Now as I was young and easy under the apple boughs
About the lilting house and happy as the grass was green…
I’m no longer young and easy, certainly not after a day on pond reconstruction (as to which more in another post) but my house is full of the lilts of many voices and I can certainly say I am as happy as the grass is green. These are the opening lines of Dylan Thomas’ Fern Hill, my place for today’s A to Z and his happy place as he looked back on the ‘night above the dingle starry’ as he was ‘golden in the heydays’. He was ‘green and carefree’, as a child and ‘Nothing I cared, in the lamb white days’ but eventually he would ‘wake to the farm forever fled from the childless land’. It is a beautifully evocative poem of a golden youth as the poet mourns its loss.
Fern Hill may well not be a real place, my brief researches of Google not telling me but it was real enough for me, when I studied it for my O levels in 1973. Up to that point poetry was something my dad talked about and recited and something I couldn’t really understand, unless it was funny or rude, or preferably both. But gradually as we dug into the fifteen or so poems we were to deconstruct – all laid out in the Albemarle Book of Modern verse – I came to appreciate their depth. I grasped, possibly for the first time the importance of metaphor, how similes worked and above all the beauty of imagery from language used in unexpected ways.
The ones whose message lay on the surface I enjoyed first, appreciating for that first time the pictures they painted – at 16 as I wouldn’t, nay couldn’t have enjoyed them at 12. Norman Nicholson’s St Luke’s Summer still resonates today as it did in 1973
The low sun leans across the slanting fields,
and every blade of grass is striped with shine
and casts its shadow on the blade behind,
and dandelion clocks are held
like small balloons of light above the ground.
I especially liked this image
The poppy shakes its pepperbox of seed
Or this from Andrew Young’s Hard Frost
In the hard rutted lane
As every footstep breaks a brittle pane
And tinkling trees ice-bound,
Changed into weeping willows, sweep the ground.
Gradually, however, with the guidance of my English master, I began to see – no, that’s not quite right – to feel what the more challenging (to me) poets were doing. And this was when I began to nudge some understanding into my brain as to why my parents revered Dylan Thomas as a poetical god. I grasped, as one might grasp at the residue of a dream, what his language, at once commonplace and obscure, intended. How it could mean many things and lead to long arguments about its aims and goals. I began to see that poetry could bring a lump to the throat as much as laughter, how it could evoke hurt and anger, cynicism and despair.
Do not go Gentle into the good night,
Old age should burn and rave at the close of day;
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.
I felt mortality, a man’s visceral need to demand a dying man not die. I was stunned.
When my own father was diagnosed with prostate cancer in 2004 I was stunned. Of course there would be an end but not then, not so soon. Of all the possible emotions, anger was not what I’d expected – and not anger at some unforgiving spirit, who existence I do not credit – because it was directed against him (in my head, not I hope in any words or body language), against him for not accepting he was ill and doing something – admitting to a weakness – which he could never have done given his upbringing, nature and temperament.
Though wise men at their end know dark is right,
Because their words have forked no lightening they
Do not go gentle into that good night.
Like Thomas’ father Dad left it too late and though he fought, fighting an insidious growth is not like fighting a visible foe. In the end he was powerless, he had no tools. And poetry helped me remember that, see that. It didn’t give solace or comfort but it did contextualise my emotions for me, point out how I wasn’t alone in how I felt. I wasn’t wrong.
He was enriched by poetry and so I have been. And to this day if I write poetry it must be either funny or it must convey emotion, spring from an emotional well. Simple imagery is all very well, but that is for schoolboys.
So, for my on going love of poetry my dad ranks as the birth mother but the midwife was those lessons and words of long ago. Thanks Dad, thank you Mr Doubleday, my awkward and less than perfect English master, and thank you Dylan.
At the start I said I was happy as the grass is green. I live in a fallible and fragile world where a lot happens in ways I abhor or about which I despair. I live in South London, in a leafy suburb but surrounded by much urban decay and deprivation. There are crumbling local housing estates and litter in the streets. We have our share of crime, disorder and gratuitous violence. And then, today as I approached a small corner shop I saw an old lady, wrinkled with experiences too tough for me to imagine, her coat held tight with a mismatched belt, stop to offer a coin to the Big Issue seller – the Big Issue is sold by the homeless to raise money and this seller, I’d guess from Eastern Europe from her dress, complexion and accent was stood outside the entrance asking for support. The old lady fumbled and dropped her purse just as the sort of gangling youth, who the press would class as disaffected, what with his all enveloping hoodie and indifferent swagger, exited the shop.
He was mainlining Skittles or Haribos or something and could have swerved and gone on his way. But he stopped, helped the old lady with her purse and then offered both ladies a go at his sweets. The three were all smiles. Me too. That’s why, when the concrete is drear and the only colour is cast by gaudy neon and sunless sodium, my grass will stay green, whatever age I reach.