I want to live – Sharon Olds
The most intense reading group I ever belonged to wasn’t really a reading group. It was a listening group.
I was working at the time for a community arts co-operative in North London. Each person in the group had a specialism (drawing, dance, percussion, comedy, creative writing, acting, singing etc.) which they designed and led workshops in, training the non-specialists in-house. We worked with a wide range of clients in the area, ranging from primary schools to day centres for mental health patients to reminiscence groups.
It was not glamorous. Sometimes clients would not turn up for the workshops; sometimes the workshops would finish five minutes after they had started. We met in a church hall behind Euston Station.
Towards the end of my stint at the co-operative I elected to work with a group of clients at a hospice. The premise was simple. We would meet with the clients for an hour or so each week in one of the hospice sitting rooms, and we would read poems and stories to them. I think it changed my life.
We would start the sessions by reading one or two poems from anthologies, after which clients would make requests. Two of the most frequently chosen poems were ‘Birches‘ by Robert Frost and ‘To Autumn‘ by John Keats. The group was not an exercise in literary criticism. Once a poem had been read out loud clients were entitled to say as much or as little about the poem as they wanted.
Chiefly I remember the poems provoking two kinds of response in particular: complete silence and deep personal reminiscence. Mostly there was silence.
One of the clients, a man I shall call Andrew, loved to listen to the poems with his eyes closed. He rarely said anything about them, except to occasionally repeat a favourite line. I can’t read ‘Birches’ now without seeing him in his recliner, head tilted back, eyes closed tight, repeatedly murmuring ’One could do worse than be a swinger of birches’ and smiling to himself.
A woman whom I shall call Daphne practically told us her life story over the three sessions we had with her, entirely in response to ‘To Autumn‘. We learned about her semi-rural childhood in the post-war period, the long walks into the countryside that she would take with her siblings. Even now I can remember her description of the complete absence of traffic.
One subject remained not so much out of bounds but ignored, the imminent death of the group’s participants. As the group lost members and gained others it was a fact which did not need drawing attention to. It was, to use a phrase of Ted Hughes, ‘inscribed in the egg’ of their being there.
That the clients reacted to the poems we read them in the way they did argues for poetry’s ability to cut through the norms of social interaction and place the listener/reader simultaneously and intensely in the moment of hearing the poem and the experience of the poem itself. Had we been sharing memories of novels or films I wonder if I would still remember these responses in the same way, some twenty-seven years later? These are some of the people I thought of when I called this series Lifesaving Poems.
I first came across e e cummings’s ‘in Just’ in an anthology, Wordscapes, edited by Barry Maybury (OUP, 1971). A few weeks before I took up my first teaching post I spent the afternoon in the children’s poetry section of the old Dillons store near Goodge Street sitting cross legged on the floor, a wall of slim volumes growing steadily around me.
I did not really know what I was looking for; I was just following my nose. On my PGCE course we had been shown a little of Michael Rosen’s work, so I began with him: Quick, Let’s Get Out of Here and You Tell Me, a joint volume with Roger McGough. (I once heard him tell a theatre of crying people that he called it You Tell Me so that when children went to libraries asking for it they would get into trouble: ‘Excuse me, I’d like a book please.’ ‘Certainly, what’s it called?’ ‘You Tell Me.’ ‘No, you tell me.’ ‘You Tell Me.’ ‘No, you tell me!’ ‘No, that’s what it’s called.’ ‘Oh.’)
I also bought Ted Hughes’s Season Songs, The Rattlebag and Poetry in the Making (for £1.75!), and Allan Ahlberg’s classics Please Mrs Butler and Heard it in the Playground. They are all falling apart now, but I still have each of them.
What I loved about the Wordscapes series was that the books deliberately placed well known poems (‘in Just’, ‘This is just to say’,'Be not afeard; the isle is full of noises’) next to poems by children, extracts from fiction and non-fiction, as well as poems by the genius Anon: playground rhymes, riddles, jingles, epitaphs and tongue twisters.
Like Geoffrey Summerfield’s Voices and Junior Voices series the books also contained photographs. Some of these were of obviously ‘poetic’ subject matter, like animals and the sea, but most were not. There were reproductions of Brueghel and Lowry paintings, decontextualised close-ups of inanimate objects, portraits of farm and factory workers, tower blocks.
It was perfectly possible, therefore, to find Shakespeare followed by Carl Sandburg, followed by a sea shanty. When I hear talk of poetry as a ‘democratic’ art-form, these are the books which I think of: where all of human life, and all the ways of saying it, rub shoulders with and draw energy from each other. In this way they are deeply political documents.
I am not sure a publisher would take on the Wordscapes or Voices series now. In an age where poetry is increasingly (but not completely) marginalised in schools it would be a brave editor indeed who decided to publish something similar. In the week where we have been remembering the influence of a single politician in the story a nation tells about itself I wonder if a more potent, questioning (and often untold) story about education, language and history lies in books like these, whose power, in the words of Bruce Cockburn, appears frail, comedic, useless, ‘like grass through concrete’.
In this age and moment when we all need to have an opinion to have it now these books and the poems in them take pause on a slower path, finding and providing ‘a way of saying, a mouth’ (Auden) that fits our breathing and that will not be silenced.
Norman MacCaig’s ‘Aunt Julia’ was the first poem I remember reading which made me think ‘I need to do this’. I was about fourteen at the time.
I’d been excited by Ted Hughes’ early animal poems, Roger McGough’s ’40 Love’, and John Logan’s marvellous ‘The Picnic’ (in Michael and Peter Benton’s Touchstones 5 —now out of print). The difference with ‘Aunt Julia’ was that I came upon it in the first book of poetry I had bought with my own money, Geoffery Summerfield’s Worlds.
It spoke to me immediately. I also had relations I could not converse with, my mother’s family, French-speaking Swiss. We did French at school, of course, but it only made things worse. Here at last was a poem that validated my own speechless frustration.
When I read it now it is the simplicity of the language which continues to delight my nervous system, to borrow from Seamus Heaney. It pulls off the difficult trick of telling the reader as much about the speaker of the poem as it does its subject. Aunt Julia comes back to life through the poem’s benign metaphorical gaze which draws attention to its artifice both as a remembered thing and its cry of lament for a lost way of life :
She was buckets and water flouncing into them. She was winds pouring wetly round house-ends. She was brown eggs, black skirts and a keeper of threepennybits in a teapot.
I love his use of adverbs: ‘marvellously’ and ‘wetly’ are strange, but generous and exact. I love ‘the absolute darkness/of a box bed, listening to/crickets being friendly.’ They didn’t have crickets in the Jura but the darkest room I ever slept in was at my grandparents’ house in La Chaux da Fonds. I dreamt that my fear and incomprehension could be similarly soothed by such insistent primitive music. And I love her ‘threepenny bits/in a teapot’ which seemed to conjure my grandmother’s secret frugality precisely.
It is the poem that got me writing because it appeared when I needed it, (which wasn’t till after I had read it). It told a story -while leaving most of the ‘questions unanswered’; and because it taught me that plain language can be heartbreaking too.
I feel I owe it everything.
To read ‘Aunt Julia’, click on the image below, and it will take you to the Scottish Poetry Library website where the poem is hosted. To read my review of Worlds visit the Articles page on this website.
I came across ‘Elegy for Jane’ having found poems by Theodore Roethke in Ted Hughes’ classic anthology of poems and writing ideas Poetry in the Making. This led me on to buying and devouring the anthology he edited with Seamus Heaney, The Rattlebag.
I was also persuaded that Heaney himself was such a fan. His essay on Roethke in Preoccupations, ‘Canticles to the Earth’, is one of his most gorgeous and rapturous.
This was the Precambrian period of my writing life. Transformation was taking place, but everything I did, I did alone. I knew no other writers or poets; there was no internet; my local library only stocked Betjeman.
In those days The Poetry Library was housed not on the South Bank, but somewhere in Piccadilly. I felt as though I was working my through an especially fiendish assault course which someone had set with the explicit intention of putting me off wanting to write or engaging with poetry.
There were no other signs of life that I could see, except in the books that I borrowed there, and in the anthologies I saved up for: Geoffrey Summerfield’s Worlds and something called Poetry With an Edge by somebody called Bloodaxe.
So when I say that the poems in this series are ‘lifesaving’ that is exactly what I mean. Like the speaker in Billy Collins’s poem ‘Marginalia’, I cannot begin to fully express ‘how vastly my loneliness was deepened’ through the experience of searching for, finding, borrowing and/or buying, taking home and reading these plainly arranged words written by people I would never meet.
I feel a special reverence for the work of Roethke (it was years before I knew how to even say his name) in this regard. There was an unguardedness about the poems that I loved, as though their author had gone through life with an essential protective outer layer of skin missing. Nevertheless the poems seemed constantly open to new sensory and emotional experience, almost as it were in wilful disregard of the consequences. I was certain he understood me.
I still get a thrilling shock from my gullet to my gut when I read ‘Elegy for Jane’. I delight in its phrasing: the psalm-like concentration of ‘limp and damp as tendrils’; the delighted music of ‘sidelong pickerel smile’; the extemporising energy of ‘the mold sang in the bleached valleys’; the almost-nonsense of ‘spiney shadow’; the emotional voltage of ‘maimed darling’; the assonance and movement of ‘skittery pigeon’.
Up to and including the poem’s final, apparently deliberately throwaway lines, it still seems all risk to me, not planned, an utterance at once defiant and tender. I am not interested in finding out or analysing how Roethke pulled it off. He seems to be saying to hell with appearances, and implicitly questions how far the ‘rights’ of a matter can fully explain all we think we need to know. I want to remain within the cocoon-like force of his need to praise everything that moves, whatever the cost.
Elegy for Jane
(My student, thrown by a horse)
I remember the neckcurls, limp and damp as tendrils;
And her quick look, a sidelong pickerel smile;
And how, once started into talk, the light syllables leaped for her.
And she balanced in the delight of her thought,
A wren, happy, tail into the wind,
Her song trembling the twigs and small branches.
The shade sang with her;
The leaves, their whispers turned to kissing,
And the mould sang in the bleached valleys under the rose.
Oh, when she was sad, she cast herself down into such a pure depth,
Even a father could not find her:
Scraping her cheek against straw,
Stirring the clearest water.
My sparrow, you are not here,
Waiting like a fern, making a spiney shadow.
The sides of wet stones cannot console me,
Nor the moss, wound with the last light.
If only I could nudge you from this sleep,
My maimed darling, my skittery pigeon.
Over this damp grave I speak the words of my love:
I, with no rights in this matter,
Neither father nor lover.