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.