What made you become a poet?
by Carol Ann Duffy
What made you become a poet?
I have been thinking a lot recently about how and why I came to poetry because my mother died in February this year and one’s mother, in some ways, is the co-custodian of memory and childhood. Childhood is where I first began to love words.
My mother, from when I was tiny, would make up “head” stories on demand. She had an amazing, flighty, quirky, totally illogical imagination- and although I often complained about her plot lines (“But that doesn’t fit with what went before!”) she always held my total attention.
Years later, when asked in a game to complete the proverb “In the Kingdom of the blind...” my mother, not knowing, boldly said “Everyone’s as blind as a bat.” She was always like that- a cliche was never a cliche for long on my mother’s lips.
She always bought me books once she accepted that dolls wouldn’t do for me.
The first book I read properly all the way through on my own was Lewis Carroll’s Alice In Wonderland . As soon as I had finished it, I started it again; and after that I wrote a little poem about how brilliant it was. “A wonderous tale...”
There were five children in my family- my four younger brothers and me. But I was the only one who read books ALL the time. My parents didn’t read much either- so this meant that I had the use of seven lots of library tickets. Childrens’ tickets were pink and adults’ were blue or green. I would cycle- every day in the holidays- to the library and come back with a basket of books on the other side of the handlebars. My bike was really a horse, of course. I loved (I was about 9 by now) Enid Blyton, Frank Richards, Anthony Buckeridge, Agatha Christie, Louisa May Alcott, the Katy books, The Swish of the Curtain, and, most of all, Richmal Crompton’s William books- although for years I thought she was a man. I loved Grimms Fairy Tales, Greek myths and legends, The Arabian Nights. I also loved comics like The Beano, The Dandy and Bunty. Because I had so many brothers, I got to read loads of boys’ comics too. My favourite of these were the USA Superman comics.
By the time I was 10, I was writing lots of little stories influenced by all the books I was reading. My Year 6 teacher, Mrs Tilscher, ACTUALLY TYPED one of my stories. It was called Jo Must Swim! (Little Women!) and was about a girl with no legs who won a swimming competition. Swimming was my second favourite thing after reading.
And then, in the first week of my first term at Big School (a girls’ convent school) I read this-
My heart aches , and a drowsy numbness pains
My sense, as though of hemlock I had drunk,
Or emptied some dull opiate to the drains
One minute past, and Lethe-wards had sunk:
‘Tis not through envy of thy happy lot,
But being too happy in thy happiness,-
That thou, light-winged Dryad of the trees,
In some melodious plot
Of beechen green, and shadows numberless,
Singest of summer in full-throated ease.
O, for a draught of vintage! that hath been
Cool’d a long age in the deep-delved earth,
Tasting of Flora and the country green,
Dance, and Provencal song, and sunburnt mirth!
O for a beaker full of the warm South,
Full of the true, the blushful Hippocrene,
With beaded bubbles winking at the brim,
And purple-stained mouth;
That I might drink, and leave the world unseen,
And with thee fade away into the forest dim:
Fade far away, dissolve, and quite forget
What thou amongst the leaves hast never known,
The weariness, the fever, and the fret
Here, where men sit and hear each other groan;
Where palsy shakes a few, sad, last grey hairs,
Where youth grows pale, and spectre-thin, and dies;
Where but to think is to be full of sorrow
And leaden-eyed despairs,
Where Beauty cannot keep her lustrous eyes,
Or new Love pine at them beyond tomorrow.
Away! away! for I will fly to thee,
Not charioted by Bacchus and his pards,
But on the viewless wings of Poesy,
Though the dull brain perplexes and retards:
Already with thee! tender is the night,
And haply the Queen-Moon is on her throne,
Cluster’d around by all her starry Fays;
But here there is no light,
Save what from heaven is with the breezes blown
Through verdurous glooms and winding mossy ways.
I cannot see what flowers are at my feet,
Nor what soft incense hangs upon the boughs,
But, in embalmed darkness, guess each sweet
Wherewith the seasonable month endows
The grass, the thicket, and the fruit-tree wild;
White hawthorn, and the pastoral eglantine;
Fast fadng violets cover’d up in leaves;
And mid-May’s eldest child,
The coming musk-rose, full of dewy wine,
The murmurous haunt of flies on summer eves.
Darkling I listen; and, for many a time
I have been half in love with easeful Death,
Call’d him soft names in many a mused rhyme,
To take into the air my quiet breath;
Now more than ever seems it rich to die,
To cease upon the midnight with no pain,
While thou art pouring forth thy soul abroad
In such an ectasy!
Still wouldst thou sing, and I have ears in vain-
To thy high requiem become a sod.
Thou wast not born for death, immortal Bird!
No hungry generations tread thee down;
The voice I hear this passing night was heard
In ancient days by emperor and clown:
Perhaps the self-same song that found a path
Through the sad heart of Ruth, when, sick for home,
She stood in tears amid the alien corn;
The same that oft-times hath
Charm’d magic casements, opening on the foam
Of perilous seas, in faery lands forlorn.
Forlorn! the very word is like a bell
To toll me back from thee to my sole self!
Adieu! the fancy cannot cheat so well
As she is fam’d to do, deceiving elf.
Adieu! adieu! thy plaintive anthem fades
Past the near meadows, over the still stream,
Up the hillside; and now ‘tis buried deep
In the next valley-glades:
Was it a vision, or a waking dream?
Fled is that music:- Do I wake or sleep?
Although I apprehended more of the meaning of this gorgeous poem than I understood, after I read John Keats’ Ode To A Nightingale, I swooned in my imagination into the arms of poetry and never wrote prose again.
(Well, I did write some children’s tales after I had my own daughter in 1995!)
Most writers and poets have been fortunate in their English teachers, and I am no exception. In my convent school, I was taught English by Miss Scriven and I stayed friends with her until she died three years ago. At High School, I was taught by Mr Walker. He got in touch with me last year and said how proud he is when he sees my books on the poetry shelf at Waterstones. “Well done, wench!” said his letter.
Teachers are so important. The belief they have in you. The books they lead you too. I wrote this when Miss Scriven died:
DEATH OF A TEACHER
The big trees outside are into their poker game again,
shuffling and dealing, turning, folding, their leaves
drifting down to the lawn, floating away, ace high,
on a breeze. You died yesterday.
When I heard the hour- home time, last bell,
late afternoon- I closed my eyes. English, of course,
three decades back, and me thirteen. You sat on your desk,
swinging your legs, reading a poem by Yeats
to the bored girls, except my heart stumbled and blushed
as it fell in love with the words and I saw the tree
in the scratched old desk under my hands, heard the bird
in the oak outside scribble itslef on the air. We were truly there,
present, Miss, or later the smoke from your black cigarette
braided itself with lines from Keats. Teaching
is endless love; the poems by heart, spells, the lists
lovely on the learning tongue, the lessons, just as you said,
for life. Under the gambling trees, the gold light thins and burns,
the edge of a page of a book, precious, waiting to be turned.
Carol Ann Duffy
And this “poem by Yeats” was to entrance me even more than the one by Keats. Loving different poems is a bit like being a terrible flirt. Here is the Yeats- still my all time favourite poem. I have a huge text-painting of it in my library at home, done by the artist Stephen Raw. And there’s a beautiful song-version of the poem by the Irish singer Christy Moore.
THE SONG OF WANDERING AENGUS
I went out to the hazel wood,
Because a fire was in my head,
And cut and peeled a hazel wand,
And hooked a berry to a thread;
And when white moths were on the wing,
And moth-like stars were flickering out,
I dropped the berry in a stream
And caught a little silver trout.
When I had laid it on the floor
I went to blow the fire a-flame,
But something rustled on the floor,
And someone called me by my name:
It had become a glimmering girl
With apple blossom in her hair
Who called me by my name and ran
And faded through the brightening air.
Though I am old with wandering
Through hollow lands and hilly lands,
I will find out where she has gone,
And kiss her lips and take her hands;
And walk among long dappled grass,
And pluck till time and times are done
The silver apples of the moon,
The golden apples of the sun.
During my early teens, Miss Scriven, who owned a Wool Shop where coffee was always available for us girls at the weekend, leant me loads of poetry books. She was mad about Dylan Thomas and played me the Richard Burton recording of Under Milkwood. Eventually, I had a Saturday job and bought paperback poetry books in the Penguin Modern Poets Series- Rilke, Neruda, Prevert, Cesaire, Whitman, Stevie Smith, the American Beat poets, Poetry and Jazz in Performance, the Liverpool poets. As young poets learn by imitation, I slavishly copied and emulated everyone I read and began to publish teenagey, angst-ridden and derivative poems in little magazines and, eventually, a pamphlet grandly called “Fleshweathercock and Other Poems”. I know, I know- but you have to start somewhere. And poetry was my vocation.