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.
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.
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.
‘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
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
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
for how could we
in the haze Of firecrackers
from a river
slow with garlands
Yet we sat there
like those people
who never speak up
but who go
lightly and swiftly
to some imperious shore.
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.
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