The inspiring lines that made me want to be a poet - Ian McMillan

It was an A-Level English Literature lesson way back in the very early 1970s at Wath Grammar School and Miss Grey was handing out the poetry anthologies we were going to be studying

Ted Hughes was an influence on Ian McMillan. (PA).
Ted Hughes was an influence on Ian McMillan. (PA).

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The anthology was Nine Modern Poets, edited by E.L. Black, and his introduction and notes were confident and chatty and I bet he would have been a good man to sit with in a café talking about literature over endless tea and cake. Many of the poems in that book have stayed with me for decades, influencing the way I think and the way I read and the way I write.

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The poets were WB Yeats, Wilfred Owen, T S Eliot, John Betjeman, WH Auden, RS Thomas, Dylan Thomas, Philip Larkin and local lad Ted Hughes, of whom Black, in his notes, wrote ‘Ted Hughes was born in 1930, and may write some of his best poems in the future’ which is what I think they call damning with faint praise.

Philip Larkin. The popular poet spent his last 30 years in Hull.

We didn’t study them all but we looked closely at RS Thomas and Dylan Thomas. Dylan was my favourite and perhaps he was the perfect poet for a lad like me to read at that stage in my life; I was a tortured adolescent boiling and seething with teenage emotions and I knew above all else that I wanted to be a writer but I wasn’t sure what to write or how to go about it, but good old Dylan Thomas showed me the way. He was often word-drunk and meaning averse; he wrote dense poems that were full of music but the tune drowned out the lyrics.

The selection of his in Nine Modern Poets wasn’t packed with the most opaque examples of his work but lines like ‘The lips of time leech to the fountain head/love drips and gathers, but the fallen blood/shall calm her sores’ were transcendently wonderful for me and they led me to the library and a copy of his Selected Poems which I borrowed so often Mrs Dove let me hang on to it.

The opposite of Dylan Thomas was his almost-namesake RS Thomas, a clergyman from Wales who wrote poems that were tiny woollen hats when compared to Dylan’s extravagant fascinators but another part of me loved their spare beauty: ‘a few last/leaves adding their decoration/to the trees’ shoulders, braiding the cuffs/of the boughs with gold.’ RS and Dylan were two sides of the same language coin, and each of them were pure gold.

Two Thomases from one anthology; two poets whose work has hung around in my soul for much of my life. Oddly, we hardly spent any time on Ted Hughes, who turned out to be another of my favourites. Maybe Miss Grey wasn’t a fan of local boys making good. Except me, of course.