Jack Ousbey on necessary encounters with poetry
The poet George MacBeth and I share an unusual distinction, worth, perhaps, an entry in a book of sporting records. For 30 minutes before the kick-off of a Wembley cup final I read his collection, Poems of Love and Death, and my wife, who was seated alongside me, observed that I must be the only follower in the history of the game to have read poetry on such an occasion. I am, you see, an addict.
I read poetry every day, and always at breakfast time. It is an essential part of my diet and, whilst I can manage without the muesli, I function less well if, for any reason, I am prevented from reading poetry. Often I read a new collection several times, until I feel settled and comfortable with the poems, until they ‘fit’ well with me, and I with them. Sometimes it is a single poem which demands attention and then I carry away the book so that I can tune in again when I am lunching, or waiting for an appointment, or having my hair cut. Occasionally, a phrase from a poem jumps into my mind at the breakfast table, and detonates, from time to time during the day, with small explosions of pleasure. The compulsion then is to possess the phrase, to consider its implications and reflect on its unfolding meanings. Poetry sets moving the busy traffic of the imagination and does it in the most surprising and varied ways.
Back, though, to George MacBeth and the Wembley experience. A few minutes before the teams ran on to the pitch in front of a 90,000 crowd, I read ‘For the Arrival of a New Cat’. It wasn’t enough to read it silently. Once read it had to he sounded. I wanted to hear myself reading it aloud:
‘…The new cat is
coming, is coming, the
roses expect him. Upstairs, in
the attic, the locked trunks are
creaking. Their papers and letters
grip their teeth tightly. The
new cat is coming, is coming, the
books on their white shelves are
scattering leaves to receive him,
spines are his servants…’
and I knew then that this was a poem I wanted to share with children. Not to study; not to question; not to write about: but to taste, as we allowed it to dance and sing in our agreed orchestration of voices. And. of course, the 12-year-olds who joined me in this venture accepted, as young children do, that this was a very reasonable way of tackling poetry. Everyone took part; we talked about the way it should he spoken: we kept on trying it out to see how it fitted together; we made decisions about the appropriate number of voices for the different sections; and we moved the desks to the side of the room so that we could feel how much better a poem like this sounds when the speakers become a community of voices. At the end of the session one boy told me, ‘It was good. It wasn’t like real learning at all,’ and yet he and his classmates now knew, by heart, large chunks of the poem. As that wise poet and teacher Leonard Clark once observed:
‘.. there is much to he said for “learning by heart “. which is another way of saying “learning by love”. Although poetry should not he used mere] v as a vehicle for developing powers of memory, there are fewyoung children who can long resist the constant encounters with memorable words and haunting rhythms.’
Some time ago a colleague and I worked on a poetry project with the teachers in a junior school. Two co-ordinators were appointed, one for the teachers of younger children and one for those who taught the older pupils. The teachers agreed to use poetry on a daily basis for a term, and set out to find challenging and interesting ways of introducing selected poems to the children. In order to pool their expertise they did a good deal of corporate planning and, on one occasion, a single poem selected for investigation produced 27 ideas for ways of working. In this way teachers who were less secure about poetry teaching were helped to play a full part in the work.
It was not possible to produce evidence, of the kind favoured by scientific research, to show that these constant encounters affected the way children used language, but, at the end of the project the co-ordinators were convinced of the value. One of them felt that the methods that they had adopted led to an active processing of language which was very powerful, and that the regular reading and speaking of poetry had provided many children with a creative stock of language from which they could draw, to transpose and re-shape ideas in words. Children seemed to be able to take hold of language, to possess it for themselves as a result of experiencing the sounds and rhythms of poetry, and one of the most surprising features of the work was the ability of young children to deal with metaphors and images. In describing her experiences with her own daughter, one teacher had this to say:
‘This kind of work could he started so much earlier. My daughter is three and a half and everything she remembers, all the things she seems to learn, are to do with poetry or poetic language. I have even read ‘Jabberwocky’ to her and she has already picked up some of the phrases. She tries to make up things in rhyme and with rhythm because she has such a strong experience of it at a time when she is ready and receptive to it.’
This child, not yet four, is having many of the experiences I have when I encounter poetry. We both like listening to poems and trying bits of them out to see what they sound like, and we both pick up phrases and retain them. Her understanding of what language is, is derived entirely from her active involvement in its use. It seems more than likely that if her encounters include the intense as well as the routine, the visionary as well as the mundane, and bring her into contact, also, with those strange, surprising conjunctions and patterns of which poetry is made, she will grow into an effective and confident language user.
The difference between us, this young child and me, is that she has no metamemorial capacity. She does not know about knowing, nor know how or why she is remembering things. When I read poetry I am aware that I can select and highlight ideas, than I can shuffle them around to give them further meaning, that I can bring previous experiences into contact with new ones and, from the combination, create a picture of richer or different possibilities. Ann Stevenson describes the process better than I am able to:
‘…it’s the shared comedy of the worst blessed; the sound leading the hand; a wordlife running from mind to mind through the washed rooms of the senses.’
This process of transferral – the ‘wordlife running from mind to mind’- happened to me a few months ago when I read a poem by Gillian Clarke, called ‘My Box’. It was one of those poems I talked about earlier, which had to be carried away to be re-visited during the vacancy times of a working day. It was so beautifully wrought, and of such immediate appeal, that I committed it to memory. If I couldn’t be the writer of such a lovely poem then I would become the next best thing, a part-owner of it. It begins:
`My box is made of golden oak,
my lover’s gift to me.
He fitted hinges and a lock
of brass and a bright key.
He made it out of winter nights
sanded and oiled and planed,
engraved inside the heavy lid
in brass, a golden tree.’
Some time during that day, by some trick of the imagination and quite without warning, I found myself thinking about two other `box’ poems I had read. In Katerina Brac, Christopher Reid has one called
‘A Box’, and Ted Hughes’ Poetry in the Making is prefaced with the poem, ‘The Small Box’, by Vasco Popa. You might think that this kind of memory link is not worth writing about, but I was interested enough to place the three poems alongside each other and reflect on what each poet had selected to put inside his box. And some teacher reading this might be prompted to work with a group of older secondary children on orchestrating the poems for choral presentation (a fascinating job, in itself); might like to use the poems as models for crafting new ones; might encourage each child to make a box, place the poem inside, then decorate and seal it. It would make a good C.D.T. project, but language across the curriculum seems to have died, and whoever heard of a relationship between poetry and technology?
When I started to write this article it was my intention to call it ‘Bedding the Ear’, a phrase from an essay by Seamus Heaney, but writing about the box poems sent me back to Vasco Popa’s poem to look at it again. The little click of recognition, inside the head, was almost audible, for ‘The Small Box’ holds inside it some of the ideas I have been discussing. Here it is, in full:
The small box gets its first teeth
And its small length
Its small width and small emptiness
And all that it has got
The small box is growing bigger
And now the cupboard is in it
That it was in before
And it grows bigger and bigger
And now has in it the room
And the house and the town and
And the world it was in before
The small box remembers its
And by overgreat longing
It becomes a small box again
Now in the small box
Is the whole world quite tiny
You can easily put it in a pocket
Easily steal it easily lose it
Take care of the small box
The small box waits for the reader to open it, and what is pulled out depends to a large degree on whose hand it is that dips inside. It seems to me that Popa is telling us about the truth of the inner world, the world of the spirit and the imagination: that area where the brain, working every day as a creative agent, examines and transforms and assesses the input it receives. And where poetry is concerned, it is not just facts that are taken into this inner world, but the emotions conceived by poetic language. I spoke, earlier, of ‘small explosions of pleasure’ and the ‘little click of recognition’ which poetry sponsors. If a poem is good enough, I rehearse the feelings it releases, again and again, whenever I read it. And although that poem may not teach me to feel deeply, it allows me to find out about the way I respond and how my emotions are cultivated.
We live in dangerous times for poetry, and for those who love it and know what it can do. The current wave of educational reform is based on an instrumental view of human worth. We are told that we must control our children, and each other, by quantification, and if their work and ours doesn’t lend itself to measurement criteria, assessment objectives, competency skills, and all the other threadbare trappings of reductionist theory, it seems to be of no value. We shall be told, of course, that literature is important and that its slot on the national curriculum is assured, but you will wait in vain for the announcement of the establishment of City Colleges of Poetry, or for the opening of the first National Centre for Choral Speaking.
At its best, poetry helps children to become vigorous and adventurous and graceful users of words, nourishes the elusive substance of the human imagination, and shows them how to think well. Ted Hughes summed it up, a long time ago now, when he said:
‘What matters most, since we are listening to poetry and not to prose, is that we hear the song and dance in the words. The dance and the song engage the deepest roots of our minds and carry the poet’s words down into our depths. And the final sway over our minds that the poet has, is largely the sway of the hidden waves of song, and the motion of the dance in phrasing of the words that it compels us to share as we read or hear it.’
I wonder how they will measure that at seven, eleven, fourteen and sixteen?
Poetry and Children, Children’s Literature in Education, ed. Geoff Fox. Agathon Press (1978)
Selected Poems, Carcanet (1985), 0 85635 594 1, £2.95
Listening to Poetry, Here Today, Hutchinson Educational (1963), 0 09 668171 1, £2.95
Quoted in Poetry in the Making, Ted Hughes. Faber (1967), 0 571 09076 1, £1.95 pbk
Poems of Love and Death, Secker & Warburg (1980), 0 436 27018 8, £4.95
Katerina Brac, Faber (1985), 0 571 13614 1, £3.95 pbk
The Fiction Makers, Oxford (1985), 0 19 211972 9. £3.95 pbk
Jack Ousbey has taught in primary and secondary schools, and was a Senior lecturer in a college of education. He is a Senior Inspector with the Nottinghamshire Education Authority where he has a special brief to develop effective learning.
The views in this article are a personal statement.