Poetry and This Kid
The first poetry I remember I have remembered wrongly.
For years I have told people that there was a little hardback anthology on a shelf at home. It had pinkish cloth covers — had long lost its dust-jacket — and if I close my eyes I can still see it now. It was inside that book that the first fishhooks of poetry caught in my brain. Two poems in particular.
One was Lewis Carroll’s The Mad Gardener’s Song — one of those poems not from the Alice books, but from the other ones, the Sylvie and Bruno that no one reads. You probably remember it too.
He thought he saw an elephant,
That practised on a Fife;
He looked again and saw it was
A letter from his wife.
“At length, I realise,” he said,
“The bitterness of life.”
It’s a marvel of a poem that reverberates in my head still — the uncanniness, the strangeness, the darkness, the sadness, the surrealness, the near-dadaness, even, without ever falling into that awful mawkishness of nonsense verse.
The language is a joy to put in the mouth, whether you understand it or not. I still have no idea what a ‘vegetable pill’ is, for example, and absolutely no desire to ever find out.
So that was one of the poems (this time by the great and prolific ‘Anonymous’) from that anthology that took up residence in my head, the other key text was this short poem that I shall give in full and from memory.
Little Willie from his mirror
licked the mercury right off,
thinking in his childish error
it would cure the whooping cough.
At the funeral his mother
smartly said to Mrs Brown:
“’twas a chilly day for Willie
when the mercury went down.”
That’s how I remember it. The punctuation may vary in the original, there is probably crazed random Edwardian capitalisation, and it is possible some of the vocabulary may be different. But, the gist is there.
After I had the joke explained to me, I realised I loved this poem. And I don’t know that I knew why. It was funny, for sure; it was nasty, of course – what kid doesn’t love a poem in which other kids die? (Another favourite was Hillaire Belloc’s Matilda, who was as badly behaved a girl as Dahl’s later namesake, but who did not survive the end of her own story (and think of that poem, the joy of saying: It happened that a few Weeks later / Her Aunt was off to the Theatre / To see that Interesting Play / The Second Mrs Tanqueray. I have no idea if that’s a real play, a made-up play, or some Edwardian joke I don’t get – and it doesn’t matter, it’s just fun to say).)
The brilliance, to my mind, of this poem (just one in a tradition of ‘Little Willie’ poems, I latterly discovered) is where the story is. The whole of the story, all the action, all the drama, happens in that gap between the two stanzas. In that caesura or hiatus, or whatever the scholars want to call it. Everything happens there, and the whole thing turns, like a sonnet should, and faces the other way and the world has shifted.
It’s beautiful and I long one day to write something so pure and simple and clear and good. Life is built on such hopes.
So, I have been talking about this childhood anthology for years. It is not in my possession – it must have been cleared off my parents’ shelves in some tidy-up sometime in the past, because I never found it after their deaths, and so I never got to hold it, or look through it again.
But a while ago I discovered something odd.
That Lewis Carroll poem I remembered as having illustrations. There’s a specific one of the headless bear (“Poor thing,” he said, “poor silly thing! / it’s waiting to be fed!”), that is a ghost story all by itself. In fact, the pictures are scarier than the poem.
And I discovered, looking through some old books in preparation for talking about kids’ poetry to some teachers, that the poem, with those illustrations, wasn’t in that remembered-but-lost anthology, but was in a book called Read Me A Story (which I seem to have since lost on my shelves somewhere) – a collection of stories and poems for young kids published when I was just a couple of years old and a present, so the flyleaf inscription said, from my big brother. It is now a very tatty collection of pages held together by hope and love.
I opened it and the pictures spoke like Proust’s madeleine — this was the book.
But it wasn’t the whole story. It was the book where I’d found The Mad Gardener’s Song, but it wasn’t where Little Willie came from, so I could still tell teachers about my memory of this pink-ish anthology, whose name was just the word Poetry on the spine (I can see it now!)…
And then a month or two ago I happened to pick up an anthology I had rescued from home, a rather innocuous, dull-looking thing called, unexcitingly, Poetry for Pleasure, with the even less enticing subtitle: A choice of poetry and verse on a variety of themes… and there, on page 312, was the poem.
Somehow my childhood memory was conflated and bamboozled into a figment, a falsehood, a mirage… My memory of the book had been wrong, entirely, but (and here’s the important ‘but’) the poems had stuck.
My memory of those poems was not wrong — they both (and others, of course) have sat in my brain and whispered their lessons into my mind’s ear all these long years.
What’s interesting about that anthology, now I look at it in its revealed and honest truthiness, is that it is not a book of children’s verse, it’s just a book of verse. At some point it must’ve been lying around and I picked it up and I browsed and nibbled and I found Little Willie, a short, funny, strange thing in amongst a lot of other poems — but I see now its companions, poems I couldn’t fathom or didn’t have the energy to read, and I can hear echoes — they’re not all wholly unfamiliar… Something of them may have gone in, when I wasn’t looking…
And there’s something in this. A child reads the books that are around. Oh, they get bought kids’ books, of course, or they borrow them from the library, but they exist in an environment, and if that environment is fortunate enough to have books lying around they may well pick them up, look at them, glance in them — whether they’re atlases or encyclopaedias or natural history tomes…and I think of a passage in a Winston Churchill book I once read, not one of the weighty histories, but a slim pre-war book which published two essays together: Painting as a Pastime.
‘What shall I do with all my books?’ was the question; and the answer, ‘Read them,’ sobered the questioner. But if you cannot read them, at any rate handle them and, as it were, fondle them. Peer into them. Let them fall open where they will. Read on from the first sentence that arrests the eye. Then turn to another. Make a voyage of discovery, taking soundings of uncharted seas. Set them back on their shelves with your own hands. Arrange them on your own plan, so that if you do not know what is in them, you at least know where they are. If they cannot be your friends, let them at any rate be your acquaintances. If they cannot enter the circle of your life, do not deny them at least a nod of recognition.
I think this is even more important for a child, if slightly sideways, inadvertently. A kid who is fortunate enough to live in a house where there are books lying around will, from time to time, pick them up. They may be encyclopaedias, atlases, natural history books — the kid may just read the captions under the photos, or may follow a fingertip trail of manual hyperlinks through a copy of Brewer’s Phrase and Fable — they may pick out an odd poem from an anthology, or a deliciously scary bit from a forbidden Stephen King book — out of context, snatched, hidden away, misunderstood…
A child’s environment soaks into them, as they grow to fill it, and a child should be allowed to explore those books, in the way they might not be allowed to explore the woods anymore — by themselves.
Poetry was one of the things I found, as I rambled. Other things are for other essays, at other times.