The Wild Swans at Coole

I sometimes think schools should be banned from teaching poetry, since there is nothing like being forced to ‘do’ a poem in class to put you off not only the poem but the poet, for life. On the whole, it is not a good idea to analyse a poem at all, à la English Lit.: that’s because you will never want to read that poem again. You’ll have killed it. A poem hits home, in part, because of resonances – that unexamined, unconscious chain of associations we – as the human race and as a particular social group, and you – as an individual – have with a particular word or phrase. Resonances tap into your past, into your emotions, into your childhood, into the deepest parts of your subconscious, but they only work in the dark. Hunt them down and… dead unicorns litter the path through the woods. Haul them up into the harsh, noisy daylight of a school classroom: all you have is a line of words and another twenty minutes before the bell goes for history.

 

My year were forced to ‘do’ Yeats’ Collected Works at school, and it’s taken me all this time to rediscover him, properly.

Looking back, I was lucky that the first Yeats poem I ever heard was not Aedh Wishes for the Cloths of Heaven, which is a lovely poem but tends to appeal to the indiscriminate sentimentality of lovelorn teenage girls. I had a bit of a crush on it myself, at fourteen:

Had I the heavens’ embroidered cloths,

Enwrought with golden and silver light,

The blue and the dim and the dark cloths

Of night and light and the half-light,

I would spread the cloths under your feet:

But I, being poor, have only my dreams;

I have spread my dreams under your feet;

Tread softly because you tread on my dreams.

Aedh, by the way, is the Gaelic name of several Irish saints. It is probably pronounced ‘Ede’, although some say ‘Ed’ and in some versions of the poem changed to ‘He’ to avoid banjaxing English readers.

I was lucky in that my English teacher, who was young and actually loved her subject, chose instead The Wild Swans at Coole and somehow or other managed not to ruin it for me. I think it was the first uncompromisingly ‘grown up’ poem I had ever come across. I recognised something in its spare-ness; that cool sorrow:

The trees are in their autumn beauty,

The woodland paths are dry,

Under the October twilight the water

Mirrors a still sky;

Upon the brimming water among the stones

Are nine-and-fifty swans.

 

The nineteenth autumn has come upon me

Since I first made my count;

I saw, before I had well finished,

All suddenly mount

And scatter wheeling in great broken rings

Upon their clamorous wings.

 

I have looked upon those brilliant creatures,

And now my heart is sore.

All’s changed since I, hearing at twilight,

The first time on this shore,

The bell-beat of their wings above my head,

Trod with a lighter tread.

 

Unwearied still, lover by lover,

They paddle in the cold

Companionable streams or climb the air;

Their hearts have not grown old;

Passion or conquest, wander where they will,

Attend upon them still.

 

But now they drift on the still water,

Mysterious, beautiful;

Among what rushes will they build,

By what lake’s edge or pool

Delight men’s eyes when I awake some day

To find they have flown away?

Those lines where ‘unwearied still, lover by lover’ they paddle the cold companionable streams or climb the air – set bells ringing in my mind. I remember her reminding us, in that loud classroom with chalk-dust dancing in the sunlight, that swans are thought to mate for life. As she read it aloud to us I remember momentarily being in the body of a swan, as Yeats himself must have been, momentarily, when he wrote the poem – knowing what it was like to be in another element, a heavy body but winged, and how to rise in the air must require all one’s strength, the air feeling hard, a force to be overcome, a stairway to be climbed.

I remember a few others that I liked – the one about the yellow hair, for instance:

Never shall a young man,

Thrown into despair

By those great honey-coloured

Ramparts at your ear,

Love you for yourself alone

And not your yellow hair.’

But on the whole I wasn’t ready for Yeats and his Irish-ness. I lived in a small corner of the south-east of England – not even the more cosmopolitan London. I had never heard real Irish or Welsh people speak or come across that musicality, that naturally effortless, fluid, creative use of words. It sounded – he sounded – weird. Over the top. Silly. Normal [English] people just didn’t talk like that.

Rhythm and rhyme are easy to understand, which is why junior schools tend to go for stuff like:

Five and twenty ponies,

Trotting through the dark –

Brandy for the Parson, ‘Baccy for the Clerk.

This clever, jiggly versifying is hugely entertaining for children. It’s a big step up, skill-wise, from the execrable verses bereaved relatives select from albums to go in the In Memoriam column; the harmless sugary nastiness of birthday-card rhymes or the drivel people use to sell anything from yoghurt to double-glazing.

But Yeats, and all real, grown-up poets go far beyond that. They push language to an edge, almost doing violence to it – and rely on those elusive unicorns in the wood, resonances, to make it work. What they are trying to get to is the sublime – which is beyond me – possibly beyond anyone, to explain. It’s a point where pain and pleasure mix, where awe seesaws on the edge of wonder; nothing to do with Fifty Shades of Grey, which I still haven’t got round to reading – but maybe there’s a spiritual parallel. They push words and risk all, trusting their readers. They approach what is beyond words, knowing they will fail to reach it; and sometimes a spark leaps across the gap where words are not designed to go; Strange Meeting happens again in no-man’s land.

And that’s what it’s about.

Aim for the stars, gels, and you might hit a windmill…

I must admit, I loathed my last school. I loathed the fact that it wasn’t a grammar school but would have liked to be. “We have the crème de la crème of teaching staff in this school, gels,” said Miss Spinks. It has just occurred to me this may have been inspired by The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie. She was fond of quotes.

On our final day, I can’t remember much, except that we sang Blake’s Jerusalem. That was our school song. We shared it with the Women’s Institute. Of which, come to think of it, Miss Spinks was more than likely a member. And I know she gave an uplifting speech. I am not easily upliftable, and switch off as soon as bored. The only bit I remember was her advice to aim high. “Aim for the stars, gels, and you might hit a windmill. Aim for a windmill and you’ll hit the ground. Now, gels, which famous novel is that from?”

Silence.

She was fond of asking us unanswerable questions. I remember she once demanded to know which was correct – to take the tea-pot to the kettle, or to take the kettle to the pot? Not even the teachers – lined up on hard chairs down the side of the hall like prisoners waiting to be shot – knew what she was talking about. You could tell by the fractionally raised eyebrows and smothered smirks.

Silence.

Silence.

Don Quixote, of course!” Apparently this famous old Spaniard went around tilting at windmills, mistaking them for ‘thirty or forty hulking giants’. Poor chap. Should’ve gone to Specsavers. According to Miss Spinks, Don Quixote said that – about tilting at the stars in order to skewer a windmill. However, I have been searching the internet for half an hour and am unable to verify. I rather suspect she made it up.

Anyway, we were meant to aim high but expect – well, quite a bit less. We were gels, after all, and would most likely be married in a year or two. I remember being sent to see the Careers Advisory lady at one point.

“Do you have any idea what you would like to do after you leave school?” she asked me.

“I thought I might be a newspaper reporter,” I said.

Oh!” she said. Silence.

“Have you thought about the Women’s Army?” she asked, eyeing my tall frame.

People often eye my tall frame. After Dad died I went with a friend to a spiritualist’s meeting, and the visiting medium picked on me. “Your father is in heaven looking down,” she said. “I see him offering a you a rose. Does a rose mean anything to you?”

Silence.

He…” she opened one eye and eyed me with it, “he’s very, very tall…a…powerfully built gentleman, am I right?”

“Or Woolworths?” suggested the Careers Advisor.

I did once try for a Saturday job in Woolworths. It was a very hot day, I remember, and I was still in my school uniform, having walked down the hill after school. Black Watch Tartan in the summer – the zip used to burn a line down your back. Another of Miss Spinks’ inspirations.

I was ushered upstairs to a table in the staff canteen. There, surrounded by nasty-looking girls in Woolworths uniform, I attempted their Simple Arithmetic Test. I remember one of the questions was six cotton-reels at 6d each. Since 6d was half of a shilling (12d – you had to reckon in 12s rather than 10s in those days, just to make things more difficult) presumably I should have put 3 shillings, but I didn’t.

I was escorted back down the stairs and out into the shop, somewhere near the Pick ‘n Mix counter. Confused. Still sweltering in my Blazer, Hat and Black Watch Tartan summer frock; we weren’t supposed to take off either Blazers or Hats until we got home since we were Representing the School.

Even Woolworths couldn’t find a use for me.

Story of my life, really.

To tattoo or not to tattoo, that is the question

Yesterday I was trawling through some ancient Daily Post prompts* having rejected that day’s, which was about fashion-nostalgia – something else I don’t possess – and came across this one about tattoos. Specifically: If you were forced to get a (or another) tattoo, what would you get and where?

Hmmm…

dragon 2

Unlike most of the (televised) human race, it seems, I am totally untattooed. I have been amazed, recently, by the inkiness of everyone’s flesh. Even on Strictly Come Dancing – that treasure-chest of all that is glamorous and pristine – male dancers now seem to have tattoos hanging out under the sleeves of their powder-blue spangly tops – I mean, what is the world coming to?

I suppose it’s part of getting older. Things strike you as odd and gratuitously new-fangled that younger people don’t even notice. I recall a story about a woman going with her mother to stay in a hotel, and her mother being kind of affronted that hotel room-keys were now pieces of plastic to be swiped rather than actual metal keys. The older woman was not so much upset by this new piece of technology as dreadfully wearied. It made her feel that she had lived too long.

I begin to can relate to that now. You do get to a point where you just don’t want to have to a) absorb and b) try to suss out the logic behind a new fashion or development. Sometimes there just seems no reason why things have changed. There seem no possible benefit, no sense of progress – just change for the sake of change. The old adage If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it has now been discarded in favour of If it’s getting boring, change it.

In my younger day, tattoos were only seen on tarts and sailors – or sailors’ tarts. They were only to be obtained in the back alleyways of certain ports. Mostly they were of mighty anchors with elaborate twists of rope, or luscious ladies wearing very little.

Re tarts – I have to say there were rather a lot of things that would get you called a tart in my younger day. Ankle bracelets, I remember. Bottle-blonde hair. Hankies stuffed in your bra to make you look more luscious-er. Too much back-combing. Skirts too short. When I was at school they measured your skirt: you had to kneel on the floor and a teacher would check to see that no knee was visible beneath your skirt-hem. Nail-varnish – even clear, or that weird clear-pink stuff: straight to the science lab where a sadistic lab technician would remove the evil decoration with industrial strength acetone from a stoppered glass bottle. Any little cut or hangnail – you’d find out about it. Stockings too sheer. Stockings were meant to be thick and orange/sludge coloured so that (gasp!) men a) couldn’t see your actual flesh through them and b) wouldn’t even be tempted to look. Even patent leather shoes. I have a feeling that was Germaine Greer in The Female Eunuch saying that the nuns at her convent school banned patent leather “Else men should see your underwear reflected in it”. Really?

The worst two things you could do (instant tarthood) was get pregnant without being married or get divorced. If you got pregnant, people hardly spoke of you except in whispers. They certainly wouldn’t talk to you. Or your parents. Or your auntie. Or your second cousin twice removed. And divorced – divorces were so rare they hit the headlines. Divorces were scandalous. A divorcee had failed. She knew she had failed. She had failed to hang on to her husband. She must have done something to make him beat her up or go with other women. A divorcee was no better than she ought to be. Women saw her as a threat. Men homed in on easy pickings.

And then there was the thing about hats. You daren’t go out in a red hat because it was well-known: Red Hat, No Drawers! Not that I would have done anyway as I loathe both hats and red. There were parts of every town that only tarts frequented. I remember wanting to buy a little bottle of Devon Violets perfume whilst visiting my aunt in Devon. Oh no! she said. You’ll smell like a lady of The Brook! The Brook in Chatham, now home to the Job Centre, a load of traffic and some very ugly buildings – had been, in her day, the place where prostitutes walked. Waiting for sailors. She seemed to have a thing about sailors. Well, Chatham was a dockyard town so hardly surprising. On one of her visits she remarked on how tall I had grown and that I would soon be spooning with a sailor in the front room. Spooning? In those days it just meant a romantic kind of cuddling. But a sailor? Where was I going to find a sailor? Couldn’t even find a boy.

So, it was easy to get yourself a ‘name’ – and a tattoo – well, that was a permanent name. A red hat can be taken off, bottle-blonde locks can be shorn, an ankle bracelet removed. But – in those days, at least – you were stuck with a tattoo. No one would have employed you to work in an office if you had such a disfigurement, though you might have got a job as a debt-collector or “door staff”. And people would automatically assume you’d been to prison.

But of course things have changed. Both my sister and niece have tattoos, in fairly discrete regions of themselves. I even – yes, I have to admit – at one point considered investing in one myself. I was thinking of intertwined dragons – one red and one blue – on my arm. There – I said it. I thought about it. Fortunately I didn’t do it.

The dragons – well, I was born in one of the Years of the Dragon so dragons have always felt like my totem animal. I like the look of dragons in old illustrations – their sinuous and elaborate nature. If I could draw I would draw fantasy dragons, like the ones you can find on the internet nowadays. Mega-dragons, all fire and nacreous scales. And the significance pink and blue intertwined? It was some sort of weirdo-psychological stuff I was going through at the time. Kept dreaming about dragons. Pink dragons, blue dragons…

And power-stations… and pebbly beaches… and men in long black coats who might have been my father…

Wonder what it all meant…

 

* Sorry, got that wrong. I mentioned, and linked to, a Daily Post prompt called Tattoo, You but the wording is slightly different. I’ve just stumbled across the one I actually used which is from the One Minute Writer blog.

 

THIS SWEET ARCHAIC SONG

James Elroy Flecker made a huge and unexpected leap of the imagination when he wrote ‘To A Poet A Thousand Years Hence. It’s such a well known poem, it’s easy to take it for granted. Oh, that old thing. It’s a bit like Wordsworth’s ‘Daffodils’. I remember having to learn this off by heart at Junior School, then being forced to chant it in unison with the rest of my class for some competition or other. Oh, that old thing. Yet when I came across the poem years later, it suddenly struck me – this is really good. Sometimes we need to approach the hackneyed poem, the school-teacher’s favourite, with fresh eyes, and ears.

Why not try it:

http://www.blupete.com/Literature/Poetry/Thousand.htm

It set me thinking, what might a poet think of us, looking back from a thousand years hence. Would there be any record of us at all, or would all trace of us have been buried in some apocalypse? What would it be like, the world he was looking back from? Would it be some kind of technotopia, busy and prosperous, or might he be the last, the only one?

Assuming he had records – that electronic records, books, pictures and music had survived, even – he would be interpreting what he saw through the lens of his own society, and who knows how alien that society might seem to us, or what outlandish conclusions he might draw from such a distance in time.

But supposing he was more or less like us, and his society had at least some common points of reference with our own, what might he think? I am guessing he would be horrified on some counts.

He would be disgusted that we reared other living creatures only to kill and eat them, when our digestive systems were designed to cope with either a vegetarian or a carnivorous diet. You had the choice, he would exclaim, yet you still killed and you still ate. I suspect he would be appalled at our use of animals in experiments and at some of our ancient sports, which involved the hunting and slaughter of wild creatures – the fox and the lion for example – not even for food, but for the thrill of ending a life, the thrill of looking at another creature, in all its living, breathing glory, and in an instant snuffing that glory out.

He would be appalled by our shallow-mindedness. He would wonder how we could possibly be entertained by game shows and talent shows, computer games and social media generally. What were they thinking? Were they thinking?

He would be bemused by our politics – at the never-ending diplomatic games between one country and another, at the never-ending lies, evasions, fixes and deceptions perpetrated by Governments on their own people.

He would be aghast at our inefficiency. How can it be that someone is 15% more likely to die in a British hospital at the weekends because of some ridiculous rota issue? How can it be that old people die alone in dilapidated, underheated houses that nobody ever visited? How can it be that a young woman can die in a ditch beside her dead partner several days after a crash several people reported and nobody attended, because of some computer system malfunction?

He would loathe our perpetual violence against one another, the way we send warplanes to bomb other people’s countries and refer to any man, woman or child who happens to get in the way and be killed or displaced as ‘collateral damage’.

And yet he might find a few things to love.

He might love the way, while Governments bicker and hold endless meetings over how few refugees they are willing to take in, ordinary people go out to meet them with sweets and sandwiches, water, clothing.

He might love our courage in facing a range of appalling diseases that, hopefully, by his time will have been eradicated, with sad reluctance, sometimes, and sometimes with calm resignation.

He might love the way we took to the streets to protest against perceived wrongs in our societies, knowing nothing much would change, whatever we did.

He might love the way we occasionally managed to forget, when faced with the real ‘other people’ in own neighbourhoods, what colour they were, what gender, what religion, and think of them just as people.

He might love our foolishness, the way we liked to dress up for the occasion, our jokes, our weird and eccentric customs, our rituals. He might like the way we wept, watching television, to witness a foreigner’s distress, cheered on the underdog in a tennis match merely because they were the underdog, covered our eyes when the wildebeest was about to be eaten by the lion – again. He might like the way we opened doors for one other, gave up our seats for one other, shepherded old ladies across the road and went to great lengths not to offend one another, even by accident.

He might love our music, and at least some of our art, and be grateful for those few scraps of music, art, architecture, literature and poetry we thought to preserve from those who lived before us.

How many legs has a three-legged stool?

Having a 6 foot 4 inch high father, I suppose I should have anticipated it. My little sister once described herself to a potential blind date as ‘a giantess’ and that was exactly how I felt on my first day at Neptune Road. I was the giantess and this place was inhabited by nasty, noisy midgets.

Throughout my schooldays, but particularly at the Infants, there seemed to be a set of rules for survival which had been vouchsafed to all but me. I struggled in vain to roll pointless little sausages out of rock-hard, child-resistant modelling clay. The cotton wool tails dropped off my Easter Bunnies and my Christmas cards lost their glitter.

I remember galloping around the school attempting to be a butterfly because the lady on the radio was ordering me to.

‘Now children, just flap your wings. Flitter-flutter, that’s right. You are going to take a sip of nectar from that nice honeysuckle flower over there. Sippety-sip, that’s right…’

What nice honeysuckle? I panicked. I flitted and fluttered. I fell over.

Education had few consolations but learning to read was one of them. Words, even big words like ‘garden’ and ‘nasturtium’ began to attach themselves to objects, with the help of the brightly-coloured pictures in Janet and John. Janet and John themselves were as dull as ditchwater. They looked like no little boy and girl we had ever seen and they seemed to spend all day throwing a ball to one another or the dog and conversing like this:

Throw the ball, John. / I throw the ball, Janet. / Thank you, John. Here is the ball, John. / Thank you, Janet. / Mind the nasturtiums, John.

I remember Miss Atkins the headmistress solemnly demonstrating in assembly how the earth went around the sun, using an orange for the sun and a walnut for the earth. She also warned us that if we ate oranges and drank milk at the same time we would be sick. I tried this later on, hoping to get out of a maths test, but it didn’t work.

The classrooms, cosy and noisy with high windows, smelling of chalk dust and urine, sunshine and milk, surrounded the assembly hall. A crateful of half-pint bottles was delivered to each classroom every morning and sat under the window until playtime when the Milk Monitor would importantly poke a straw through each tinfoil lid. It was warm, slightly sour and delicious.

There were four classes, starting from the Babies and working round anti-clockwise to the Big Children. Big Children were about to ‘go up’ to the Juniors in Walklyn Road. They were only two years older than the Babies but to us that was the equivalent of a century. I couldn’t believe I would ever be seven.

Before we went up we were given an intelligence test. I remember wondering who could get the wrong answer to questions like

Q: How many legs has a three-legged stool? / (A: Sixteen)

Q: If a white cow gives white milk, what colour milk does a black cow give? / (A: Pink, naturally)

cow

Playtime. A tidal wave of kids crashing out through two identical doors, one with BOYS carved in stone above it, the other with GIRLS. Although the sexes were no longer forced to remain separate, the playground was still divided into two halves, with fences and a wooden door between them, now wedged open. And there remained well-defined boys’ and girls’ territories – Skipping games to the left, Cowboys and Indians to the right, even a Doctors and Nurses area by the canteen steps.

The canteen was a wooden building in the middle of the playground. It was here that I learned to loathe rice-pudding, strawberry jam, rhubarb and liver. Beyond the canteen was the boundary fence and beyond that the railway line. Towards the end of my time at Neptune Road the railway track suddenly became the scene of great activity. Men were spaced out all along it, calling to one another and striking at the rails with hammers. They were electrifying the line. I recall the steam itself rather than the steam engines. A great cloud of it would rise up and swallow you, damp and choking, if you happened to be standing on the bridge in Station Road.

The crossing gates were opened and shut by the turning of a huge red wheel in the signal box. The signalman stood up there like a ship’s captain on the bridge of a ship, stern-faced with the responsibility of it all. The pedestrian’s only responsibility was not to get caught inside the gates as they closed. There was always time to scuttle, roller-skate or wheel one’s bicycle up the slope to the platform to safety before the train came – it was just the embarrassment.

At one end of the line was London and at the other end The Seaside – tin buckets and spades; last year’s sand caught in the ruches of a purple swimsuit; sandwiches in greaseproof paper; a bottle of Tizer fizzed up to danger-level by all the jolting; the smell of seaweed through the carriage window.

Beyond the railway line lay the Rec. We visited it as a class in springtime, for Nature Study. Crocodiled and woolly-mittened, we fingered catkins and learned that the bark of the silver birch was silver. But the real Rec was the one we inhabited after school, at weekends and throughout the summer holidays, when our rules applied.

three legged