Power of verse lives on

14th November 2003 at 00:00
The poet Charles Causley was once, as he wrote in The TES in 1992, given 10 out of 10 for a sonnet at school. Teachers have rated his professional work just as highly for 40 years. He published his first collection for children, Figgie Hobbin, in 1970.

After the Second World War he trained as a teacher and returned to the school where he had been a pupil, in Launceston, Cornwall, where he remained until he became a full-time writer in 1976. At Launceston voluntary primary he discovered by accident the power of the ballad - a form he later made his own - to quell unruly eight and nine-year-olds.

In a TES interview to celebrate his 70th birthday, he told Neil Philip: "I used to have a double class of boys every Thursday afternoon. There were 50 or 60 of them, quite a horror, and I had the wrong books with me. At the top of the pile I had the selection of English and Scottish ballads made by Robert Graves ... I opened it in desperation ... Stop a riot with a ballad."

The boys were transfixed, but Mr Causley never forced poetry on anyone. He also describes how he was made miserable at school because he hated sport.

"I decided that as poetry, music and history were my passions, I would never bore the ass off the poor kids who had absolutely no feeling for literature". He simply made it a natural part of the school day.

An unassuming man and a Cornishman through and through, Mr Causley never moved far from his birthplace in Launceston, except for the six years he spent serving in the Navy during the war. His father had died in 1924 from injuries received in the First War. Mr Causley described his own war experience as "catalytic". He had wanted to be an author from childhood, but left school at 15 to work in a builder's office. In 1951 the collection, Farewell, Aggie Weston, about life in the Navy, launched his career as a poet.

Mr Causley later maintained that when he was writing a poem he did not know whether it was for children or adults and he published work for both in his Collected Poems. He experimented with free verse and other forms, but it is for ballads such as Timothy Winters, Ballad of the Bread Man and Jolly Hunter that he is best known. His children's collections include Early in the Morning, Jack the Treacle Eater and The Young Man of Cury.

His friend Ted Hughes commented: "Among the English poetry of the last half century, Charles Causley's could well turn out to be the best loved and the most needed", and, before he was appointed Poet Laureate, it is said that he nominated Mr Causley as the best candidate for the job.

FULL MARKS FOR SCHOOL SONNET

Extracts from a piece by Charles Causley published in The TES on August 21, 1992, to celebrate his 75th birthday. He reviewed children's fiction and poetry for The TES from 1988-1995.

"Literature, at the Church elementary school, was inevitably a slightly hit or miss business. I recall a little Tennyson ('The splendour falls on castle walls') but no one drew a parallel with the splendour falling on the walls of the Norman castle literally on the other side of the classroom window. 'Young Lochinvar', apparently, 'came out of the west'. For years I assumed that this must have been Penzance. But 'The Pied Piper' never failed to make a hit. I discovered Lewis Carroll; remained cool at the prospect of Christopher Robin. In a dusty classroom cupboard, I came upon some splendid abridged versions of David Copperfield and Don Quixote; marvellous tasters for the complete editions I was to enjoy later. And, best of all, there was Treasure Island, taken neat and wholly untampered with."

"It was at the small grammar school that I came under the sway of my first real literary encourager. The teacher of English and history, a Welshman of sturdy radical opinions, was also famous for the low marks he awarded his pupils ... As for myself, bearer of a chattering and tactless tongue and bereft of the slightest interest in any form of sport, I had few qualifications for popularity. But the week we were set to write poems for homework, mine received full marks."

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