From John Keats to Nick Cave: poems for every stage in life

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This National Poetry Day, whether you’re in need of some verse for a wedding or to mark a death at 104, Chris Riddell selects his favourite poems for key life moments

By: Chris Riddell

The great power of poetry is its ability to distil thought, observation and emotion into a form that moves us profoundly. We turn to poetry to help us express our feelings at key stages of our lives – birth, marriage and death. But poetry has the ability to seep into other life experiences – falling in love, raising children and confronting our mortality in both peace time and war.

“Love Letter” by Nick Cave is lyrical poetry about passion, remorse and hope that lives on the page just as powerfully as in song – “A handful of hopeful words, / I love her and I always will.”

“The Whitsun Weddings” by Philip Larkin is one of my favourite poems about marriage. I have taken the same journey Larkin embarked on that “sunlit Saturday” from Hull station to King’s Cross in London, and looked out of the window, as he did, and seen “where sky and Lincolnshire and water meet.” The wedding parties that Larkin glimpses at the stations along his train journey are beautifully evoked: “Girls in parodies of fashion … Fathers with broad belts under their suits… An Uncle shooting smut.” But my favourite part of the poem is when the journey becomes a metaphor for the new life these newlyweds are embarking on: “There swelled / A sense of falling, like an arrow-shower / Sent out of sight, somewhere becoming rain.” Surely a fitting poem to live your life by.

“The Minister for Exams” by Brian Patten is a powerful poem about how creativity in the young can be stifled. I read this at a protest at the Sats tests, where these lines resonated:

Question 1. How large is

a child’s imagination?

Question 2. How shallow

is the soul of the

minister for exams?

“Walking Away” by Cecil Day-Lewis and “Outgrown” by Penelope Shuttle are perfect for any parent experiencing the bittersweet joys of watching their children grow up. “And love is proved in letting go”, writes Day- Lewis, while Shuttle echoes, “just as I work out how to be a mother / she stops being a child.”

Neil Gaiman is a magician with words, conjuring alternative worlds and rich narratives in a handful of sentences and I love his poetry as much as his extraordinary novels. “Witch Work” is a favourite.

The witch was as old as

the mulberry tree,

She lived in the house of

a hundred clocks

She sold storms and

sorrows and calmed

the sea

And she kept her life in

a box.

Like many children of my generation I learned poems by heart and “Ode to a Nightingale” by John Keats was one. The opening lines still pop into my head at unexpected moments.

My heart aches, and a

drowsy numbness pains

My sense, as though of

hemlock I had drunk,

Or emptied some dull

opiate to the drains

One minute past, and

Lethe-wards had sunk.

Lastly Roger McGough, a great poet and even greater champion of poetry, has written one of the most memorable poems I know about mortality. In “Let Me Die a Youngman’s Death”, he writes:

Or when I’m 104

And banned from the


May my mistress

Catching me in bed with

her daughter

And fearing for her son Cut me up into little


And throw away every

piece but one.

Now I’d like that read at my funeral.

  • Poems to Live Your Life By, chosen and illustrated by Chris Riddell, is published by Macmillan.


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