its counterpart in Poems of Experience, ‘Infant Sorrow’. This poem and Kate Clanchy’s ‘Not Art’ occupy the centrefold of the pamphlet, a transition from uterus to outside world and the beginning of the joys and work of parenthood. Clanchy’s poem is a work-song in which she shows her affinity with other women’s work. She moves from her own looking after a new baby, ‘intricate wiping and wrapping’, to a wider, global view:

This is the work women draw from the river,
wet to the waist, singing in time,
the work we swing from our shoulders,

It’s an ambitious and celebratory poem, and I am glad to make its acquaintance. The beauty of these Candlestick Press pamphlets is the way old favourites sit alongside new discoveries. The next poem is Anne Stevenson’s ‘The Victory’, a poem I have recognised for years as spelling out the fear of a mother in meeting a new baby: will love be strong enough to keep this small human safe?

Tiny antagonist, gory,
blue as a bruise. The stains
of your cloud of glory
bled from my veins.

The lexical choices in this poem are all sharp and pointy. It’s a very different tone to Blake’s ‘Infant Joy’, being rather closer to ‘Infant Sorrrow’. As always with Stevenson’s poems, there is a strong rhythm and no wasted words. It is juxtaposed with another poem to a baby boy, ‘Waking with Russell’ by Don Paterson, which takes sonnet form. It’s very tender and beautifully turned in the sestet. A simple meditation on waking with his four day old child, it manages to reach out into the lives ahead, a pair-bonding of father and son: ‘the smile poured through us like a river’. The rhymes in the sestet have a gentle cadence, all feminine rhymes: ‘giver/river/forever’.

I first heard Gillian Clarke read her poem ’Babysitting’ when my now adult daughters were small. I had to go up and speak to her afterwards because she had identified exactly what babysitting is like when you are a mother, and a breastfeeding one at that. So used to being the best comforter for your own child, it’s a mystery how to pull the magic trick with someone else’s:

I am sitting in a strange room, listening
For the wrong baby. I don’t love
This baby…
I am afraid of her. If she wakes
She will hate me.

Clarke breaks the lines to make the speaker sound hesitant, reluctant, tense. This pamphlet concludes with two tender poems, one from Dharker herself, about her daughter learning to speak, and one of Carol Ann Duffy’s, about watching her daughter sleep. Ten Poems about Babies would make a wonderful substitute for a card: it is a lovely read, totally inclusive unlike a lot of cards, and great to have around on the coffee table when your baby falls asleep on you and you don’t want to disturb the slumbers.

As a keen knitter, I was excited to see Ten Poems about Knitting, although there were some poems I would have liked to have seen included which were not (for example a Matt Simpson poem about his mother knitting Aran jumpers for him and his father), and I would have loved to have had some of my poems about knitting included. I was very glad to see Jessie Pope; she is unfairly labelled a pro-war poet, but in fact changed her stance when it became clear that World War One was carnage, to write some touching, tough poems about women at home, waiting and knitting, in fear for their menfolk. Liz Lochhead’s poem ‘For my Grandmother Knitting’ finds a rightful place here, as does Jackie Kay’s beautiful poem The Knitter’, in which she creates a character expressing the history of knitting and how the act of it measures time. Allison McVety’s ‘Needlework’ also creates a character, this time a woman for whom knitting is a refuge from her less than ideal marriage.

Women outweigh men somewhat in this pamphlet, and I can see that efforts have been made to redress that by including ‘The Manly Art of Knitting’ by Christopher James and Roy Marshall’s long and lovely poem about how knitting bonds a community. ‘Neighbours We’ll Not Part Tonight’. I loved both poems and they really add something else to the selection. James’ poem is a portrait of his father, affectionate and funny, and Marshall’s is a hymn to togetherness, with many a joyous list: ‘There was Ram’s-Back Rachel, Black Tick and Tam Tup’ for instance. I am with Auden, I love lists.

Gwynneth Lewis speaks of the secret language of knitting; Sue Dymock’s poem is full of memories for long gone things, a little vintage magic; Lydia Towsey uses knitting as a metaphor for love; Jane Durcan of the frustrations of knitting, but then the joy of giving away something made with love. The pamphlet ends with a bonus page: one tiny poem by Emily Dickinson and an anonymous epigram. Buy this pamphlet for any knitter you know, and get one yourself. I am going to keep mine in my knitting bag!

The final pamphlet is a good one for the bedside table, great for reading in bed or if you wake up in the night and can’t get back to sleep. Ten Bedtime Poems (Volume Two) is edited by Germaine Greer. I am guessing she was working to a tight budget as only two of the poems are still in copyright. She apologises in her introduction for the fact that only two women are included; that would be partly because there are fewer women poets published prior to the 20th century. I like the way she has moved chronologically through the history of poetry, beginning with Henry Howard and John Donne and ending with W. H. Auden and Kathleen Raine. Howard’s opening sonnet is about not having his loved one beside him, although night-time is very lovely, whereas Donne’s poem is the cheeky Elegy XIX, in which he incites his girlfriend to hurry up and take off her clothes so they can make love. It’s wonderfully erotic without being overly explicit:

Off with that wiry Coronet and shew
The hairy Diadem which on you doth grow.

So far, the poems are not sleep-inducing but rather about restlessness, and the following Shakespeare sonnet, LX1, expands that motif. The speaker wants to sleep, but he cannot for thinking of his mistress:

Is it thy will thy image should keep open
My heavy eyelids to the weary night?

Anne Finch, Countess of Winchilsea, a 17th century poet, breaks the mood with her gentle reverie, a poem which would be beautiful read aloud at bedtime because it is very musical. The iambic pentameter couplets add to the lulling music, and the poem is refreshing for summer nights:

When freshened grass now bears itself upright
And makes cool banks to pleasing rest invite,
Whence springs the woodbine and the briar rose,
And where the sleepy cowslip sheltered grows.

This is reminiscent of Shakespeare’s bank where wild time grows, in A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Other creatures, birds and plants are cited in this soothing piece, which is followed by an extract from Byron’s ‘Don Juan’ and a Wordsworth sonnet, ‘To Sleep’, which should appeal to insomniacs. I often prefer Wordsworth’s sonnets and ballads to his longer work, and this one has a touch of fun: he describes ‘counting sheep’ to try to find his sleep:

A flock of sheep that leisurely pass by
One after one; the sound of rain, and bees
Murmuring; the fall of rivers, winds and seas,
Smooth fields, white sheets of water, and pure sky.
I’ve thought of all by turns and still I lie

That poem might console insomniacs, to know they are not alone. Tennyson’s ‘Now Sleeps the Crimson Petal’ sonnet follows, then Yeats’ stunning ‘Byzantium,’ then one of my favourite Auden poems: ‘Lay your sleeping head, my love’, which for my money is one of the great love poems, as well as a profound lullaby and meditation on life. Kathleen Raine is given the last word with ‘Amo Ergo Sum’. Love has been a strong thread in this selection, and this one links beautifully with Auden, because it has the same motif of sleeping in the arms of a loved one. Raine’s angle is different, however:

All night the river flows into my sleep,
Ten thousand things are sleeping in my arms,
And sleeping wake, and flowing are at rest.

I am glad to see this lovely poem here, as I suspect Raine is not being read half as much as she deserves to be.

So that’s it, four quality pamphlets to bring poetry into people’s lives. As you can tell, I am a fan of Candlestick Press. I collect them when I can afford to and have found the same quality in all of them. I enjoy the different selectors and introductions as well as those chosen by the editorial team, and while I might hanker sometimes after different poems’ inclusion, every Candlestick pamphlet I have has reminded me of old favourites and introduced new ones.