Classic Poems: Set Texts Set Free

 Image by Bethan

Chris Meade talks to W.H. Herbert about classic poems that stay with us. Write a new poem in response to a poem which is special to you. if:book will be collecting their favourites into a digital anthology and awarding five poets with Amazon vouchers.

For better or worse, people remember the poems they encounter at school. When I mention that I’m working with the Poetry Society, people often tell me a story about learning poetry at school – it may be about a sadistic bore who put them off poems forever, or a beloved teacher who introduced them to a favourite poem that’s stayed with them all their lives.

If:book is creating the ifsobook of nearlypoems, a curated digital anthology for schools of classic poems to be illuminated, remixed and responded to by readers.  We need you to write poems – or write prose, songs, draw pictures, make films and animations in response to the poems you met at school that knocked you for six.

We welcome responses to any poem you studied, included ones you hated, and especially those which are out of copyright (usually when the author has been dead for 70 years). If:book will give Amazon vouchers of  £20 to each of our 5 favourites, and will incorporate them in the final book.

You can send us your responses as poems, prose of around 500 words, images and videos (upload them to YouTube and send us a link).

For this challenge please email them directly to  – DEADLINE – 5pm Friday 6th July 2012

To inspire you the poet W.N. Herbert has written us a wonderful poem in response to a Thomas Hardy poem which his daughter studied recently at GCSE.

W.N. Herbert: ‘I was always haunted by Hardy’s poems about being haunted, in which, as so often in his work, he gives a voice to the dead even though he doesn’t – can’t – believe in them in order to exteriorize his innermost feelings.

I was always interested that those innermost feelings were about both love and history – indeed he seems to see one in terms of the other: time, paradoxically, both undermines and validates love. This makes him a very interesting love poet, because it’s not all about falling into or falling out of love, it’s about what happens in between and after those points, where many of us spend or will spend most of our lives.

His guilt made such a good ghost, and nowhere more so than in ‘The Haunted’ in which he imagined the ghost of his first wife haunting him. Hardy revels in the irony of creating a spirit and putting words into its mouth, and those words being a complaint that he can’t see or hear it.

This made me think two things about poetry. One is that when we begin to write a poem, it’s not unlike a haunting – we experience a presence, and imagine it has form – body – even when it has none. A poem might only be a title, or a line or two, or an image; it can sit in one draft for months or years, then suddenly turn itself inside out and become something entirely other. But all the time we think of it as one thing because we experience it as a single presence.

The other is that we are haunted by other people’s poetry: part of the pleasure of reading poetry is that sense of something other, perhaps from the past, perhaps even from the distant past, possessing our attention, getting under our skin, niggling at the corners of our consciousness as we process what it is we love or hate or just can’t explain about it.

A poem can be like a ghost in many ways, and that was why I wrote ‘The Haunter Haunted’, thinking about how this Hardy poem has lived with me for so many years, and about how Hardy anticipated exactly this effect: the little resurrection of the imagination to compensate for the literal resurrection he knows will never happen. Every time I realize this, it’s like he’s here again, alive in my poem in just the way he brought Emma back to life in his.’


The Haunter
by Thomas Hardy  
He does not think that I haunt here nightly:
How shall I let him know
That whither his fancy sets him wandering
I, too, alertly go? –
Hover and hover a few feet from him
Just as I used to do,
But cannot answer the words he lifts me –
Only listen thereto!

When I could answer he did not say them:
When I could let him know
How I would like to join in his journeys
Seldom he wished to go.
Now that he goes and wants me with him
More than he used to do,
Never he sees my faithful phantom
Though he speaks thereto.

Yes, I companion him to places
Only dreamers know,
Where the shy hares print long paces,
Where the night rooks go;
Into old aisles where the past is all to him,
Close as his shade can do,
Always lacking the power to call to him,
Near as I reach thereto!

What a good haunter I am, O tell him,
Quickly make him know
If he but sigh since my loss befell him
Straight to his side I go.
Tell him a faithful one is doing
All that love can do
Still that his path may be worth pursuing,
And to bring peace thereto.

The Haunter Haunted
by W.N. Herbert

The poem cannot know its future dance
although its maker may anticipate –
that ragged tashed, gaunt egg of a man
sat in the gloaming study at Max Gate.
‘Tom, can’t I light the gas?’
‘Not yet, Florence, no, not yet…’

Another poem partners it from hence
haunts it from twelve decades deep in further time
mimics its sorry movement
echoing its skeleton of rhyme
occupies its page’s shape and sense
till in that maker’s mind

he feels it settle like a favourite dress
lain softly, emptying upon a chair,
that night’s other business
become too pressing for delay.
He calls her back, tries to disperse
this cloud still rustling with dry hail:

‘Yes, please light all the lamps,
but close the windows: it’s the season
when hawk moths blunder past
like little moons, unreasoning.
Let them bash silently against the glass
and not disturb our evening.’

Published June, 2012

10 thoughts on “Classic Poems: Set Texts Set Free

    1. You can send us your responses as poems, prose of around 500 words, images and videos (upload them to YouTube and send us a link).

      For this challenge please email them directly (with your name and age) to

  1. You can send us your responses as poems, prose of around 500 words, images and videos (upload them to YouTube and send us a link).

    For this challenge please email them directly (with your name and age) to

  2. Hi, just wondered when the winners of this competition are going to be announced? It will be really nice to read the winning entries.

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