SELECTED POEMS FOR CHILDREN. By Charles Causley. Illustrated by John Lawrence. Macmillan Pounds 5.99.
John Mole investigates the magic of Charles Causley, one of Britain's best loved poets of the century, who is 80 this year
All poetry is magic," writes Charles Causley, introducing The Puffin Book of Magic Verse. "It is a spell against insensitivity, failure of imagination, ignorance and barbarism." No contemporary poet I can think of has cast that spell more widely or with a greater lightness of heart and touch. There must be many readers, including at least three generations of school children, for whom he is the salutary and enduring poet of their lifetime, the one they remember, the one they can quote at length, and whose 80th birthday is an occasion for gratitude and festivity.
Why is Causley so popular? The answer is surely not hard to find and can be discovered by opening his new Collected Poems and Selected Poems for Children at almost any page. He is an exemplary craftsman and a natural-born story-teller with the true poet's love of parish gossip. Communication, for him, is of the essence - as he once put it, there is no point talking on a dead line - but this is a matter of trust in the reader not a short cut to compromise.
The poems (in search of their inevitable form) always come first. If they are well-made, if they sing - as his invariably are and do - they will plant the mystery, give it a local habitation, a home base, and the rest must follow. Or to put it another way, perhaps appropriate for a poet who has known the Cornish coastal breakers and has such an awed appreciation of the sea's changing moods, you don't put out in a leaky craft. A Causley poem, whether riding the storm or entering harbour, is always watertight and its cargo safe for the future.
This sense of the poem as a compact of imagination, skill, authenticity and trust has informed Charles Causley's work both as poet and teacher. And although he has sometimes seemed rather self-deprecating about the latter, few have written with more insight on the importance of poetry in the education of young children. An excellent essay (published by Methuen in l966 in a London University Institute of Education volume entitled Presenting Poetry, and to the best of my knowledge, never reprinted) contains a paragraph that seems to me the perfect defining synthesis of Causley the poet-teacher and a reminder, if needed, of why he is indispensable: "Children, I believe, will take - in poetry, as in any other art form - as much as the teacher has sensibility, courage, intelligence to give. If we, as adults, are nearer death, children are close to the process of birth. They recognise, and are able to assimilate freely and without inhibition, the vital elements that inform our traditional songs and ballads. Few children of today, through their complex home and family lives, and however much they may be cloistered at school, can be totally unfamiliar with the patterns of birth, youth, marriage, infidelity, love, hate, sickness, old age, death, that are also part of the pattern of our native poetry."
Those patterns inform so much of what Causley himself writes. He has described how up to about the age of 11 he doesn't remember hearing much poetry at all and that what there was seemed to be about something that went on somewhere else, far away. But his great gift as a poet has been to recognise, in the words of Robert Graves, that "far away is close at hand".He has achieved an immediately recognisable, distinctive combination of the local and the exotic, the down-to-earth domestic and the numinous, the kitchen and the front garden.
Like his own Buffalo Jenkyn, his poems can often hold "cut cabbage in one hand, In the other, violets" and like Graves, whose poems he has always admired and whose edition of English and Scottish Ballads he has recommended on numerous occasions, he can bring the the child and the adult together in rhymes of innocence and experience accessible on different levels to both. It is interesting to notice which poems he has chosen to include in the adult Collected Poems and the Selected Poems for Children. "What Has Happened to Lulu?" is just one example of a poem that has established itself as a classic for all ages in the years since he wrote it.
Why? Because it has become a part of that native pattern, and has written itself into the tradition. It is also, I suspect, an example of a poem taken to heart at school which has by now become adult property. The child is father to the man. The Causley children, that is, with children of their own, but with the question still resonantly unanswered: "Why do you wander about as though You don't know what to do?
What has happened to Lulu, mother?
What has happened to Lu?" As that same essay put it: "If, say, 80 per cent of a poem comes across, let us be satisfied. The remainder, with luck,will unfold during the rest of our lives." It's the same with "Nursery Rhyme of Innocence and Experience": "O where are the other Girls and boys? And why have you brought me Children's toys?" Causley's poems for all ages are rich in these unanswered questions. And, just for the record, the penultimate poem in the adult Collected, a beautifully observant meditation on Stanley Spencer's A Village in Heaven, appeared very recently in a book of poems about paintings for use in schools.
Causley has said that he only decides whether a poem is for adults or children after he has written it, and that "almost the whole of 'children's' poetry - verse, that is, written specifically for a child audience - has faded away. " Apart from guaranteeing his survival, this reminds me of WH Auden's comment when writing about Walter de la Mare: "While there are some good poems that are only for adults, because they presuppose adult experience in their readers, there are no good poems which are only for children."
I'm sure Causley would agree with the first part of this as much as the second, and perhaps the greatest reward of this new Collected Poems comes with the addition of the work from his last two collections, Secret Destinations and A Field of Vision and with recent uncollected poems including the marvellous "To My Father" (Causley's father died in 1924).
Like the equally moving "Eden Rock", with which he closed A Field of Vision this is poetry of visionary reconciliation, not so much the child as father to the man as the generations reunited in recognition of their mortality, a stepping over into the light. Intimate, generous. poignant, vividly unsentimental, and both local and universal, they stand for me among the best work he has ever done: The sky whitens as if lit by three suns.
My mother shades her eyes and looks my way over the drifted stream.
My father spins A stone along the water.
Leisurely, They beckon to me from the other bank.
I hear them call, 'See where the stream-path is!
Crossing is not as hard as you might think.' I had not thought that it would be like this.
"Timothy Winters", "My Friend Maloney", "By St Thomas Water", "Ballad of the Bread Man". "Ten Types of Hospital Visitor". "I Saw a Jolly Hunter" (never forget Causley's wonderfully mordant humour) - these and so many more are now established in the anthologies, in and out of school, but no adult reader who has only come across Charles Causley in a classroom context should ever imagine that the list stops there. Collected Poems 1951-1997 is a fitting birthday tribute to a fine poet whose latest, less anthologised work is among his very best.
And on a personal note, as a lover both of Edward Lear's nonsense verse and of cats, I'm delighted that he has chosen to end the book with a touching tribute to Lear's cat Foss, which first appeared in The TES as a summer postcard poem and which I cut out to keep until now. It's an entirely appropriate, provisional conclusion, the last three words being "Suddenly prancing. Dancing". Surprise, youthfulness, celebration. Surely the promise of more to come.