I had not thought... by Peter Leyland

                                                  ‘I had not thought that it would be like this’

 

This is the last line of a poem by Charles Causley called Eden Rock. The poet is looking back at his parents as they were when they were younger and sees them gone ahead from him now beckoning him forward:

 

                                                  ‘See where the stream path is

Crossing is not as hard as you might think.’

 

Charles Causley is a poet that I have good cause to remember. When I began teaching at a tough comprehensive school in Tilbury in the 70s one of my first lessons was giving a comprehension lesson on Causley’s poem,Timothy Winters, about a boy from a family fallen on hard times in Cornwall, whose welfare worker lies awake worrying while Timothy suffers physical and emotional neglect from those who are supposed to care for him. The irony of my role as a teacher reading the poem in a school where many children were not much better off than Timothy, gradually dawned on me. 

 

I had not thought about Charles Causley much since then but his poem, Eden Rock, is one of the ones that has stood out for me while I have been meeting with a group of WEA students to discuss poetry during the deepest months of the last lockdown. I have been teaching members of this group for some time now and as we couldn’t meet face-to-face, we decided to meet on Zoom. Each week one of us would choose a poet to study and share by email copies of a particular poem of theirs that we liked. As we shared the poems I was reminded once again of the immense pleasure people take in reading poetry aloud and discussing it. For this piece I asked members of the group which poem they had enjoyed most in our sessions. What follows are some of their responses and the poems. The first one is exactly the same as my own choice.

 

Jill

Charles Causley is known to me through his poems for children but the opportunity to read his poems with the group has allowed me to think about his poetry for a wider audience.  This poem is especially poignant.  It is written as he approaches his own death.  The lovely picture of his parents welcoming him to the stage that he is entering is so wonderfully painted.  It is complete and we are there.  Yet, the last line is so expressive of a bewilderment and familiarity that I recognise.  

Exploring poetry with others helps an understanding of the impact of poems upon other people and a consideration how the poet offers up him/herself in words that others recognise.  Ted Hughes, Causley’s great friend writes, ‘All falsities in writing - and the consequent dry-rot that spreads into the whole fabric - come from the notion that there is a stylistic ideal which exists in the abstract - like a special language.”  In this poem there is no ‘dry-rot’.

 

 

Eden Rock by Charles Causley

 

They are waiting for me somewhere beyond Eden Rock:

My father, twenty-five, in the same suit

Of Genuine Irish Tweed, his terrier Jack

Still two years old and trembling at his feet.

 

My mother, twenty-three, in a sprigged dress

Drawn at the waist, ribbon in her straw hat,

Has spread the stiff white cloth over the grass.

Her hair, the colour of wheat, takes on the light.

 

She pours tea from a Thermos, the milk straight

From an old H.P. sauce-bottle, a screw

Of paper for a cork; slowly sets out

The same three plates, the tin cups painted blue.

 

The sky whitens as if lit by three suns.

A mother shades her eyes and looks my way

Over the drifted stream. My father spins

A stone along the water. Leisurely

 

They beckon to me from the other bank.

I hear them call. ‘See where the stream-path is!

Crossing is not as hard as you might think.’

 

I had not thought that it would be like this.

 

 

 

Christine

 

As someone who prays every day, I was fascinated by Mary Oliver’s poem I Happened to be Standing’.  ‘Do cats pray …?’; ‘Does the opossum pray as it crosses the street?’ she asks.  She even wonders if plants, such as sunflowers and oak trees, pray.  During the past twelve months, much of the time in Lockdown, I’m sure many of us have spent time standing by an open-door musing on what we can see.  The poem has prompted me to look with fresh eyes, to ask questions about what I see.  I particularly like the lines:

         ‘Then a wren in the privet began to sing.

He was positively drenched in enthusiasm,’

‘Drenched’ is such a powerful, evocative word.

She concludes:

         ‘But I thought, of the wren’s singing, what could this be

          if it isn’t a prayer?'

During this time of pandemic, when the world has been full of uncertainty and fear, I have appreciated Mary Oliver’s keen observation of the natural world and her abundant joy in its beauty.

In an interview with Krista Tippett, Mary Oliver said that she has had a life-long interest in the spiritual life, not exclusively Christian.  She particularly resonates with a quotation from Rumi in which he says, ‘There are a hundred way to kneel and kiss the ground.’   I feel that Oliver kisses the ground with this poem.

 

“I Happened to be Standing” by Mary Oliver

I don’t know where prayers go,
or what they do.
Do cats pray, while they sleep
half-asleep in the sun?
Does the opossum pray as it
crosses the street?
The sunflowers? The old black oak
growing older every year?
I know I can walk through the world,
along the shore or under the trees,
with my mind filled with things
of little importance, in full
self-attendance.  A condition I can’t really
call being alive.
Is a prayer a gift, or a petition,
or does it matter?
The sunflowers blaze, maybe that’s their way.
Maybe the cats are sound asleep.  Maybe not.

While I was thinking this I happened to be standing
just outside my door, with my notebook open,
which is the way I begin every morning.
Then a wren in the privet began to sing.
He was positively drenched in enthusiasm,
I don’t know why.  And yet, why not.
I wouldn’t persuade you from whatever you believe
or whatever you don’t.  That’s your business.
But I thought, of the wren’s singing, what could this be
if it isn’t a prayer?
So I just listened, my pen in the air. 

 

 

Pat

One of the great things about poetry groups is that you are introduced to new poets and poems; also you read poets and poems that you have not read for a long time. I also like all the different ideas and interpretations that people have about a particular poem and I think to myself I never thought about it in that way. I love it in discussions when someone says, ‘well, I disagree.’ Then a good discussion starts. Everyone has different ideas about poems. I love the poems of Louise Gluck. Everyone else found them mournful. A Foreshortened Journey I found beautiful, strange, mysterious, moving, especially the last lines, and very positive. I find all her poems have these elements. Everyone has different ideas of what they want from poetry. 

Pauline Stainer is an exceptional poet I have liked for a long time. I love all her work. Her poems are beautiful, lyrical, strange, positive. All qualities I love in poetry. For example, from Modern Angels the lines,

     

     beyond, on the ancient fen,

     a breached dyke

     has flooded the deer-park

     and the deer wade

     into the swollen waters

     jostling, glittering

 

     against the sun.

 

are incredibly beautiful and lyrical. Other examples are the lines I want to take the weight/out of language. Strange and beautiful. From Reading by Snowlight. 

 

       

            Ferry, by Pauline Stainer 

      

     Did the shore-line

     alter with the dawn

     as we sculled

     to the sandstone pagoda?

 

     Memory still throws

     its quoit of polished steel

     over that crossing 

     by water

 

     for how could we

     judge distance

     in the haze Of firecrackers

     after Divali

 

     mist rising

     from a river

     slow with garlands

     of marigolds?

 

    Yet we sat there

    like those people

    in dreams

    who never speak up

 

    but who go

    lightly and swiftly

    without error

    to some imperious shore.

 

 

Going further

So, what is poetry for? I have been thinking about this during our long lockdown which poetry has certainly helped me to get through. I recently read the poet Les Murray’s book Killing the Black Dog where he said, “I’d disapproved of using poetry as personal therapy, but the Black Dog taught me better. Get sick enough and you’ll use any remedy you’ve got.” This made me look harder at a long study I am presently undertaking about the power of literature to transform our lives, and this is not just for WEA students but reaches across the generations. On my Twitter account, for instance, I found a film about Slam Poetry where six 16-19 year-old students from Leeds Beckett University, inspired and encouraged by their tutor and poetry coach Rommi Smith, had entered a competition in the USA. They travelled to Washington D.C. and then Chicago to perform their self-penned poems and, although they didn’t win, they did really well. The film makers, says Peter Bradshaw in a Guardian Review, ‘show young people who are very idealistic and fervently committed to poetry, drawing on the energies of rap, hip-hop and stand-up comedy.’

And what is poetry like? Slam poetry is as different from that of Mary Oliver, Charles Causley, and Pauline Stainer as you could imagine, but it’s still poetry and its purpose is to enlighten and to entertain, sometimes touching on the deepest meanings of life and other times just for fun. I think poetry is an emotional and perceptive medium through which all members of our society can share concerns about the way we live in the 21st Century. My title, 'I had not thought that it would be like this', is I think a suitable conclusion.


References:

Bradshaw, Peter (2012) We Are Poets The Guardian 28th June

We Are Poets Video, Daniel Lucchesi and Alex Ramsey Bache (2012) Leeds

Murray, L. (2009) Killing the Black Dog Short Blacks


The original of this article was published in Voices from Adult Community Education and all those mentioned approved the selection and use of their pieces. It forms part of a longer study I am writing entitled The Companionship of Books.


                                                                                                           Peter Leyland 26/06/2021

 

 

 

Comments

Kirsten Bett said…
I agree so much that poetry is for everyone and discussing poetry and writing and reading poetry is healing. The great thing about poetry, I find, is that. When a poem grips you, it grips you and you can learn so much from reading it closely. I love that slam poetry is being embraced by young people especially. What a great blog to start the day. Thanks Peter
Nicky said…
That is so interesting Peter. my poetry group is all writers sharing their own work but I can see the benefit to discussing favourite poems. Thank you.
Bill Kirton said…
Thanks, Peter. It's so refreshing hearing young people convey their appreciation of what is too often dismissed as 'hard work'. On the contrary, so many of my own 'favourite' pieces are from the simplest constructions/confections, their depth and complexity made all the more intriguing and powerful by their lack of pretention.
Eden Baylee said…
Thank you for sharing some beautiful poems, Peter.

For me, poetry is always an inspiration as a writer and in daily life.

eden
Peter Leyland said…
Thanks so much for all the nice comments on this piece. Since I posted it I have sent a 6000 word essay on The Companionship of Books to an HE. journal. The editor likes it and it will be 'blind reviewed' in another month. Such is the process!

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