Sometimes finding a meaning needs time

For the UK, it was the first day of spring last Friday. That means equinox-poetry-day on my favourite radio station, BBC radio 4. Throughout the schedule, some of our best UK actors (national treasures?) were invited to read poems on a Spring theme.

Christopher Eccleston was on the 7.45 a.m. breakfast-news programme, reading A Northern Morning, by Alistair Elliot.

A Northern Morning

It rained from dawn. The fire died in the night.
I poured hot water on some foreign leaves;
I brought the fire to life. Comfort
spread from the kitchen like a taste of chocolate
through the head-waters of a body,
accompanied by that little-water-music.
The knotted veins of the old house tremble and carry
a louder burden: the audience joining in.

People are peaceful in a world so lavish
with the ingredients of life:
the world of breakfast easy as Tahiti.
But we must leave. Head down in my new coat
I dodge to the High Street conscious of my fellows
damp and sad in their vegetable fibres.
But by the bus-stop I look up: the spring trees
exult in the downpour, radiant, clean for hours:
This is the life! This is the only life!
George Henry Frederick Bell

Afterwards, there was a short interview. The presenter, Justin Webb, wondered whether learning a poem by heart might be something we could all do while self-isolating. ‘You need time, to do it, and as an actor, who’s used to learning lines, it is something that can really change your life.’

Christopher agreed. ‘All the great thinkers around poetry believe that in order to understand a poem you have to learn it by heart,’ he said.

‘I’m interested in that,’ said Justin. ‘What is it about committing it to memory that adds to it, in a persons psyche and understanding?’

Christopher said, ‘The poet, John Cooper Clark said quite recently, that it was fine to teach children poems by rote, even when they don’t understand them, because the poem stays with them, and as they mature, their understanding expands. As you get older, you’ll re-examine them.’

I’d like to add that a similar approach works with stories. While I wouldn’t advocate memorising one, to read, then re-read, and then to read a story again brings similar benefits.

As to learning a poem, I think I might start with A Northern Morning. I may not live in the north, but the details Alistair Elliot sets together are familiar to me, too.

Plus, so far, every time I’ve reread it, I’ve found myself focusing on something new. This is not a collection of words, it is a three dimensional space in my head.

A Northern Morning is included in the 2004 anthology, Staying Alive, published by Bloodaxe Books.

27 thoughts on “Sometimes finding a meaning needs time

  1. … This is the life! This is the only life! … some wonderful lines depicting that Northern Morning.
    Yes, the understanding of a poem or a story deepens and expands when revisited.
    The occasional children song and Nursery rhyme visit me at times, popping up from nowhere, and prayers, too.
    Always enriching to re-examine the landmarks we lost sight of.

    Liked by 2 people

  2. I had to learn passages from Shakespeare plays at school which I can still trot off, and odd poems from the Oxford Book of English Verse, but nothing much more recent than Hopkins and Yeats I think. I never much saw the point at the time but now I can appreciate the beauty and truth of what they said (it being a boys school I’m afraid that few female poets got a look in) — and now I even try my hand at writing the stuff myself.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. What a wonderful poem! I read it out loud to myself in my best northern accent, remembering that northern rain which soaks you to the bone (fondly). I’m sure Christopher Eccleston read it beautifully. I wonder if I can find it on i-player. And John Cooper Clarke – brilliant! I saw him many, many years ago performing at York University. Thanks for sharing Cath 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

    • Glad you enjoyed it, Chris. Yes, Christopher Eccleston did indeed read it beautifully. It’s on the Today programme, on i-player, at about 7.45 – I’d give the rest a miss, apart from being out of date, it’s not likely to brighten your day.

      Liked by 1 person

  4. Speaking of BBC radio:Do you listen to Desert Island Discs? I started listening recently via podcasts. Old and new episodes are available. I’ve heard around a dozen so far. Real good ones were with Petula Clark, Gary Kasparov, John Updike, Gregory Peck. In fact, every one I’ve heard so far was good.

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    • I do occasionally listen to DID, Neil. It’s one of our ‘institutions’, and so well loved that there are usually long discussions when a new host has to be found – we’re now on the fifth. I shall have to look up John Updike and Gregory Peck, I don’t remember hearing either, and I’m curious.

      Liked by 1 person

  5. Somehow this poem feels just right today, and as a lover of the northern lands (UK), I found myself nodding with enjoyment and in deep admiration throughout. A poem that deserves to be read many times, for one cannot digest such richness in one sitting alone. Thank you for sharing! Blessings always, Deborah.

    Liked by 1 person

  6. Cath, as you know I enjoy your blog immensely …and I really like your concept of a poem being a 3 dimensional space in your head. But, being a nit picky nerd, I would hesitantly suggest that its actually a 4 dimensional space ☺ That sounds trippy but is really neat – the poems I learned by rote at school have stayed with me but changed with time as I have got older. A lovely idea – thanks for that.

    Liked by 1 person

    • I appreciate nit-picking, Mike. It generally means I’m learning things, and since I’ve just checked out the difference between 3 and 4 dimensions, I agree, I should have opted for 4.


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