Just got home from a splendid afternoon at The Red Shed Poetry competition prize-giving in Wakefield. A lovely upstairs room at the Cafe Mocho Moocho (who make exceedingly nice cakes). All sorts of friends there. Jo Peters (2nd Prize), Sandra Burnett (of OWF…publishers of ‘The Garden’ anthology…and her Highly Commended poem), William Thirsk-Gaskell, (who has Walked the Line….Wakefield Post-Code shortlist), and Julie Mellor who judged the comp. and read a stack of her stunning new poems. New voices, too, like the winning poet, Charlotte Ansell. Great. I hope I’ll hear more of her from now on. A lovely afternoon of poetry and readers of poetry..thanks John Clarke and Jimmy Andrex for organising it all for seven years running. It’s paying off at last, lads. Now, to the normal Sunday cobweb business……..
This heartening image popped up on my Facebook a couple of days ago, reminding me not only that Lemn Sissay is in the running for the post of Chancellor of Manchester University, but also featured in the first of a number of happy accidents that lead up to the subject of today’s cobweb strand—–who happens to be Charles Causley.
The first time I met Lemn was round about 1988, at a NAWE course for aspiring writers in education; it was held at Lumb Bank, and my part was to pair up Heads of English in my LEA with writers who would spend some time working in Calderdale schools. It was in-sevice for the HoDs, too. Happy days. Another writer/performer on the course, Terry Caffrey and Lemn became good mates during the week. One of the workshops was run by a poet I can’t remember who suggested that we all write a haiku, for that was a sure-fire way of energising kids in school, and it were well we had it in our armoury. Lemn leaned across me to Terry and whispered : ‘Terry…what’s an haiku’. Terry whispered back: ‘Lemn…it’s a three-legged dog.’ Like I say, I forget whoever it was tutoring the session, but I’ve remembered that.
One upshot of the course was that Terry got a fair amount of work from schools in the authority, and also the job of guest tutor, along with Berlie Doherty for one of the week-long Lumb bank course we used to run for chosen 6th formers from Calderdale schools. And bit by bit we became good friends. Which leads me to:
North Oxford and the Banbury Road, and this house in particular; part of the college that hosted an annual NYU Summer School, and to which I invited Terry to provide one evening’s poetic entertainment. Which he did, to the mixed delight and bemusement of the American teachers of English who found his Liverpool accent and speed of delivery occasionally needed subtitles.
I was very fond of those Summer Schools. The very first Oxford-based one I went to was one August, long ago and far away. I drove there from Dawlish, where I was on a camping holiday. Walked up from the beach (where the seawall fell down last year), got changed, packed the car and drove to Oxford. I guess that added to the dreamlike quality of arriving on a warm, golden summer evening, to be greeted by ( I think) Maurice from Chicago. If it was Maurice, who was frighteningly correct, and immaculately dressed, always in a blindingly white shirt and discreet tie. Because it was a Sunday evening, he apologised, many of our course members would not be with us. (They were in the habit of flying off to Rome or Florence or Paris or Amsterdam at the weekends. That taught me how small Europe is, and that Americans have a different scale of distances.) However, said Maurice (if it was Maurice) a few of us had stayed behind to show some hospitality to a guest who’d been invited by the course director. If you like poetry, you may care to join us, said Maurice. Are you familiar with a Charles Cowsly? And so it was that a bit later on I joined six or seven dutiful stay-behinds in what would have been the Rector’s study behind the big bay window in the picture, all leather chairs and glazed bookcases and ticking clocks and buckram-bound works of biblical exegisis and there was:
..Mr Charles Cowsly, who read to us for an hour, and told us stories, and generally entranced me. Just to be clear, this was nearly 30 years ago. What I knew about poetry (apart from university and sixth form teaching) didn’t amount to much. As I wrote in an earlier post, I got my poetry from school anthologies. but that meant, thanks to Geoffrey Summerfield and ‘Voices’, I certainly knew Vernon Scannell, and even more, like generations of the children I taught, I knew (or thought I knew) Charles Causley. Which mainly meant I knew ‘A jolly hunter’, ‘What has happened to Lulu?’, ‘Timothy Winters’, ‘The ballad of the bread man’ and ‘Charlotte Dyment’. The first four were sure fire winners with any class I taught, and the last one fitted in with the poetry I read as social history…broadsheet ballads; the poetry of the working classes. Oral poetry. Causley’s ‘Figgie Hobbin’ was the only single poet collection we had a full class set of, until Gareth Owen’s ‘Song of the city‘ was published.
So that was Causley for me, memorable and accessible, but not up there on set text lists with Heaney and Hughes and Larkin. Maybe that was because he was tagged as a children’s poet? I hadn’t tuned in to the craft, the elegance, the misleading simplicity of his work. One hour in a room in a house on the Banbury Road changed that for good, and for the better.
First there was the physical presence; comfortable, unassuming, a man at ease with himself. And then there was the voice. Some poets have an unfair advantage, their voices at one with the rhythm and music of their poetry. Heaney had it and so did Hughes. Tony Harrison has it, and so does Liz Lochhead. Young contemporary poets I know have it. Clare Shaw. Kim Moore. Instantly recognisable. You can make your own lists of people who haven’t got it, folk whose poetry is terrific but whose readings don’t match it. Charles Causley had it, Cornish and unemphatic but with a quiet authority and a lovely rhythm. And then the sense of place. Some poets live their whole lives in one place, a place where they are deep rooted and enriched, which is never parochial, and which they simultaneously transcend. George Mackay Brown is one, and Causley another. I started to get the glimmerings of it as he talked about his village, his mother and father, the house where he lived all his life, and this illuminated one of my favourite poems of his: ‘Reservoir Street’. Here, in ‘hallmark’ 4-line rhyming stanzas he recalls being sent as a child to stay with Auntie, who
‘…stood strong as the Eddystone Lighthouse.
A terrible light shone out of her head.’
who rules her ‘five prime – beef” boys with a fierce discipline. The days are hot, the sun comes up like a killer; at night, ‘motor- car tyres rubbed out the dark’, and next day:
‘Down in the reservoir I saw a man drowning’.
The child escapes back to his home, and on the train, says the poet:
‘I thought of my brother who slept beside me,
four walls round us pure as cloam.
When I got to my house my head was thunder.
The bed lay open as a shell.
Sweet was my brother’s kiss, and sweeter
the innocent water from the well.’
It’s a poem with not a wasted word, its release like the breaking of a storm after oppressive heat, and the cool of after. It’s as true and frightening and real as a folk tale. It was told, rather than read, and then he told us about the white painted bedroom he shared. He didn’t need to explain anything. I’ve thought since that what enchanted me was its tenderness. What do I mean by that? I mean the tenderness of Rembrandt’s portraits of his wife and unwavering eye of his self-portrait, the loving honesty. Not a shred of sentimentality. That tenderness was in his reading ‘At the grave of John Clare’. I had not known that a poet could talk to a dead poet like that.
‘O Clare! Your poetry clear, translucent / as your lovely name’.
I had not known it was possible to use the word ‘lovely’ so frankly and simply. The only other poem I remember from that reading was ‘Death of a poet’. I’m still not sure that, despite its total accessibility, I understand it yet, but this last stanza stays and stays.
‘Over the church a bell broke like a wave upended.
The hearse left for winter with a lingering hiss.
I looked in the wet sky for a sign, but no bird descended.
I went across the road to the pub; wrote this.’
One of the things about Causley’s poems is that you can learn them by heart more readily than anyone else’s I know. I also learned I needed to see beyond Figgie Hobbin to this unnerving quiet craftsman and maker of great and grown-up poems. A couple of weeks later, I bought ‘Secret destinations’. It wasn’t what I expected, and it took me a long, long time to just let it work. Many of the poems were written while he was a writer-in residence at the University of Western Australia, and it’s as though the unfamiliar landscape jolted him into what Tribune called ‘the arena of truly major poets’. I can’t imagine that sort of league-table labelling would have suited the quiet man I heard read, but I see what it was getting at when I read
Kite, poisoned by dingo bait
‘A kite, as motionless as clay,
plumping its feather against death
like northern birds against the frost
it gripped the noon, its eye of stone
blinded as by a pentecost’
and also, this, from ‘Greek Orthodox, Melbourne’, where, in ‘a scent / of drooling wax a priest hurls in, / suddenly pitches his black tent / scolds God in Greek’. There’s a heightening of sensation in these poems…that was the unexpectedness. I needed to grow out of simple expectations of ballads, or lyrical reminders of
‘This is the house where I was born:
sepulchre-white, the unsleeping stream
washing the wall by my child bed’.
I think I did; I think I have, despite my abiding affection for ‘Jack the treacle eater’ with its gorgeous Charles Keeping illustrations.So, there we are. A happy accident. I’m not sure what American teachers of English, attuned to free verse, made of Charles Cowsly, but I’m pretty sure that an early evening in a house in Oxford is the reason I spent this afternoon at the Red Shed prize-giving, and why I spend part of most Sundays writing about poetry and poets. Thank you Charles Causley.
Oh…yes..it’s also the reason I shall be away for eight days on a writing course from next Saturday, so the odds are against cobweb strands being woven for two weeks. In fact, let’s agree on that. You can have a half holiday, and when you come back I may well have an (un) discovered gem lined up for you. See you then. Fingers crossed for Lemn Sissay
[As you know, those of you who who hang back at the end, this is where I usually put the details of books you now want to rush out and buy. But you can’t. Just Google Charles Causley’s ‘Collected Poems’ and you’ll be directed to Amazon to be told it’s unavailable, or to Abe Books who will tell you the cheapest copy available will cost you about £45.oo (+ P&P). It’s hard to believe. Maybe someone will do something about it. Maybe]