No ideas but in things (William Carlos Williams) .
A cigarette that bears a lipstick’s traces,
An airline ticket to romantic places…
‘These Foolish Things’ (Holt Marvell & Jack Stracey)
Thinking of Things
Not that I’ve spent 4 weeks of my 3 months in Charles Causley’s Cyprus Well house simply meditating on possessions; or thinking ‘bout things as Bobby Darin put it in 1962 – and if I’m quoting song titles, old ‘popular’ hits, more than my normal lit.crit. average, the clue is in the residency title ‘musician/poet’.
Meditating on ‘things’ has long been, though, one of my poetic sources, even though as a Celt, as Charles self-identified (and not all Devonians and Cornwallians do, I know, I’m in borderline territory here, a mile or so of single-track road away from the Tamar), I know we Celts didn’t have the language for possession, didn’t even have the verb ‘to have’, until we collectively switched to English.
‘Possession’ in the other sense, yes: not possessed by things, as well over half the world increasingly is clearly possessed, or at least increasingly votes for materialism, ownership, consumerism, bread and circuses, over a vanishing post-war caring and sharing consensus, but (and here ends the moralising), simply recognising that ‘things’ themselves (Causley called himself a Talismanic Celt) have a magic, have charms, have their own history.
I’d visited the house before, and knew many of the objects, anyway (from Laurence Green’s Causley biography, All Cornwall Thunders at my Door): the unexceptional ornaments, pictures, souvenirs that accumulated over Charles’ life and his mother’s. And I don’t need to try to work out which reflected her taste and which his, which each of them ‘owned’. They were merely, in Celtic terms, the things that were here, that were around, ‘about the place’. Some, of course, are enshrined in a Causley Collection which positions his life, simply and engagingly, at the local Lawrence House Museum. Many are simply where they’ve always been so one might, mistakenly, lift a pair of Charles’ rimless specs and suddenly see the town, or the Kensey valley, or even read some of his favourite mid-20c poets, with the eyes of an older poet.
And true, I’ve cringed ever so slightly at the mundanity of other writers’-museum displays that include A’s old bus ticket, B’s collar stud, even ‘a quill used by C’ when C must have been used to, given his literary output, sharpening and discarding X quills per day: like displaying an empty biro refill from a ‘60s writers’ wastebasket.
Despite knowing the cringe elsewhere, though, the experience here is one of total absorption. Were those paperclips in the glass dish when Charles sent out his later poems or radio scripts? The typewriter, the piano, the occasional tables, fringed lampshades, they were all here, all give a perfect sense of the poet having merely stepped out of the room, of his being likely to be at the desk, scribble, scribble, scribble, when I come down on the next light-flooded morning.
But the things that mean most to my ‘new musical settings’ project are, inevitably, the sheet music and the LPs.
Yes, for once I can mention ‘LPs’ without suddenly having to think, should I say ‘albums’, should I say ‘CDs’? The actor Kenneth Cranham came up to me at the book-table after a reading, fascinated by my mentioning ‘EPs’ – and yes, that one probably does need explaining, like a single, but twice the price and with two tracks on each side, and a glossy cover – which, in Cranham’s theory, was the signal for a mega- 1950s culture-shift: but I won’t go on, it’s his theory. And I’ll probably use it in another article sometime, duly acknowledged. But even if it’s the ‘thing’ in the poem (rather than its emotional raison d’être) that creates empathy, shared experience, that’s a thing too, isn’t it?
The sheet music stack confirms much I’ve been convinced of since I first set a Charles Causley poem – when still at school – to an old blues tune that had been, in its day, an even older Scottish and Irish ballad. And was further convinced when I read years back in a Dana Gioia essay that Charles played piano in a local dance-band: which set me thinking about a folder of dance-band ‘arrangements’ among my late father’s papers (a few years younger than Charles, and a ‘Charles’ himself, he went by the Celtic ‘Cahal’ he passed on to me…) They weren’t my father’s arrangements though, but dance-band parts written by his older brother Patrick, born in Causley’s year of ’17, and famous locally as a trumpet-player (and fiddle-player for traditional sessions, like his father and grandfather, like Thomas Hardy’s father and Hardy himself). The fact is, in small town life, between seaside hotel ballrooms and the ceilidh or gathering round a pub’s log-fire, there was neither the luxury nor the desire to be a purist traditional player or a purist jazzer. There were never enough of us to be purists, which might explain my own ‘on the one hand… on the other hand…’ approach to music, and to Charles Causley’s traditional/contemporary influences.
But thinking of Uncle Patrick’s wide, rich trumpet-playing, I’m fast discovering (lots of conversations going on with musicians and music-teachers) how much ‘brass’ is part of ‘folk’ in Cornwall, taking me back to my Durham years when the annual ‘big meeting’ combined brass bands playing Mozart and Ennio Morricone with, at ‘The Field’, accordions and fiddles playing Geordie Hinny and Highland strathspeys: but then much about Launceston, the castle, the steep hills, and the town-square at eight on a bright morning, takes me back to Durham’s timeless palatinate.
I already knew, from Charles’ Modern Folk Ballads book, and from correspondence I’d found at Exeter University’s archives, Charles’ connections with Celtic music, with Hamish Henderson and a Scottish folk revival that’s part of my own history, and with Dominic Behan, whom I first heard at a fair in Ballycastle when I was a primary-school kid, though Behan’s album of rebel songs, in a house full of Admiral Nelson memorabilia and service medals, is a measure of how poetry and music cross national and emotional boundaries: as with Arnold Bax, Master of the King’s Music, and his In Memoriam for Padraig Pearse after the 1916 executions (!), or the press-ganged Irish harper Owen Roe O’Sullivan’s 17c paean of praise to a British Admiral, Rodney’s Glory (which becomes an ‘English’ folk-song and crops up like many Scottish and Irish tunes, in Thomas Hardy’s novels and sheet-music copy-books).
But the proof, if I needed proof, of Charles’ absorption in contemporary culture, popular ‘hits’, and dance-band days, is the presence of so many jazz pianists in the record stack, Oscar Peterson, Billy Mayerl, Art Tatum. And George Gershwin, of course. I got to play on Una Jeffers’ Steinway (that’s Una, Ulster-Scots wife of US poet Robinson Jeffers) at Tor House in Carmel this time last year, a Steinway which had, in its day, in Una’s day, been played by Gershwin, Stokowski, Charles Chaplin, and photographer Ansel Adams (another long story…) Stokowski was a pupil of Charles Villiers Stanford as were a number of the English composers represented in Charles’ record collections (Bax, Holst, Shaw, Vaughan Williams, Bridge, Gurney, Coleridge Taylor), whose connections with those same traditional and ballad sources that influence Charles’ poetry I’ll be talking about and illustrating musically in relation to the Dante String Quartet’s Stanford performances in their Tamar Valley (classical) Festival in July. But back to the jazzmen…
The key find is the now-long-forgotten Charlie Kunz whose schtick was easy-going, jaunty, bright piano medleys of popular hits of the 30s/40s/50s. And suddenly I’m listening again, and catching a rhythm, a bunch of rhythms that Charles Causley would have whistled on his way in to teach in the local National School on bright spring mornings like this: danceable rhythms that underline, that point up, the wartime and postwar sense in so many of his poems, of light-hearted, spring-in-the-step innocence tainted, sadly, with grim experience. There’s a way to go on this…
The new settings I’ve tried out so far with music students who will be part of the Causley Trust’s ‘Causley-100’ celebrations here in August have been those emphasizing Charles’ (and Cornwall and Devon’s) Celtic-ness, all modal, 16th/17th century, and largely adapting existing Gaelic airs and Baroque Irish and Cornish compositions.
Those I’m writing, composing, three weeks in, re-envisaging Causley in the middle/second-half of the 20th century, catching the alternately optimistic/profoundly-social-realist mood of a society in change, have suddenly, unexpectedly found their meter, their lightness of touch…
But back to These Foolish Things (in Charles’ sheet-music stack, with the tinkling piano in the next apartment sounding like it’s being played by the leisurely Charlie Kunz in a 1930’s loping stride, conjuring up a world that Charles Causley, working for a local building company by day and playing in a dance-band at nights (as were my father and uncles, the local builders and local dance-band in our provincial town), can only have dreamt, a world of airline tickets and ocean liners, and the waiters whistling as the last bar closes…
I’ve always been puzzled at how that leisurely line found its way into the Tom Paulin poem that begins A zippo lighter and a quilted jacket… Perhaps his parents whistled These Foolish Things, had a copy in their piano stool, or in their record collection; perhaps it’s not just the music that we choose, that we make our own in each upcoming generation, from big-band, to rock’n’roll, to pop, punk, dub, rap, indie, whatever, that finds its way into our poems, but the music that fills the air around us, from distant and recent pasts.
The Mist Lifts
Does all of this matter to the poetry, to how we see Charles Causley? Yes, inasmuch as I think some people insist on seeing his work through a glass darkly, through a kind of English ruralist ballady mist/myth. Or through the fog of war. Or the mists of history. Or the myth that, as Auden said, once, for so long, contented our will…
And music can either deepen the Brigadoon-style mystique – or help us see Charles’ world and his lifetime and his art – and our own lives and times – more clearly. And working with that music in the context of Charles’ poetry will, I believe, release new readings in the poetry and expand interest in Causley and in contemporary poetry among young people.
So… with all that wading through record collections and sheet music, have I been out of Cyprus Well at all? Well, yes, to schools, to meetings formal and informal, to play with local musicians, to rediscover small-town life, Ballycastle or Durham, say, and, yes, every sunny morning, to follow the narrow road to the north, the single-track road to the Devon border, that I believe Charles walked when he wrote ‘Spring has set off her green fuses/ Down by the Tamar today…’ (note that setting off of ‘fuses’, that experience of wartime surely?) And always sunny? Mostly, if you’re up early enough, sunshine that’s often gone by midday. Though dense impenetrable fog one morning. And a farmer at his galvanised gate persuading me the ‘mist’ is a sign of good weather, just as my father insisted on every misted-over morning of our long-awaited summer holidays, that the mist will lift soon…
Cahal Dallat will remain in residence at Cyprus Well until July with the kind sponsorship of Literature Works, and will play a key role in the centenary celebrations marking this year.