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.

Reading Gronw’s Stone, for Dewithon 2020

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The 2020 Wales Readathon, the Dewithon, started yesterday. Paula, at Bookjotter, invites us to join in a month of reading all things Welsh. It’s a good prompt to explore new authors, it’s also a chance to remind myself of the Welsh writing I already own.

Last year, I discussed a short story anthology. This year I offer you a 1997 poetry collection: Gronw’s Stone, Voices from the Mabinogion, by Ann Gray and Edmund Cusick.

I’ve two lines of thought on this, and so begin with the subject matter. Gronw’s Stone is one of the eleven tales of The Mabinogion, a collection of early Welsh mythology first written down in a fourteenth century manuscript known as the Red Book of Hergest.

The stories belong to the oral tradition, meaning they are far more ancient than that. They’d been passed along previous generations of wandering bards.

Until Hergest fixed them on the page, the tales would have been revised and adapted by each teller, to suit each audience. The key events were unchangeable, but interpretation and emphasis belonged with the bard.

My second thought is about the poems, which are not individually attributed to either author.

That’s interesting, isn’t it? It made me wonder how the writing process worked.

I didn’t find out until 2008, when a collection of Edmund’s poems was published posthumously. In, Between Fields and Stars, Ann Gray provided an introduction to the Gronw’s Stone section. There she described the genesis of their Gronw book, and the working process she and Edmund evolved.

I first met Edmund 13 years ago, on a story telling course at Ty Newydd, the National Writer’s Centre in North Wales, during which we visited historic sites and learned the stories of The Mabinogion…

Next Spring we met again at Avebury and told stories amongst the stones. Edmund confessed that he had written a poem for Pwyll, Prince of Dyfed. As he read it, it became clear that Edmund’s Pwyll was an honourable man, above reproach…

I was upset. I pointed out to him that Pwyll was not totally wonderful… As we argued this back and forth, I started to write [the Queen of Annwn’s] reply. I wrote into the night, reading aloud to Edmund at every pause for breath. Edmund later changed the tone of his poem to include Pwyll’s gentle regret. This is how it started: Gronw’s Stone.

Collaborative writing projects intrigue me. They seem to hover on the edges of our ideals. Tradition presents us with the poet and the novelist scribbling in solitude. Only if we look closer do we discover the degree to which many great writers discussed their work, in general and specific terms, with their peers.

Move across the writing categories to tv and film, and the advantages of collaboration are obvious. Many loved and admired shows and films have come from writing-teams. Reports say that when these work well, they are exhilarating experiences, in the manner that Ann Gray describes:

We lived in the stories, in each other’s work. Edmund wrote poems in the male voices and I in the female voices. We edited and revised together. When we were asked, but you don’t say who wrote which poems in the book, we honestly replied that it had not occurred to us to do so.

It seems to me that collaborating on a writing project requires not just a shared vision, there must be confidence, both in yourself, and in the partnering writer. Ann Gray says, I would know a poem of Edmund’s anywhere, even if it were found in an attic years from now. He would have said the same of mine.

I’m not sure I would know Edmund’s poems so well, despite having several of his other collections, and while reading this it wasn’t a question I thought to ask. Surely, that says something about the quality of these poems. Maybe they mirror the tradition of the story taking prominence over the bards, who may have had local and temporal significance, but held it only for the space of the telling.

While neither Cusick nor Gray is Welsh, both have taught in Wales.

Edmund was lecturer in English Literature at the University of Wales, before he moved to Liverpool John Moore’s University, to build-up and lead the Imaginative Writing programme. His joy in all things Celtic drew him back to Wales, on trips (especially some memorable course-field-trips), then, on his marriage, to make his home.

Ann Gray lives and works in Cornwall. She has several collections of poetry, the most recent is, I Wish I had More Mothers. She is co-founder and director of the Bodmin Moor Poetry Festival, and has taught at Ty Newydd -The National Writers centre for Wales, and on several Arvon courses.

The book I lent came back…

…and I was glad to see it. I’d missed its presence, not daily, but more than twice in the six months since I’d forced it on Phillip, who said he’d not read poetry since school.

‘This is a useful anthology,’ I’d said, pulling Penguin’s Poems for Life off my shelf.

‘I’ll give it a try,’ Phillip said. ‘I do want to know more about this writing lark.’

I hadn’t realised how much I’d taken the book for granted, until it was gone. So many of my favourite poems are in it. While I have collected works, and pamphlets from various authors, sometimes only an anthology will do.

Oh, I know we can look up any poem on the internet, and I do stumble across new gems there. But reading on the screen is not the same as riffling through pages, or being provided with a well-thought out selection.

Sometimes I know roughly how far into an anthology a particular favourite is and the book, having taken shape from my visits, falls open just where I wanted it to. One natural parting place is Adrian Mitchell’s tribute to Phillip Larkin’s This Be The Verse. In three short stanzas he mirrors the rhythms of the original, and reverses the emphasis, having simply swapped a T for the F.

They Tuck you up, your mum and dad,
They read you Peter Rabbit, too.
They give you all the treats they had
And add some extra, just for you.

If I’m looking for a theme, I browse the index. The categories range from Birth and Beginnings; Childhood and Childish Things and on through the stages of our lives, to Mourning and Monuments.

What I like in an anthology is variety and range. With that, I’m likely to stumble across a poet I’ve not met before. I’m a dipper in, rather than a page turning reader of poems.

Amongst the old familiars and favourites in this selection I recently discovered Ann Bradstreet, talking of how it feels to watch her children grow, in 1659.

I had eight  birds hatched in one nest,
Four cocks there were, and hens the rest.
I nursed them up with pain and care, 
Nor cost, nor labour did I spare,
Tall at the last they felt their wing,
Mounted the trees and learned to sing;

How can there still be so many early writers I should have heard of? The other day, somewhere, I saw a suggestion that an early eighteenth century reader could expect to have read every fiction written. Perhaps that’s true, if they had no other activities to occupy them.

I don’t think I aim for that. There are books, and poems I’ve given up on, and some of them are classics. For me, reading and writing should be about enjoyment.

‘Well,’ said Phillip, handing the book back. ‘You know me, I don’t really read. Poetry’s a bit difficult, isn’t it? I think you need a key, and I never really liked it at school.’

Mostly poems charm, challenge and fascinate me, but I know that’s not the effect they have on every other reader. I put the anthology back into the slot it had vacated, one shelf above a copy of The Sport of Queens that I was loaned more than a decade ago, by a friend who knew I enjoyed Dick Frances thrillers. ‘You’ve got to read this,’ he said. ‘It’s all about how Frances rode the Queen’s race horses.’

I think I may have read the first page, but the truth is, it’s not really my thing.