Gordon Dennis on the verse of Vernon Scannell
In these gossip-hungry days it’s surprising that Vernon Scannell is not better known. As he thinks of telling hostile residents of Berinsfield, where for a year he was writer-in-residence (see A Proper Gentleman, Robson Books, 1977), ‘I’m not posh. I’m one of “them”. I left school at 14. I lived in a slum and know what it’s like to go hungry. I never owned a pair of pyjamas until I was 20. I’ve been in the Army, a squaddie… I’ve done detention. I’ve been in the nick.’ He could have told them he’d been Northern Universities amateur boxing champion, professional for a while, and had travelled with a fairground boxing-booth. They would have been less impressed by his five children and his seven years as a teacher.
Vernon Scannell is now over 70. He’s one of a group of poets who write for both adults and children; others are Charles Causley, Edwin Morgan and Laurie Lee. Although he has been a full-time writer for 30 years, there hasn’t been a Collected Poems since 1980 (it’s now out of print) and the up-dated version is still six months off. There are two Red Fox paperbacks, clearly aimed at the Key Stage 2/3 market, but they don’t show the Scannell I find indispensable. Love Shouts and Whispers (0 09 973950 X, £,2.99) is illustrated in comic and/or winsome vein by Tony Ross (why is so much poetry marketed as though it’s funny and an easy read?). The poems, in a variety of traditional forms, deal mostly with puppyish or romantic love, though there’s a lightly cynical ‘Words from the Father of the Bride’. But at least two poems touch on a love so special that it hurts: the book’s title poem, ‘Love-light’, and ‘The Power of Love’. Will pupils ready to be reached (helped?) by these poems be put off by the younger-than-them format of the collection overall? On Your Cycle, Michael (0 09 918601 2, £2.99) is, as it says, a fast-paced collection of poems about travel: by train, trap or bike; on and under water, through or over air. Again with illustration by Tony Ross, the book is fun, is adept enough and is quite often `strenuous play’ (one of Scannell’s descriptions of poetry) but, with a handful of exceptions, does not offer poems that come from the depths of his mind, experience and talent.
Those are most handily seen in the poems included by Anne Harvey in her Puffin anthology, Poets In Hand (1985). Anthony Thwaite has described Scannell as concerned with `the ordinary hurts of the ordinary world, the dark places and betrayals of everyday experience’. Harvey agrees about the themes but emphasizes `the wry humour that creeps in’ and admires `his skill with shape, pattern and language, and the surprising ironic twists of mood’. Both Thwaite and Harvey are describing a poet whose topics and craft pass the Auden test: that while there are some good poems that are only for adults, there are no good poems that are only for children. And Scannell’s great quality, writing poetry that young readers can engage with, is that he knows children but has ceased to be one. He once wrote: ‘All children’s lives are very much alike’; and his writing shows a clear-eyed, kindly knowledge of what they do and how they suffer. He understands how wounds can be caused, and how they may – perhaps – be comforted.
He can enter the mind of a small child (‘View from a High Chair’) and enact its insistent thumping for its mother to come and release it in the poem’s heavy rhythms. He can describe his son’s pain on falling into nettles, and having soothed him comfort himself by scything them; but ‘My son would often feel sharp wounds again.’ Some of these will be the wounds of love, first felt (at age 5) for Jessica; and the comfort? – “‘The pain will go in time,” I said.’ There are poems which gradually reveal the danger, or at least the scare, of camping out at night, or of climbing a tree. And always the child’s predicament is feelingly, accurately created, sympathetically told, and then given a perspective which offers an understanding – though not always comfort.
The best example is ‘A Case of Murder’, about which Scannell writes in How to Enjoy Poetry (Piatkus, 0 86188 619 4, £4.95 pbk). This 50-line narrative has a factual starting-point: parents come home to find their nine-year-old son very distressed. He had `accidentally killed the cat’. The poem leads us through the evening’s events; alone in the flat, the boy becomes obsessed with the cat’s presence and noises; he seeks to drive it from the room; and slams the door on it. That’s the accident: on it. He stows the body under the stairs, where (and here the poem lifts off from the literal) `It’s been for years’:
There’ll not be a corner for the boy
When the cupboard swells and all
And the huge black cat pads out ofit.
Is that a poem about Black Power (as one reader told Scannell) or about the nature of violence, repression, and guilt? Or… ? Before any of these, I suggest, it’s a story which reads aloud grippingly and which lodges actively in the memory.
Other poems describe, or are for, older pupils. ‘Schoolroom on a Wet Afternoon’ (which should be read beside Causley’s ‘School at Four O’Clock’) traces a morning’s lessons: history, maths, English. Rain falls outside, and a note more ominous than boredom is struck: `Is it their doomed innocence noon weeps for?’. Well, no; there are no sentimental elegies in Scannell, and the poem ends with the same bleak insight as Lord of the Flies: discipline is merely surface, and school desks contain as well as books and pencils
Vicious rope, glaring blade, the gun cocked to kill.
And there are real guns in his poetry; their ghastly repertoire is shown in ‘Walking Wounded’, a poem about an incident in the Second World War (in which Scannell fought, and about whose poets he wrote in Not Without Glory (Woburn Press, 1976). But it’s an earlier war which often activates his imagination:
Whenever war is spoken of I find
The war that was Great invades the mind
and the poems which result are varied, direct and powerfully surprising. In ‘The Apple Raid’, the narrator remembers scrumping apples 40 years earlier with David Kidd and John Peters. He wonders if David remembers the adventure. And then he realises that John can’t, because of an altogether bigger adventure, he lies cold ‘In an orchard in France’. There’s a poem about Bonfire Night, and an Uncle brought into the children’s fun who remembers – and fought in the midst of – lethal bangs. The children glory in their little, safely-circumscribed darings: ‘Who’s scared of bangers?’ ‘Uncle John’s afraid!’ An adult, and any reader, understands the sense of danger which here triggers memories of (and sometimes causes?) the experience of war.
Lastly, I’d like to recommend ‘Uncle Edward’s Affliction’. It has similarities with Causley’s ‘Dick Lander’, but whilst Dick is mocked for his shell-shock symptoms, Edward is mildly a curiosity for being colour-blind:
Did he ken John Peel with his coat so green
And Robin Hood in Lincoln Red?
But the narrator knows what the children do not (it is the voice of experience and admonition which so salts the best of Scannell’s poetry); for Edward has been in the war
He must have crawled from neutral
To lie in pastures dark and red
And seen, appalled, on every blade
The rain of innocent green blood.
The poem ends in a deadly stillness, a silence of awed realisation. This is not now a joke, not even a joke-gone-wrong. It is the still sad music of humanity.
Vernon Scannell’s New and Collected Poems will be published in Autumn 1993 by Robson Books.
Gordon Dennis is Principal Lecturer in English at Westminster College, Oxford, and a member of the team responsible for the College’s well-established Children’s Literature courses.