British voters keep their heads and say 'If' is the best of all

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The Independent Online

Arts Reporter

A poll to find the nation's favourite poem - an event which could have provided Britain's most embarrassing publicity since the survey which found that Rolf Harris was the public's best-known artist - ended respectably, if not with a bang, last night.

After six days of voting the people's choice, with more than double the votes of its nearest rival, turned out to be Rudyard Kipling's If - admittedly redolent of the former O-Level syllabus, but the work of a Nobel laureate none the less.

The rest of the Top 10, however, turned up some surprises. They were Tennyson's The Lady of Shallot; Walter de la Mare's The Listener; Stevie Smith's Not Waving But Drowning; Wordsworth's Daffodils ("He wandered lonely as a cloud"); Keats's To Autumn and his Ode To A Nightingale; WB Yeats' The Lake Isle of Innisfree and He Wishes For The Cloths Of Heaven and Wilfred Owen's war poem, Dulce Et Decorum Est.

The poll to find the nation's favourite poem began on Saturday and finished at noon yesterday, National Poetry Day. Nominations - of any poem in the world - were made by 7,500 calls to a premium-rate telephone number by members of the public. Votes were cast for more than 200 authors and almost 1,000 poems, with Cargoes, John Masefield's rhythmic tour de force, and Lewis Carroll's Jabberwocky both losing an early lead.

The choice of If comes as something as a relief to staff of BBC's The Bookworm, who organised the poll and arranged for the acclaimed Shakespearean actor, Sir Ian McKellen, to read the top choices on BBC1 at 10.20pm tonight.

There had been pessimistic speculation that the public would go for a poem rather lighter in tone, such as Pam Ayres's Oh, I Wish I'd Looked After Me Teeth, a ditty on the corrosive effect of toffee.

But although it won a following, it was more than balanced by the votes for poems by Byron, Keats, Robert Frost, Gerard Manley Hopkins, Wilfred Owen, John Donne and Thomas Gray.

The favourite modern poets to emerge from the survey were Carol Ann Duffy and Simon Armitage, while the children's vote was overwhelmingly in favour of Quentin Blake and Allan Ahlberg.

The only great British poet who failed to win a respectable share was, oddly enough, William Shakespeare, even though the bookmakers Ladbrokes had laid odds of two to one that Sonnet 18 ("Shall I compare thee to a summer's day") would win.

In fact, none of the poems chosen by the bookies as top favourites - William Blake's The Tyger; John Donne's Holy Sonnet, Elizabeth Barrett Browning's Sonnet From The Portuguese ("How do I love thee? Let me count the ways") and WH Auden's Funeral Blues, famously quoted in the film Four Weddings And A Funeral - came close.

Some poems nominated completely baffled Daisy Goodwin, The Bookworm's executive producer, and poetry experts. Last night, they were trying to identify Anne Marie Cusack's Paradise (15 votes) and Hazel Shrumpkin's My Memories .

Other problems stemmed from the difficulties experienced by the staff drafted in to decipher the names of the poets and poems from the answerphone messages left by callers. They recorded numerous votes for a weird character called Lord Bryon, while other suspicious nominations included Allergy In A Country Churchyard, Golchy et Gwackorum Est, The Rhubarb of O' Mark I Am, AA Milne's Vespas and Not Wading But Drowning.

Ms Goodwin said she was delighted with the results. "The range of votes is incredible. Apart from Hazel Shrumpkin and Anne Marie Cusack, pretty much every well-known poet got votes. It shows that the great British public is a lot more discerning about poetry than anyone would give them credit for," she said.

The Top Ten

1 'If', Rudyard Kipling

2 'The Lady of Shallot',

Alfred, Lord Tennyson

3 'The Listener',

Walter de la Mare

4 'Not Waving but Drowning', Stevie Smith

5 'Daffodils',

William Wordsworth

6 'To Autumn',

John Keats

7 'The Lake Isle of

Innisfree', WB Yeats

8 'Dulce et Decorum Est', Wilfred Owen

9 'Ode to a

Nightingale', John Keats

10 'He Wishes for the Cloths of Heaven', WB Yeats