“…BEST LOVED AND MOST NEEDED…”

2016-08-22Charles-CausleyI discovered this poet for myself when I once woke up after midnight and started listening in to BBC Radio Four. An old voice with a West English burr was reading his own poetry.  The noise of the sea and the scream of the seagulls were in the background. I got enchanted by the magic of the ballad I heard and couldn’t believe that the ballad had a concrete author: it was like a sea shanty sung by a sailor, or a story told by a salt about his mates he had left on the sea bottom:

Farewell, Aggie Weston, the Barracks at Guz,
Hang my tiddley suit on the door
I’m sewn up neat in a canvas sheet
And I shan’t be home no more.

Charles Causley knew what he wrote about. He lived a long life, he lost many of his comrades-in-arms during WWII, and (as he confessed once), he never “invented” his stories or poems: all of the events and people he mentioned had their prototypes. Just like in his poem Convoy:

Draw the blanket of ocean 

Over the frozen face. 

He lies, his eyes quarried by glittering fish,
Staring through the green freezing sea-glass
At the Northern Lights.

He is now a child in the land of Christmas:
Watching, amazed, the white tumbling bears
And the diving seal.
The iron wind clangs round the ice-caps,
The five-pointed Dog-star
Burns over the silent sea,

And the three ships
Come sailing in.

2016-08-21School-Causely as a Pupil and a TeacherOr like a protagonist in his much anthologized Timothy Winters. After the war, when the British government launched a program to adapt veterans to civil life, Charles Causley earned a degree from a teacher training college and worked in a primary school for 30-odd years until his retirement (incidentally, he had gone to that school as a child).  Timothy Winters was one of Charles Causley’s pupils. To quote Causley himself: “People always ask me whether this was a real boy. My God, He certainly was. Poor old boy, I don’t know where he is now. I was thunder-stuck when people thought I’d made it up! He was a real bloke. Poor little devil.

 

Timothy Winters comes to school

With eyes as wide as a football pool,

Ears like bombs and teeth like splinters:
A blitz of a boy is Timothy Winters.

His belly is white, his neck is dark,
And his hair is an exclamation mark.
His clothes are enough to scare a crow
And through his britches the blue winds blow.

When teacher talks he won’t hear a word
And he shoots down dead the arithmetic-bird,
He licks the patterns off his plate
And he’s not even heard of the Welfare State.

Timothy Winters has bloody feet
And he lives in a house on Suez Street,
He sleeps in a sack on the kitchen floor
And they say there aren’t boys like him any more.

Old man Winters likes his beer
And his missus ran off with a bombardier.
Grandma sits in the grate with a gin
And Timothy’s dosed with an aspirin.

The Welfare Worker lies awake
But the law’s as tricky as a ten-foot snake,
So Timothy Winters drinks his cup
And slowly goes on growing up.

At Morning Prayers the Master helves
For children less fortunate than ourselves,
And the loudest response in the room is when
Timothy Winters roars “Amen!”

So come one angel, come on ten:
Timothy Winters says “Amen
Amen amen amen amen.”
Timothy Winters, Lord.
Amen!

 

It should be noted that many of Charles Causley’s poems have strong Christian references. The most indicative for this line of writing is his Ballad of the Breadman. It’s a poetic presentation of Jesus’ story. Especially impressive are the closing lines:

 

Through the town he went walking.
He showed them the holes in his head.
Now do you want any loaves? He cried.
‘Not today’ they said.

 Another specific feature of Charles Causley’s works is that it’s difficult to draw a borderline between his writings for children and those for adults. “There are no good poems which are only for children,” he once said.

2016-08-22I am the songCharles Causley was born in Launceston, Cornwall in 1917, and lived all his life there. He was never married. He was very shy, and when he was asked to speak about his activities, he would rather speak about someone else. Ted Hughes was his close friend who once said that Causley was one of the “best loved and most needed poets of the last 50 years.” Another classical person of letters, Susan Hill (also his friend) wrote an obituary after the poet’s death in 2013. She remembered that after Charles Causley had been made a Companion of Literature by the Royal Society of Literature and, being already very weak, he couldn’t go to London to make a speech, he asked Susan Hill to speak for him. She asked what words of his she should convey. The reply might well have been: “What an honour.” Or perhaps, “What a surprise . . .”. “ But,” Susan Hill says, “our greatest living poet, aged 83, asked me to say, “My goodness, what an encouragement.”

After the death of Sir John Betjeman, Poet Laureate of the United Kingdom, in 1984, there was a campaign to have Charles Causley appointed to that position. The choice was different: Ted Hughes. But to the people of his home town Charles Causley was the “greatest poet laureate they never had.”

To finish, I’d like to give another ballad-like poem by Causley that is very typical for his style.

What has happened to Lulu, mother?

What has happened to Lu?

There’s nothing in her bed but an old rag-doll

And by its side a shoe.

 Why is her window wide, mother,

The curtain flapping free,

And only a circle on the dusty shelf

Where her money box used to be?

 

Why do you turn your head, mother,

And why do tear drops fall?

And why do you crumple that note on the fire

And say it is nothing at all?

 

I woke to voices late last night,

I heard an engine roar.

Why do you tell me the things I heard

Were a dream and nothing more?

 I heard someone cry, mother,

In anger or in pain,

But now I ask you why, mother,

You say it was a gust of rain.

2016-08-21The_Grave_of_Charles_Causley Why do you wonder around as though

You don’t know what to do?

What has happened to Lulu, mother?

What has happened to Lu?

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