Little Big Man
Thinking about Billy’s poem on Poem of The Week and trying to analyze just what it was about it that so signally failed to move me, I started thinking about childhood.
It make not seem like a natural progression but I was wondering what part or parts of me responded so strongly, so unequivocally to poems like Vachel Lindsay’s The Congo or Alfred Noyes’ The Highwayman; to Lear’s The Akond of Swat and Eliot’s Macavity The Mystery Cat.
If you’d asked the 8 or 9 year-old me why I loved Noyes’ The Highwayman, I suppose I might have said: ‘because it’s a good story’; but I imagine that’s all I could have told you. Because the truth was, I didn’t know. My response to the poem was visceral and had nothing to do with reason or analysis. I loved it because I loved it.
I think that my responses, to this day, are more visceral than I care to admit. After all, I’m a grown-up and my responses should be those of a grown-up, at least that appears to be the consensus. So I’ve learned to rationalise with the best of them, as though there’s something shameful about instinct or gut-feeling.
Having reached a man’s estate, I can explain at great and tedious length why I love (or detest) a poem or a song. I can even be fairly plausible. But I suspect that behind the glib verbiage is the old visceral response. I love it (or hate it) because I love it (or hate it). The covert child’s response still underlies the overt response.
And maybe, just maybe the child’s response is more trustworthy, more truthful, more genuine than the ‘considered’ response. After the child’s response comes only artifice. However, one cannot, without appearing a fool or a philistine, simply say ‘I don’t like this poem because I don’t like it’.
But that is the reason that Billy’s poem does nothing for me. I can try, and did try, to explain my reaction in mature, adult terms but any such explanation is doomed to failure because it is post hoc rationalisation of a response that I can’t baldly state without appearing, well…childish.
It’s time we got back to writing verse. I’m getting slack. Partly, it’s been the absence of our old friend and frequent inspiration, Mowbray. Partly it’s because I’m a lazy bastard. Well, no more.
Let’s have childhood poems, please. About your own childhood; someone else’s; an imagined childhood or one you read about. Possibly even your (or should that be ‘my’) never-ending childhood. No matter. Hurry…you’re already late for classes and you’ll get no sick-note from me.
Here’s an old one of mine:
The Boy In The Bunker
I enjoy kicking my way through drifts
of dry and dead leaves, memory shifts:
I’m a small boy again, leaving a wake
that rustles noisily, brown and dry,
under a damp leaden November sky.
I still look at trees and think:
Is that a good climbing tree?
The qualities I see are a link
with the boy; with the animal joy
of feeling my gibbon ancestors.
I still look at hill-tops and woods
and weigh their merits as robber dens;
I kept thinking, on a visit to the Fens,
a fellow could hide out here for good:
It makes absolutely perfect sense.
I still look at tunnels and wonder:
where does that lead? If I need
an escape route, will that do?
I can’t see a derelict house without
imagining long-lost treasure hoards:
gold coins beneath the floor-boards.
The boy never really grew up nor
went away; he’s still there today,
regarding me with a mocking eye,
scorning pretension, guarding the door
that opens on dismal, on false, on grey;
quick to say: hate this, hate that; dunno why.
All I can tell you: I know it’s a lie.