POETRY / Cornish pastimes: Andrew Brown on the Cornish poet Charles Causley, who has just celebrated his 75th birthday
Saturday 29 August 1992
Macmillan have just brought out Causley's Collected Poems to coincide with his 75th birthday, and it is now possible to see how much more of him there is than a poet of whom the pious can safely be fond. He is a largely self-taught man, raised in considerable poverty by his mother near the river in Launceston, the Cornish town where he still lives.
His father died in 1924, of injuries received in the First World War. Before he was 16 he was taken from school and made an office boy: he spent the war as a coder in the Navy, then returned to Launceston as a primary school teacher. He continued the work until his fifties, when he was finally able to live on the proceeds of his writing.
After his mother had a stroke, he nursed her in his home for six years till she died. Once, he said, they were watching television together: 'Some Greek tragedy; and all these ladies from RADA sitting around in smocks on rocks and saying 'Woe'. And my mother said 'What's the matter? Why don't they go out and get a job as I did?' And I suddenly realised that my mother was one of the Trojan Women. In her day, and for my grandmother too, you had to be self-sufficient, and dig out.'
In the Navy, poetry was the only thing he could write, physically. 'I found myself on the lower deck of a ship with about 80 other men, in a space twice this size,' he says, gesturing around a kitchen in which four people could not have sat comfortably. 'You can't write novels or plays or even short stories in that kind of atmosphere. But you can write poems.'
He kept them to himself, though. He did not want any editor's opinion of what was good until he was sure he didn't need it. 'Who's going to tell you? Nobody. If you can't recognise it yourself you've had it.'
The most pleasing thing about his Collected Poems is that they get better and more startling as they go along. There is a sense of weight lifted, and of a growing playfulness in both subject and style. Perhaps this has to do with something as simple as money: the poet was finally enabled, with increasing recognition, to travel.
The effect on his poetry of this broadening of horizons is striking. 'Seder', a poem about the Passover, is particularly impressive. Its rhythms are wholly unlike Kipling, but its intention is not that far from Puck of Pook's Hill. The sense of magic persisting down the ages, and of human lives twining around it into new directions every generation, is very well brought off:
The room at first sight is a winter room;
The tablecloth a fresh snowfall
With frail matzot that splinter at the touch
Like too-fine ice, the wine glasses of hard
Snow-crystal. To the shifting candle flame,
Blood-glint of wine against the
Of garlands, white of bitter herbs, and on
Its ritual dish the shankbone of the lamb.
The use of legends and ballads is one of the things that has given Causley his reputation as a Christian poet. Saints and demons wrestle all over his Cornwall. But he will not call himself a Christian at all. 'I'd hate to be considered purely as a Christian poet. I'd find that just nauseating.
'My mother was a Christian, and went to the same little church as my grandmother had cleaned. The Church kind of belonged to them. They used to bake the bread for Communion. I was taken every day. I absolutely loved the King James version and all the prayers . . . And some of it might just have happened.'
He prays. But prayer, he says, is only 'an exercise in sorting yourself out. I have always liked Alice in Wonderland. She is always talking to herself to pull herself together, and I think prayer might be a bit like that.'
It has to be said that the most pious poem in the book, a retelling of the legend of St Martha and the dragon, contains the most leaden pedestrian stanza he has written. But when he moves from orthodoxy into ghosts and terrors, the verse comes alive. 'Religious claims, and the existence of another world have never suggested themselves to be very far away.'
One of the schools in which Causley taught had a bell taken from an assize court which had been held in Launceston. It rang the hours like any other, but the children believed it had been rung, in the past, whenever a man was hanged. The sense of terror like a river underground is something that Causley evokes very skilfully: 'Where's Jesus?' asks a child: ' 'Jesus is everywhere,' Miss Treglown said. / As if on cue, trapped in its rusted tower, / The Hanging Bell came to. Banged out the hour.'
His most famous supposedly Christian poem is 'The Bread Man'. The title tempts a hearty evangelical response. But Causley says merely that it is about rejection, which is common to all religions, and possibly to all human beings.
It was illustrated, he says, by a painting in his study of a preacher standing on a cabbage-green background with no one listening: the man directly in front is holding his palm out with upraised fingers to ward off the words. What they may be doesn't matter.
This preoccupation began, for Causley, with the contemplation of a life-size crucifixion in Burgos cathedral. 'The legend is that they flayed a Moor to model the body,' he said, with a shudder in his voice and hands. We were back to schoolyard terrors in that moment. The horror of the crime seemed to cancel out any truth in Christianity.
Yet he is not generally a poet of gloom at all, nor one of argument. There are no love poems, either, of the conventional sort, in his collected works. 'I don't think I'll write an autobiography because it's all in the poems,' he said. Perhaps this is true. Yet he seems hardly there at all; instead there is a succession of figures in the Cornish landscape, each with distinct stories, drawn like Chinese horses so that they gallop off the page.
'Collected Poems' is published by Macmillan at pounds 12.95
Six women in a chronic ward, the light
Like dirty water filtering away;
Washed, spruced, and fed, they innocently wear
Their flowered shrouds to face the last of day.
One, flapping endlessly, a landed fish,
Thumps on a beach of sheets. One lies and glares
At her reflection in the ceiling's paint,
Writhes to avoid its gaze, and gabbles prayers.
One, deaf as granite, smiles, begins to speak
To someone she, and she alone, has spied;
Calls from the deep and dewy field her cat,
Holds it, invisible, at her clenched side.
One, crouching, poised as if to pounce, stone-still,
Suddenly gives a start, a little squeak:
A mouse-woman with wild and whitened hair,
Dried flakes of tears like snow cooling her cheek.
One, bird-like, lifting up her blinded head
To sounds beyond the television-blare
Cries out, in a sharp sliver of a voice,
I do not know if anyone is there]
I do not know if anyone is here.
If so, if not so, I must let it be.
I hold your drifted hand; no time to tell
What six dead women hear, or whom they see.
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