Rachel Piercey: Charles Causley and Endings

Charles Causley and Endings

Like many others, I have spent some of my time during lockdown working through the tottering pile of books I’ve always meant to read. And so, long overdue, I fell head over heels in love with the rollicking and poignant Collected Poems for Children of Charles Causley.

I have a gorgeous, sunset-coloured edition, published by Macmillan and zestily illustrated by John Lawrence. The poems are effortlessly rhymed, mischievous, absurd, thoughtful, intelligent, wondering, steeped in folk traditions, and gently, constructively anarchic. You can find a few examples and a biography on the Children’s Poetry Archive and in this lovely blog post on Anthony Wilson’s Lifesaving Poems.

What I’d like to enthuse about specifically here is Causley’s endings. I think he’s so good at them, and they showcase the many ways you can leave a poem reverberating in the reader’s mind. Causley is famous for his use of form – particularly the ballad – and all his poems are strongly metred and rhymed. The lines march, skip and dance, but they never arrive with a thump at a closed-off destination. Instead, they use form to leave the poem hanging, tantalisingly.

Take the fresh and shivery ghost story ‘Miller’s End’. The poem ends with a revelation, simply rhymed, but the poem is far from tidily tied up. Who is the shadowy Miss Wickerby? Or how about the famous ‘Timothy Winters’ – the poem ends with that most final of words, “Amen”, but the reason that Timothy Winters and the speaker are praying is because Timothy’s future is so uncertain. It’s painfully empathetic:

 

So come one angel, come on ten:

Timothy Winters says ‘Amen

Amen amen amen amen.’

Timothy Winters, Lord.

Amen

 

Like Edward Lear, Causley knows the impact of a repeated line and particularly a repeated name. In Lear’s limericks, the last line reworks the first: “There was an old person of Putney” becomes “That romantic old person of Putney”. The effect with both Causley and Lear is the same: the poems explicitly refuse to shut down meaning or interpretation. You’re back where you started, just with a little more context. In ‘Tell, Tell the Bees’, the first and last stanza are identical:

 

Tell, tell the bees,

The bees in the hive,

That Jenny Green is gone away,

Or nothing will thrive.

 

Who is Jenny and what has happened to her? Who is the new “master / Or mistress”? Does anyone tell the bees? The poem leaves us wondering, but sure of the mission’s importance. The repetition and names also reinforce the folk, song-like nature of the poems.

Many of Causley’s poems are narrative and finish in a highly satisfactory way – check out ‘I Saw a Jolly Hunter’ for a gleeful example:

 

Bang went the jolly gun.

Hunter jolly dead.

Jolly hare got clean away.

Jolly good, I said.

 

But just as often, he delights in ambiguity, as at the end of the eerie, earthy ‘Spell’:

 

When I was walking by Tamar spring

I found me a stone, and a plain gold ring.

I stared at the sun, I stared at my shoes.

(Which do you choose? Which do you choose?)

 

Often when I go into schools, I find that children drawn to writing in form are also drawn to very conclusive endings. Such endings have their place, but it’s freeing to experience how a formal poem can leave a question in the air, too. Most contemporary poems leave themselves open rather than closed, and so Causley’s poems blithely bridge a number of traditions, in the most delightful way. I would recommend him to anyone.

Rachel Piercey

Rachel Piercey is a freelance poet, editor and tutor. She has co-edited three children’s poetry anthologies with the Emma Press and regularly performs her work and runs poetry workshops in primary schools. Rachel’s poems for adults have been published in various journals including The Poetry Review, The Rialto and Magma, as well as two pamphlets with the Emma Press and one with HappenStance. She lives in London. www.rachelpierceypoet.com

Rachel Piercey: Ode to my Tap

Ode to my Tap

With World Water Day coming up in March, I thought I would use my blog to share a poetry workshop which always seems to inspire lovely poems: ‘Ode to My Tap’. The workshop, which I use with Years 4, 5 and 6, explores the importance of access to clean water, as well as encouraging imaginative imagery and metaphors.

Children are naturally passionate advocates for environmental and humanitarian issues and in my experience they really take to this theme, blending the overt message with playful language. It is also an accessible introduction to the concept of an ‘Ode’.

First, I share with the class some of the shocking statistics around access to clean water:

  • 1 in 4 people on the planet don’t have a decent toilet of their own.
  • 1 in 10 people don’t have access to water close to home.
  • 31% of schools around the world don’t have clean water.

(There are lots of useful resources including lesson plans and videos on www.wateraid.org).

I explain that many children have to miss school and skip playing with friends to go and collect clean water, which is often miles away from their home. If children and adults must spend hours each day collecting water, it can prevent them from training for and pursuing the jobs they would like to do.

I tell them that this got me thinking about the importance of something I have always taken for granted – my taps! And so I decided to write an ode, which is a poem in praise of a particular thing. Poets have written odes to all sorts of things – autumn, wind, sadness, music, silence, “a large tuna in the market”… you can write an ode to anything you like!

 

Ode to My Tap

 

My tap is a silver swan.

My tap is a silken roar.

My tap knocks shyly

on its own white door –

drip, drop, drip…

My tap is cold sips.

My tap grows a twisting vine.

My tap is tea-time,

and bath-time,

and squeaky-clean teeth

feel just fine.

My tap speaks tap,

which to the human ear

is a judder in the pipes.

My tap has a hot temper

and a cold shoulder.

My tap is ease.

My tap is a liquid key.

My tap is me being free

to be me.

 

We spend a couple of minutes looking at the different poetic techniques – metaphor, personification, onomatopoeia, alliteration, contrast, use of the five senses, use of rhyme (which I have kept deliberately fluid…pun half-intended…!). Then they are off writing their own poems!

If pupils are having trouble getting started, I ask them to draw a little picture of their tap, then we chat about what the shape reminds them of (e.g. the spout could be a rainbow, a candy cane, a giraffe…the tap handles could be a flower or a hand…). If they don’t want to draw, we might collaborate on some sound effects – a dripping tap, a tap turned on fully etc – and discuss what these sound like.

These Tap Odes lend themselves to illustration – the poem flowing out of the tap is particularly popular. You could also build on this workshop by asking pupils to write a poem in the voice of water, or to write an ode about something else surprising.

If you do write Odes to Your Taps, I’d love to see them! Please feel free to contact me through my website for some class feedback or tag me on Twitter @RachelPoet

Rachel Piercey

Rachel Piercey is a freelance writer, editor and tutor. She co-edited and contributed to the children’s poetry anthologies Falling Out of the Sky: Poems about Myths and Monsters (shortlisted for the CLiPPA award 2016), Watcher of the Skies: Poems about Space and Aliens, and The Head that Wears a Crown: Poems about Kings and Queens, all published by the Emma Press. She regularly performs and runs poetry workshops in schools, and she has taught courses on writing poetry for children for The Poetry School. Her poems for adults have been published in The Rialto, Magma, Butcher’s Dog and The Poetry Review, as well as pamphlets with the Emma Press and HappenStance. rachelpierceypoet.com

Rachel Piercey: Conversation and Crossover

Conversation and Crossover

I started writing for children a few years ago, when I co-edited the Emma Press anthology Falling Out of the Sky: Poems about Myths and Monsters, and it’s one of the best things I’ve ever done. It has introduced me to a gigantic new group of readers, writers and co-creators, and a whole new library of joyous, devastating, transcendent poems. It has also given me valuable insights, particularly in terms of clarity and energy, into my writing ‘for adults’.

This was a distinction I had never made before, and one I am keen to blur. The world of children’s poetry makes plenty of room for adult poems, in anthologies and school lessons, and children are gloriously open-minded about deep, experimental creativity. The best children’s poems discuss the same big, knotty themes as adult poems, skilfully balancing accessibility with complexity. Now I would like to see the adult poetry world making more space for children’s poetry, which is a vital part of its foundation and future. I would love to get more people discussing, reviewing and enthusing about children’s poetry, and to encourage more poets to try writing for a younger audience.

Kate Wakeling is one of many poets, including me, who published their first poem for children in the Myths and Monsters anthology. Like many of the poets, she got hooked. And just two years later, Kate won the 2017 Centre for Literacy in Primary Poetry Award with her extraordinary debut Moon Juice. I’ve been in the audience when Kate has read children’s poems (my favourite is her shatteringly superb ‘The Demon Mouth’) alongside adult poems – and it’s an exhilarating combination. I wish more readings would mix the two, amplifying in a small but effective way the conversation between poetry for children and poetry for adults. In fiction, the young adult genre acts as a kind of bridge between children’s books and general novels, but we don’t really have an equivalent in poetry. To move, with no turning back, from the warm, fizzy, inviting world of children’s poetry to the secondary school canon can be disorientating. But if children’s poems were part of the general poetry conversation, sharing the same space, young people could study new, chewy works alongside more digestible ones.

So, let’s disrupt the distinction wherever we can. Let’s make more noise about the many children’s poets who are writing well-crafted, sensitive, probing poems about human emotions and the world around us, and zingy, experimental poems which push and pull language like plasticine – via social media, blogs, readings, and conversations with poetry friends. (If you’re looking for somewhere to start, the Children’s Poetry Archive is a great resource, as are the fabulous archives of the CLiPPA award. The Emma Press children’s list is also full of excellent, eclectic poems – many by poets new to writing for children.)

If you are a poet writing for adults, try reaching back the other way – remembering and celebrating the poems you loved as a kid. Try your hand at writing for children and share what you write, enjoying the licence for giddiness and experimentation. And costumes – see photo above!

Ultimately, what I would really love is to see magazines and journals accepting children’s poems and reviewing children’s poetry books as a matter of course, and even to see children’s poetry potentially in the running for the big prizes, acknowledged for its world-altering potential. Welcoming children’s poetry into the ecosystem of adult poetry would be such a powerful message that what we read when we are young is as precious and important as what we read when we are older. And the more young readers and writers of poetry we can nurture, the more secure that ecosystem will be.

Rachel Piercey

Rachel Piercey is a freelance writer, editor and tutor. She co-edited and contributed to the children’s poetry anthologies Falling Out of the Sky: Poems about Myths and Monsters (shortlisted for the CLiPPA award 2016), Watcher of the Skies: Poems about Space and Aliens, and The Head that Wears a Crown: Poems about Kings and Queens, all published by the Emma Press. She regularly performs and runs poetry workshops in schools, and she has taught courses on writing poetry for children for The Poetry School. Her poems for adults have been published in The Rialto, Magma, Butcher’s Dog and The Poetry Review, as well as pamphlets with the Emma Press and HappenStance. rachelpierceypoet.com