Lifesaving Poems: e e cummings’s ‘in Just’

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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 Mea 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 SongsThe Rattlebag and Poetry in the Making (for £1.75!), and Allan Ahlberg’s classics Please Mrs Butler and Heard it in the PlaygroundThey 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.

Lifesaving Poems

8 comments

  1. freshlyworded

    Hey Anthony, Great post. When I think of EE Cummings I think of the poem “My sweet old etcetera”. He was a very original poet. You are right poetry is marginalised, but still very powerful. There’s a poem by Sylvia Plath I used to know by heart.called “Night Shift”

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    • Anthony Wilson

      Thanks so much for your kind comment. The Night Shift is one of the poems of Plath that is also very close to my heart. As ever with appreciation of your support Anthony Anthony Wilson

      Love for Now, my memoir of cancer, is availablehere

      Riddance, my new book of poems, is availablehere

      >________________________________

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  2. socialbridge

    The idea of poetry being marginalised in schools eats into the very heart of me, as you, no doubt.
    I think we may be a little more fortunate in Ireland as there is great pride here in our poetic heritage but nevertheless poetry tends to be seen as somewhat elitist.
    Not an easy one to solve but solve it we must or the world will lose such a key dimension.

    As for e.e. ~ one of my very favourites.
    Thanks for a great post, as ever.

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    • Anthony Wilson

      The marginalisation of reading and writing poetry in the curriculum is something I have been monitoring and researching for several years. It looks to me now as a rare form of lichen, the presence and well-being of which reflects the health of the language arts curriculum/ecosystem as a whole. We are not at a critical stage yet, but we may be soon approaching the point of irreversible decline. I am not along in thinking this. As ever with thanks for your support and comments, Anthony

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  3. Valerie Maybury

    Many thanks for remembering my father’s work. He was passionate about poetry and its essential role in our lives and our sense of self. He left a wonderful legacy of personal writing for his family and his own poetry much of it written under the name of Paddy Kinsale- as well as his published anthologies and teachers’ books. He stopped publishing his collections as was asked to create questions for the teachers to ask the children and he didn’t believe in that mechanistic way of working with poetry. He also had more respect for teachers than that! We miss his fun and laughter and his endless story telling. Finding this has made my day. Kind regards to all readers of poetry out there. Valerie Maybury

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    • Anthony Wilson

      Dear Valerie

      Thank you so much for your lovely and generous comment.
      May I say you have now made my day in return.

      I had no idea that your father published under that name.
      And full respect to him for not caving in to those who would make poetry another instrumental tool.

      I’m so chuffed you found my blog. Thoughtshapes and Wordshapes were among the first batch of books I bought as a new teacher at the end of the Eighties. It is the least I can do to recommend them to the next generation that it is my privilege to teach here in Exeter.

      Yours with grateful good wishes
      Anthony

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  4. Valerie Maybury

    I would have replied sooner, Anthony but I have been seriously ill and recently had an operation for a brain tumour. I am recovering I am glad to say. Thank goodness Dad wasn’t here to go through it all. He hated me, or indeed anyone to be ill.
    I have started to put together an anthology of his unpublished poems and other writing. It’s just a strategy for recovery in my case. I’ll let you know how I get on. I have found some wonderful stuff.
    Dad enjoyed his year at Exeter. He did a Masters in Creativity there in about 1970. Paddy Creber was working there then. Dad had known Paddy when they worked together with Geoff Summerfield at Churchfields. You must be happy in your work. I have loved my work with young teachers.
    Thank you so much again for keeping the faith- as they say
    Kind regards
    Val

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    • Anthony Wilson

      Dear Valerie

      I am so sorry to hear of your illness and operation. How dreadful for you.

      Sadly I never got to meet Paddy Creber. He was an inspiration to generations. I have good friends who named their boy after him.
      As Raymond Carver would say, we are talking INfluence here.

      I do keep the faith with my new teachers. They renew me and keep me going.
      It’s the best, and so are they.
      as ever with best wishes, especially for a speedy recovery
      Anthony

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