It Is Summer for Months
Clothes are skimpy and tans are got
without flight bags.
We saunter beside a canal
where horses pull nearly vertical
starting laden barges to Castleford or Leeds.
Coal’s a commodity and engines
do not cut the journey
from three days to a day, a morning.
The man who weeps at the lock gate
when a horse goes under, earns sixpence
of every shilling the horse earns.
We admire the shine that bends
the room in my resoled brogues.
The schoolbag is good as new.
And we look out at the quiet road:
cars, buses, lorries gone,
supermarkets put out of business
by corner shops and the butchers,
by the milkman whistling up concertina stairs
of flats they are pulling down
to plant playgrounds, pasture,
village schools, oak and hawthorn
as far as they eye can see, further
along a lane faultlessly
to the big old house of our dreams
where each of us lives, together
or singly, with our work which is not
labour, but fun, with our needs, our desires,
gardens to till and tend as we will,
people to get to know and to love as we wish.
And are we contented there?
And are we comfortable with it?
Peter Sansom, from Everything You’ve Heard Is True (Carcanet, 1990)
I first read this poem at the start of the Nineties, just having made the decision to work part-time so I could spend more time writing poetry. I had bought the book from which it came on the recommendation of a review by Ian McMillan in Poetry Review. Like falling in love, it wasn’t planned. But I found myself in a bookshop with time to kill one weekday afternoon. The book, its title, cover, and back cover blurb (‘He writes of love affairs and trains, creates the definitive agony column, explores his obsession with darts’) seemed to guide themselves towards my hands. Ten minutes later, having read half a dozen poems, the deal was done. Spending money I was soon not to have. The story of my life.
More than anything I loved the book’s tone. The way poems began, as it were on impulse, their titles spilling over into first lines whose main purpose seemed to be to catch up with what had already been revealed or hidden: ‘Bathers walk out of the sea, but’; ‘You brought an overnight bag of everything’; ‘Tesco’s reverses pulling the town’.
Also, the poems had stuff in them. The matter of life. Affairs, yes. The aforementioned darts. Making the tea (which, to a sheltered southerner, did not always mean tea.) All this alongside references to a life of reading, and, even more thrillingly, writing. And teaching these things, as though they mattered. As Peter Porter famously said: ‘Auden, Hayden and Uccello live in his pages as happily as snooker stars, Tesco and Extra Strong Mints’.
There was something else that I could not put my finger on. An attitude we might call it. A way of looking at the world which suggested dissatisfaction with wider political, social and economic realities, but did not barge into the waiting room shouting about them at the top of its voice and putting people off their knitting. As it were. I like that in a poem, and I like it even more in a poet, sustaining his effort of enquiry into nothing so vulgar as an argument across an entire book, however strongly felt his emotions below the surface.
Years later I came across one of those ‘Poets on their poems’ pieces in an old copy of Joe Soap’s Canoe, again with half an hour to kill in a bookshop spending money I did not have. Peter’s piece was about one of his marvellous poems of running-on first lines: ‘Al & Clare Have Bought a Middle Terrace instead of being Married’. I had originally read the poem as a domestic set-piece. But Peter’s with-hindsight reading of it was entirely political, a way of speaking about what he calls in another poem ‘that once-in-a-lifetime trip/ into the real middle class’: ‘let us say climbing. Climbing that endless ladder−// you must not look down, but then you do.’
Because of that, and because I am in love, remember, I re-read the book every year. Sometimes as (ghastly phrase) holiday reading (poetry should always be the holidays -Hugo Williams); sometimes on impulse; sometimes with a notebook copying down endless favourite phrases; and sometimes as a kind of thriller, to see how the book’s early playfulness (‘Teaching Auden’, ‘I am not going to win’, ‘The Fox in the Writing Class’) gives way to the dream-like and at times world-weary discourse of the closing ‘Six Pieces’ which analyse, play with and dissect the worlds of art, culture, politics (again) and education.
The best of the poems in this book manage to merge several worlds (or possible lines of enquiry) all at once. ‘It Is Summer for Months’ is one of these. There is coal in it, and a canal. How marvellous, we might say. But, written when memories of the miners’ strike were still fresh, and given Peter’s Nottinghamshire origins, just to use the word coal puts the poem on an openly political footing. There is mention of money, earning, ‘work which is not/ labour, but fun’. Traffic, the transport of goods. The new shopping and the new education appear in a kind of Blakean-Utopian vision of butchers replacing the supermarket and village schools slum flats. Poetry needs to be about such things. And, quietly, those brogues. That schoolbag. The possibility of Another World. Does it make us happy? Did it?