Our occasional slot for well-known writers to reveal a personal prejudice.
Michael Rosen recalls being underwhelmed by Walter de la Mare and asks
‘is there anybody there?’
He was the sixth child of an official in the Bank of England, he left school at sixteen, and he worked for eighteen years as a clerk in the offices of the Anglo-American Oil Company in the City of London. Now you wouldn’t bet on someone with that kind of background becoming, what was for me, the distinctive voice of poetry.
“‘Is there anybody there?” said the Traveller.’ Or should I ask, is there anybody there, who was at school in the nineteen fifties who wasn’t exposed to Walter de la Mare? I can remember the canvassy covers to primary school anthologies which, as they got worn, shed threads of cotton. By teasing these out, dull poetry lessons could be made fascinating. Every five pages or so there were line drawings of symbols and motifs: a comic mask, a maypole top, a knight’s helmet – dry, soulless little throwaways. And all the poems seemed to be about sad faraway places: the sea-side, the Romans, a palace, a tomb, a river, a battle. What collective spirit, what shared ethos combined to serve up this particular menu? What was it about England in the fifties that made this selection of poems seem appropriate for children?
De la Mare was central to the enterprise. Here he is talking about poetry: ‘… some poems go on delicately changing all that they share with us whenever they are read over again, just as the flowers in a garden, with their light and shadow, their shapes, and the rain or dew or sunshine on them, change with every hour of a summer day. Yet another curious thing about poetry is the question of where it comes from. Not usually, it seems, does it spring up in the mind today out of what happened yesterday. The bee flies about among the thorn trees, but the nectar he sips must wait awhile before it becomes honey. It may be impossible for the writer of it to recollect when and where any particular poem was written, or the mood in which it was written.’ (from Poems for Children, 1930).
Here in this passage are some of the central tenets of the de la Mare school. Poetry is a mysterious event: arising, not out of immediate day-to-day happenings, but rather waits about until it becomes a refined, sweet delicacy. Poetry is analagous to ‘flowers in a garden’ – an interesting image. Note, this is not Wordsworth’s wild daffodils, with all their connotations of freedom and Romanticism’s libertine spirit, but a suburban idea, the carefully bred, seeded and watered blooms that surround garden lawns. It’s also a very English idea which de la Mare’s allusion to the temperate summer climate affirms, Englishness being at the heart of the poetic idea at this time. Mysterious, refined, English and horticultural-pastoral.
Criticism of this culture, or someone like de la Mare in particular, is sometimes countered with the argument that there was no available alternative. Not so. If the English schools’ literati could have allowed themselves to include American literature, then the work of, say, Carl Sandburg and Langston Hughes would have given them the language of speech and the city. It would have shown its audience that poetry doesn’t have to be a turning-away from the everyday and the urban but can celebrate it or rail against its values. There’s something ironic about someone like de la Mare, working in the city, writing about the beauties of nature and the mysteries of the half-real world, and then feeding it to children, most of whom live in towns and cities.
Just in case I’m misunderstood here, I am not saying that de la Mare is a ‘bad poet or a ‘bad person’. AlI those poems that people of my generation know so well: ‘All but Blind’, ‘Nicholas Nye’, ‘The Listeners’, ‘Silver’, are perfect by their own internal standards. Their prosody is immaculate, their narrative is clear, the imagery is consistent. As part of a varied diet, they are worth including in anthologies today. The problem for me is that they were the leading lights in a context that was, to all intents and purposes, more of the same. As a child I was maddened by the apparent gloom and nostalgia. Why were the poems about lonely animals, silent moments and dusk? As an adult I can rationalise this in the ways that I have in this article and I can enjoy the technical skill of the work. But flicking through the Collected Poems and the Collected Rhymes and Verses (both Faber), I can find very little that excites me. If I want a blast of the rural, and the miserable, then I’d rather have Hardy, Housman and Clare – at least people die in their poetry rather than hang about gloomily in the twilight.
The illustration here is from the cover of Walter de la Mare’s Collected Rhymes and Verses published by Faber (0 571 11157 2, £4.99 pbk). We commend it to those who don’t share Michael Rosen’s point of view.
Remember our Nonsense Song competition with A & C Black in January 1991? Published in June, Sonsense Nongs (for 7 years upward) contains the winning entries. Alongside these is a marvellous and unusual collection of daft, funny and plain incomprehensible songs (with musical notation and ideas for silly accompaniments) drawn from a wide range of sources. Sonsense Nongs chosen by Michael Rosen, ill. Shoo Rayner, A & C Black, 0 7136 3557 6, £8.99.
Also for Rosen fans, a new collection of poems, Mind the Gap, is just out in paperback (Adlib, 0 590 55012 8, £4.99). Watch the review pages in the September issue.