Learning to Look by Kathryn Simmonds

Early Street Scene, Stanley Simmonds ARCA (from the Charles Causley Collection)

When I recently visited the Town Hall in Launceston to see the archiving of Charles Causley’s belongings, I was struck by the great number of paintings he owned, and realised the walls of his home must have been crowded with pictures. He collected work by artists such as Cynthia and Stanley Simmonds, Lionel Miskin and Robert Tilling. But perhaps Causley’s love of art is only to be expected in a poet who wrote so visually and was so attentive to his surroundings.

Some years ago when I took a class in still life drawing, our teacher told us that most of our time would be spent looking and not making marks on the paper. This seemed counterintuitive; weren’t we there to draw? And yet I realised he was right, if we didn’t look carefully enough, our drawings easily became lopsided, or fuzzy, or lacked the right detail to bring them to life. Poets and painters have this in common, they need to look.

Walking around Causley’s home town, it’s interesting to find details which later made their way into poems: the stone eagles decorating the Eagle House Hotel, or the carving of Mary Magdalene in the wall of Mary Magdalene Church, for instance. Causley was open to the possibilities of poems because he had his eyes open.

John Clare, the son of a farm labourer, was another poet who looked closely at the world. Here’s a telling sonnet from the 1830’s:

‘The Mouse’s Nest’

I found a ball of grass among the hay
And progged it as I passed and went away;
And when I looked I fancied something stirred,
And turned again and hoped to catch the bird –
When out an old mouse bolted in the wheats
With all her young ones hanging at her teats;
She looked so odd and so grotesque to me,
I ran and wondered what the thing could be
And pushed the knapweed bunches where I stood;
Then the mouse hurried from the craking brood.
The young ones squeaked, and as I went away
She found her nest again among the hay.
The water o’er the pebbles scarce could run
And broad old cesspools glittered in the sun.

NPG 1469; John Clare by William Hilton

Clare notices this unexpected little scene in passing, and what he finds startles and then captivates him. The ball of grass might have gone unremarked, but instead it works on his imagination and becomes a poem. ‘The Mouse’s Nest’ is a poem about looking, being aware of the living world and finding unexpected beauty: ‘And broad old cesspools glittered in the sun.’ Through Clare’s attention, the reader shares the experience and sees something fresh. (Incidentally, that word ‘progged’ seems perfect, Clare is attentive to every word in his poem just as he is to every movement in the wheats).

Poems that don’t leave much impression are usually poems where the writer hasn’t really bothered to look closely, but has instead fallen back on second-hand language and familiar assumptions. What good poems do is give us a fresh experience and the great thrill and compulsion of writing is to make the world new. To do this you need to look closely.

In his handbook Poetry in the Making, originally written for school children, Causley’s friend Ted Hughes describes the importance of learning to be still, to look both with the physical eye and the eye of the imagination. Many of Hughes’s strongest poems (such as ‘View of a Pig’) are simply concerned with studying what things are and writing them in vivid language. I’d recommend Hughes’s book to anyone with an interest in writing poetry. And the fact that it’s written with children in mind makes it an even more essential read for adults, because it presumes nothing.

by Fuller (from the Charles Causley Collection)

Another good handbook is Writing Poems by Peter Sansom (Bloodaxe), a short, accessible guide written with characteristic good humour and insight. If you’re interested in what makes Clare’s poem a sonnet, or want to learn more about poetic forms, The Making of a Poem by Mark Strand and Eavan Boland (Norton) is an excellent guide. The book outlines most of the important poetic forms and illustrates each with example poems.

Looking extends to looking closely at the work of other poets to learn what they’re doing and how they’re doing it. Reading is the best way to learn and a good anthology is indispensable.Staying Alive, edited by Neil Astley (Bloodaxe) is a popular collection of contemporary poems and showcases a variety of styles and voices.

Kathryn Simmonds
Charles Causley Poet in Residence
Launceston, December 2013