And so I reach volume 3 in my mammoth (well, it will be when I’ve finished it!) read of the Penguin Modern Poets books. The third book sees three more male scribes, and two of them complete strangers to me, so that should be interesting…
The three in question are George Barker (1913-1991), Martin Bell (1918-1978) and Charles Causley (1917-2003). I read the book without researching the writers in advance, so I was fascinated to find out that Barker had had a long-term affair with Elizabeth Smart, author of “By Grand Central Station I Sat Down and Wept”, as I remember this from when I read her book. Anyway, Barker seems to have quite a lively life… Bell, by contrast, was a member of The Group, a an informal band of London poets who met from the 1950s to the 1960s, and apparently specialised in satire. As for Causley, the poet I had heard of, he was a Cornish-based bard, who seems to have ended up the best known of the three, was best buddies with Ted Hughes and was also made a CBE.
So, let’s start with Barker, and we’re back to dense poetry, laden with complex imagery. Don’t get me wrong, I like poetry with complex imagery, but it has to speak to me and I’m not honestly sure Barker did. The subject matter wasn’t always clear, although there were several poems informed by the Second World War and its losses – I guess the poets I’m reading here are the generation that went through that war and survived – and these were very moving. However, one work did strike me very strongly – “Resolution of Dependence”, which tells of an imaginary encounter with Wiliam Wordsworth. For the rest, I can confess to being relatively untouched….
Next up was the satirical Bell, and I must admit I found his verse much more to my liking. Again, there were bitter poems about the war, but his viewpoint was a little wider-ranging. “Reason for Refusal” was a very powerful piece about not buying a poppy, listing all the war lost amonst his family and friends, which would have chimed in well with the 1960s anti-war movements. Other poems covered the death of Ken Russell, hypochondria and there’s even a verse poem to Rimbaud! All in all, I enjoyed Bell’s work a lot more than Barker’s – accessible, but thought-provoking.
Finally, then, Charles Causley. I’d heard of him back in the day (I possibly even studied him at school) and of course have read of him on Jane’s Beyond Eden Rock blog (which takes its name from one of his poems); I also recognised “Nursery Rhyme of Innocence and Experience” straight away and I suspect it’s one of his most famous. Wikipedia says of him: His work is noted for its simplicity and directness and for its associations with folklore, especially when linked to his native Cornwall, which I’d tend to agree with – I liked the directness of his verse very much. Many of his works take a ballad form, and his subject is often the sea. The War is again an ever-present influence, but Causley doesn’t restrict himself as a poet – he deals with a wide range, from religious imagery through tales of misfit youngsters to the perils of life without love.
Of the three poets, it was definitely Causley that spoke most strongly to me, but I’m not going to quote a whole poem this time – I think I would recommend searching out Causley’s work and reading more, which I intend to do, but I’ll leave you with a few lines from “A Ballad for Katharine of Aragon”:
O war is a casual mistress
And the world is her double bed
She has a few charms in her mechanized arms
But you wake up and find yourself dead.
It seems that those arms of the war were long ones, which cast a shadow over the next generation for a long time – it will be interesting to see if the next batch of poets are so affected by it!