(Preamble: there’s a phrase that’s been stuck in my mind ever since I first read it in the 70’s, quoted in an article by Geoff Fox in ‘Children’s Literature in Education’. I keep writing about it, one way or another. A 13 year old girl describes what it is for her to be a reader of stories.
It’s as if I’m a sort of dark watcher, who is there at the scene, but none of the characters pays any attention to me. I’m like a power, as if everything is happening because I’m there. Claire, 3rd year, secondary modern
[Dark watchers: young readers and their fiction)
I think all the poets who matter are dark watchers, none more so than Charles Causley, who once said: If I didn’t write poetry I think I’d explode.)
I’ll start with a rambling introduction. It’s the kind of thing you can’t ignore in a face-to-face conversation, but can cheerfully skim when you’re reading, without any fear of giving offence. I’ve spent most of last week setting up three launch events for my new pamphlet Advice to a traveller [Indigo Dreams] and after many small frustrations we’re now good to go with readings in Halifax (with Gaia Holmes and Vicky Gatehouse), in Leeds (with Alicia Fernandez, Tom Weir and Ian Harker) and in Wakefield (Ian Parks and Laura Potts)
[** should you be interested in finding more about them they’ve all been guests on the cobweb. The links to their posts appear at the end.]
In and amongst, I’ve been trying to do some real writing, when not distracting myself with comfort-blanket novels. I’ve not read novels for ages, and it’s remarkably soothing to be able to do it again. Anyway, I’m struggling to get grips with a sequence based on a local mining disaster in the 70’s. I’ve had a tutorial workshop with Kim Moore who suggests one element could be short ‘interlude’ poems about other disasters…Senghenydd, Aberfan, Markham, Hartley…and I have the idea that they should be short 4-line stanza ballads. I haul out Charles Causley: Collected Poems , because there’s a man who could make 4-line rhyming stanza do just about anything. Two sunny days later, I’ve read the whole book, which now bristles with post-its. I really thought I knew his stuff…in the way I thought I knew U A Fanthorpe. Couldn’t have been more wrong.
It reminds me that I once met Charles Causley, and I was sure I remembered what he looked like. I was convinced I remembered, along with the deceptively mild demeanour (think Alan Bennett) that he had a cap of soft white hair . Wrong. Like all of us he has had lots of physical selves and lives. And all of them sing in his poems. But no head of soft white hair.
Still. I’ll tell you a story.
One August, long ago and far away, I drove from Dawlish, where I was on a family camping holiday, to Oxford to start a week’s tutoring for an NYU course for American teachers of English. I’d walked up from the beach (where the seawall fell down in 2014), 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 always immaculately dressed 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, 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 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, not out of, but beyond 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’.
Well, it took days of reading last week to find that I’d not scratched the surface of what he could do, and with what passion he could write. I’d forgotten that he was, early on, a “Poet of WW2”. If he’d died in the war, he’d be remembered for that more than he is.I’d not taken in that he could write, with equal ease, blank verse, free verse, sonnets, couplets, and hymns (if asked); I’d not realised just how much myth, autobiography, fable and folk tale bleed into each other, nor just how far he ranged, geographically. I learned again how technically accomplished he was, and how apparently simple and accessible, and how he could make, unerringly, solid, breathing landscapes and seascapes. He made then, like his crunching sea, with great economy. Like this;
the cool quilt of the filtering moon
the stiff waves propped against the classroom window
beyond those pale disturbances of sky
another year assembles its vast floe
And his instinct was religious. It’s not just that angels and Christ walk familiarly in the streets of his imagination. For him, as for Blake, everything that lives is holy. And he could be drily funny, too. Let me share two small discoveries before I finish.
There are some small poems towards the back of the Collected Poems. One records the time Ted Hughes came to his classroom….to read and tell stories, I imagine. (Wouldn’t you have liked Charles Causley to teach you?)
In a junior school
“When I asked
what the poet did, a girl said,
Make up true stories
of people and animals
in his head.
When I told them
he was also a farmer,
they said they thought
farmers didn’t have time to write
stories and poems
Once, I said, he took home
a wounded badger.
Nursed it, then set it free.
All the children smiled;
clapped their hands very loudly
and then there are three or four that I could easily have passed over. I think they must have come unmediated from a notebook. The sequence is called Embryos. This is my favourite
called last night.
You are a poor cook,
she said. And look,
As for your poems
listen to me
for a moment
Just one thing more; I have an abiding affection for ‘Jack the treacle eater’ with its gorgeous Charles Keeping illustrations. I think Keeping was created to be an illustrator of the work of poets, and especially of Causley.
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 spend part of most Sundays writing about poetry and poets. Thank you Charles Causley.
** To say thank you to all the poets who volunteered to guest at the three launches in June and July, and to introduce you to them if you’ve not already met them, here are the links to the posts when I’ve tried to say how much I like their work: