“You make me sick!” this, with rancor, vehemence, disgust—again, “You
hear me? Sick!”
with rancor, vehemence, disgust again, with rage and bitterness, arro-
gance and fury—
from a little black girl, ten or so, one evening in a convenience market,
to her sister,
two or three years younger, who’s taking much too long picking out her
candy from the rack.
What next? Nothing next. Next the wretched history of the world. The
history of the heart.
The theory next that all we are are stories, handed down, that all we are
are parts of speech.
All that limits and defines us: our ancient natures, love and death and
terror and original sin.
And the weary breath, the weary going to and fro, the weary always
knowing what comes next.
C.K. Williams, from New and Selected Poems (Bloodaxe, 1995)
In the spring of 1999 I got the best education in poetry I have ever had. I was in Suffolk, a guest of the Aldeburgh Poetry Festival for two weeks as poet in residence. The requirements of the residency were straightforward. I was to visit primary schools, colleges, prisons, libraries and local writers groups giving poetry writing workshops and readings.
It was the best of times. I got to meet and read with the great Connie Bensley; I got to try out ideas for teaching poetry with local teachers and schoolchildren; and I saw first-hand the triumph of dedication, hard work, inspiration and passion that goes into creating the special (and I would argue unique) culture of enthusiasm for poetry that is to be found on that part of the Suffolk coast.
For me the most formative aspect of this joyous time was the conversations I had in the car with my hosts Michael Laskey andNaomi Jaffa. In my experience there is always good banter, gossip and speculation to be had when poets meet and compare notes: who is reading whom, who is in form (or not), which are the new names to be looked out for etc. Joseph Brodsky called this ‘the shopping list’.
What took this to another level in my experience at Aldeburgh was the intense close reading and enthusiasm that Michael and Naomi clearly brought to everyone they raved about. I will talk about Naomi’s recommendations in another post, but for now want to pass on how I came to know C. K. Williams’s ‘Kin’.
Michael and I were on our way to a primary school in Sudbury. Stuck in traffic, but completely on time, we were nevertheless impatiently waiting at some lights outside a Spar shop when two young girls came out shouting at each other. Michael nudged me and said: ‘It’s just like that C. K. Williams poem, you know the one, where he says ‘the wretched history of the whole world’. You know the one. You must do. There. It’s there. In those girls. That poem.’ I looked back at him blankly. I said I had read A Dream of Mind but did not know that poem.
‘Come on, Anthony, you must. Bloody hell, what, you don’t, I can’t believe, it’s there, right there, look!’
The girls had stopped walking and were now facing each other. The younger of the two was trying to reach the bag of crisps the older one was holding and eating from, tantalisingly out of reach of her sister. ‘Do you know the poem? I can’t remember what it’s called now. Of course you do.’ He quoted from it again: ‘the wretched history of the world’.
At that the lights changed and we moved off.
As we got to the school I asked him for the name of the poem. By then of course the conversation had moved on. I had the distinct impression that there would be a sizeable chunk of homework waiting for me after the residency had finished. To paraphrase what Pound is supposed to have said to Eliot, I would have to modernise myself.
I’ll never cease being grateful for that morning, and the ones I followed it. I sensed a burgeoning and a growth in my confidence first as a human and second as a writer in and through those tutorials with Michael and Naomi in their cars in the lanes of Suffolk. It was and continues to be the best kind of education, one which pulses through me still each time I open A Dream of Mind, The Singing, and the weighty Collected Poems.
The poem seems to me more prophetically powerful than ever, reaching far beyond my encounter with it through observing two young squabbling girls in a rural town on a February morning, and who, it now strikes me, will be old enough to have children of their own.
You can read my piece on Michael Laskey here
You can read my piece on Smiths Knoll here