My childhood was awash with words. My parents had followed an academic path, both graduating as doctors. Words seeped into me as I heard my parents speak, and as my father read to us from William Blake and other writers he admired. That is one of my earliest memories, and I have no idea what the story was about. But I do remember the lines of, perhaps the first poem I heard. It was The Arrow and the Song by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow.
‘I shot an arrow into the air, it fell to earth I knew not where;
For so swiftly it flew, the sight could not follow it in its flight.
I breathed a song into the air, it fell to earth, I knew not where;
For who has sight so keen and strong,
That it can follow the flight of song?
Long, long afterward, in an oak, I found the arrow, still unbroke;
And the song, from beginning to end, I found again in the heart of a friend.’
My parents liked to listen to My Word, a BBC radio program with two teams of very clever and witty contestants among whom were Frank Muir and Dennis Norden, Dilys Powell and Nancy Spain.
My father loved poetry and had also read the classics and could quote famous bits from Shakespeare, The Illiad, and a favourite of his and now mine, the Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam. One of them I can still recall.
‘Awake, for morning in the bowl of night, has flung the stone that set the stars to flight. And lo! the hunter in the East, has caught the Sultan’s turret in a noose of light’.
Later as we began to grow up Dad bought a copy of the only recording of Dylan Thomas’ famous play for voices, Under Milk Wood, with Dylan Thomas reading some of the parts. It was recorded by accident when a patron brought an early tape recorder into the theatre and put it under his seat! It is valuable because it was recorded only weeks before Thomas’ untimely death in America. We listened to it often, and my sisters and I can quote some special pieces. I have several other recordings of it, one with Richard Burton and a more recent version with Anthony Hopkins. They are all wonderful, but nothing surpasses the musical voice of Dylan Thomas.
Under Milk Wood is the story of twenty four hours in the lives of the people in a mythical Welsh fishing village. It is reckoned to be one of the greatest works of lyric prose in the English language. Thomas, like others touched by the creative urge was a complex character, who had his battles with alcohol and died far too young. There are many parts I love, here are a few.
‘To begin at the beginning. It is Spring, moonless night in the small town, starless and bible-black, the cobble streets silent and the hunched courters’ and rabbits’ wood limping invisible down to the sloeblack, slow, black, crow black, fishingboatbobbing sea. The houses are blind as moles though moles see fine tonight in the snouting velvet dingle, or blind as Captain Cat there in the muffled middle, by the pump and the town clock, the shops in mourning, the welfare hall in widows weeds. And all the people of the lulled and dumbfound town are sleeping, now’.
‘Time passes, listen, time passes, only you can see the black and folded town, fast and slow, asleep’…..
….’only you can see the houses sleeping in the streets in the slow, deep, salt and silent, black, bandaged night.’
‘ the sunny, slow, lulling afternoon yawns and moons through the dozy town, the sea lolls laps and idles in with fishes sleeping in its lap. The goat and daisy dingles nap, happy and lazy. The dumb duck ponds, snooze. Pigs snout and snuffle in the mud basking sun. Their tails curl. They dream of the acorn swill of the world, of the rooting for pig fruit, of the smiles and yesses of the women pigs in rut. They rollick and slobber and snore to deep, smug, after-swill sleep.
‘look up Bessie bighead in the White book of Llarregub and you will see the few scattered rags of her history recorded there with as much care as the lock of hair of a first lost love. Conceived in Milk Wood, born in a barn, wrapped in paper, left on a doorstep, big headed and base voiced, she grew in the dark until long dead Gomer Owen kissed her once by the pig sty because he was dared. Now in the light she’ll work, milk, sing, say the cows sweet names and sleep, until the night sucks out her soul and spits it into the sky. In her life-long love light, holily Bessie milks the fond, lake-eyed cows as dusk showers slowly down over sea, byre and town’.
Thomas’ poetry is also memorable, The Force that Through the Green Fuse Drives the Flower, Do Not Go Gentle into That Good Night and Fern Hill are wonderful and have a deep connection with the Earth.
About ten years ago I bought a four cassette set called Burton at the BBC. On it was a piece called ‘In Parenthesis‘ a ‘shape in words’ describing the author David Jones’ experiences as an infantryman in the trenches in France at the battle of the Somme in WWI. The author, David Jones, gave a wonderful introduction. Acclaimed by some as the greatest piece of writing in the English canon. Burton and Dylan Thomas both had parts in it.
Then I learnt eight monologues by J Marriot Edgar and performed by Stanley Holloway, from a record a grateful patient had given my father. Over the years I have recited these pieces hundreds of times. These pieces follow the misadventures of Albert Ramsbottom and Private Sam Small.
I became interested in the poetry of Banjo Paterson, Henry Lawson and C.J.Dennis, and other Australian poets. For me, CJ Dennis had a wonderful ability to evoke the emotion of the Australian soldiers’ experiences in the first World War in ‘The Moods of Ginger Mick.’ He used the vernacular of the working class soldier and showed the feeling of Australianness that was universal and transcended class.
When I was about twelve I learnt The Man from Ironbark and at our annual scout camp the scoutmaster sprang it on me to perform it round the campfire. It went well and in many ways quelled my natural anxiety of performing in public.
In my last year at school we did Coleridge’s wonderful poem, The Rime of the Ancient Mariner. I used to read it once a day and a lot of it is still in my memory. There are some inspiring passages worthy of sharing.
‘The fair breeze blew, the white foam flew, the furrow followed free, we were the first that ever burst into that silent sea. Down dropped the breeze, the sails dropped down twas sad as sad could be, and we did speak only to break the silence of the sea.
All in a hot and copper sky, the bloody sun at noon, right up above the mast did stand no bigger than the moon.
Day after day, day after day we stuck nor breath, nor motion, As idle as a painted ship upon a painted ocean.
Water, water, everywhere, and all the boards did shrink; water, water, everywhere, nor any drop to drink’.
Later when I was a jackaroo at Coonong Station at Urana I often carried a copy of Paterson’s poems in my saddle bag and learnt The Man from Snowy River, Bush Christening, Mulga Bill’s Bicycle, and others.
And this process of being interested in poetry has gone on right through my life. At school most people seemed to hate poetry; I loved it because of the density of meaning in so few words.
Later we made friends with some people who had come to Australia from Argentina. Norman and Diana lent me The Gaucho Martin Fierro, a large volume of the story of the legendary Gaucho Martin Fierro, all in verse. It was amazing.
I have a volume of all the lyrics Bob Dylan has written.
One I love is Song to Woody……
‘Hey hey Woody Guthrie, I wrote you a song, ’bout a funny old world that’s a comin along, seems sick and its hungry, its tired and its torn, it looks like its dying, but its hardly been born.
Hey hey Woody Guthrie I know that you know, all the things I’ve been saying and many times more, I’m singing you this song but I can’t sing enough, cause there’s not many men can do the things that you’ve done……
Here’s to Cisco and Sonny and Leadbelly too. And all the good people who travelled with you. Here’s to the hearts and the hands of the men, who come with the dust and are gone with the wind.
I have a copy of Howl, the radical poem by Alan Ginsberg, one of the Beat poets of the sixties. A few years ago I bought Walt Whitman’s amazing book of poems, Leaves of Grass, such modern language in such an old book.
Some books that got me going with reading and the somewhat romantic history of Australia were the works of Ion L. Idriess. Over the Range, Outlaws of the Leopolds, Nemarluk, King of the Wild, The Red Chief, Lasseters Last Ride, Flynn of the Inland, The Cattle King, The Tin Scratchers, My Mate Dick, Horrie the Wog Dog, The Drums of Mer, Gold Dust and Ashes and others I cannot remember.
Birds have been a fascination for me and this certainly came from my parents. Neville Cayley’s What Bird is That? was always out ready to identify any new birds as the seasons turned. Later there were the Peter Slater series of Passerines and Non Passerines, followed by Jack Cupper and Lindsay Cupper’s spectacular, Hawks in Focus and The Readers Digest Complete Book of Australian Birds.
I started reading about conservation and land ethics in the nineteen eighties, and my quest to try and get an understanding of how the earth functions has led me to probably hundreds of incredible books.
The words that express the ideas of the authors are fundamental to gaining more insights in this quest for understanding. I have already referred to the writing of Aldo Leopold in previous blogs. His use of language in his classic work, A Sand County Almanac, and his deep thoughts on the human/land relationship, affected me deeply and continues to do so. Charles Darwin’s On the Origin of Species, was a seminal work and literally earth shattering in its impacts. Rachel Carson’s paradigm shifting books, The Sea Around Us, The Edge of the Sea, Under the Sea Wind, and Silent Spring, broke new ground and led to the conservation movement. The Odum brothers gave some great insights into how ecosystems work, from an energy use viewpoint. James Lovelock, Allan Savory, Mary E White, Jeremy Rifkin, Daniella Meadows, Hunter and Amory Lovins, Paul Hawkins, Ilya Prigogine and Fritjof Capra, and so many more have all been important in adding to what I think I know about how our home functions.
The words, poems and ideas in all these works give us a relationship with the writers. The relationships we form with others and the ideas we pursue after conversations and reading are in some ways like the relationships and connections between all living things. We are all connected; the earth and all of life are one indivisible whole.
In this is the genesis of our hope for a vibrant, diverse future.