BOOKS / Songs with the sound of the sea: Jamie McKendrick salutes Charles Causley, the Cornish balladeer who will be 75 tomorrow

Click to follow
The Independent Culture
'ANCIENT salt is the best packing' was Yeats's argument for traditional forms in poetry. In Charles Causley's Collected Poems (Macmillan pounds 25), salt is both packing and contents: his preferred form is the ballad and his subject matter the sea. His war years in the Navy and a life spent in Cornwall, with 'Sea to the north, the south', may account for his subject, but his choice of the ballad is harder to explain. While most recent British poetry is painstakingly loyal to the speaking voice, Causley has been steadily working in a voice which sings: 'And caught in the snare of the bleeding air / The butcher-bird sings, sings, sings.'

In a later poem, he is unembarrassed about the sort of inversion that has been outlawed for decades: 'I love the holly tree with branches keen / Each leaflet fringed with daggers sharp and small.' But what is more surprising is that, by the time the reader reaches them, these lines sound quite natural. Either the wool has been pulled over our ears or Causley is the lucky heir to a tradition that was never much bound by rules of word-order.

Another, related problem the ballad has with the contemporary is its pull towards the timeless and the universal, its way of placing the central human experiences of love and loss and death in an unchanging folkloric landscape. Causley doesn't altogether avoid this pitfall; he seems rather to delight in it, with legends, reminiscences and a crew of characters drawn from his childhood, his war years and from local history. The ballad provides him with a narrative and rhythmic framework, impersonality, simplification, sudden dreamlike transitions and, most enviable of all, an audience.

Irrespective of season, the weather of Causley's poems is intense and clear:

My room is a bright glass cabin,

All Cornwall thunders at my door,

And the white ships of winter lie

In the sea-roads of the moor.

Elsewhere he calls this 'resurrection weather' or 'The seven kinds of daily weather God / Granted the Cornish'. Religion is nearly as pervasive a presence as the sea. Causley's Christianity is energised with pantheism - the sun, the stars, the tides, the Cornish landscape of bothies, moors, quoits, tin- mines, granite and thorn are all seen as living sources. This mixture of the childlike and the tellurian is what makes his retelling of the Christian story in 'The Ballad of the Bread Man' so effective, and his one attempt to write a hymn so subversive.

It would be wrong, though, to suggest that Causley hasn't time for the contemporary. The best war poems, like 'Immunity' and 'Song of the Dying Gunner AA1', couched in Naval slang, adopt the voice of Everyman just as, in the history poems, the voice and viewpoint are those of the serving man, the 'nipper' or the 'messmate'. Ultimately it's this which makes the ballad form so appropriate for Causley, and vice versa - in the spirit of his line: 'I am the word that speaks the man'.

There are many moving and entertaining poems in this volume, and some which look set to last. Change 'fifty' to 'forty-five', and these lines from his tribute to Auden could be returned to the sender:

For fifty years a seasoner of thought

With seafuls of necessary salt.

Comments