Poetry: so much more than just words on a page

I love poetry.

I loved poetry since before I loved Shakespeare

I have loved poetry since before I can remember.

It is highly likely my first poem was actually a nursery rhyme.

Maybe “Hickory Dickory Dock” or “Ring a’ring of Roses”.

By the time I reached primary school I was already reading poetry from books on the sheleves at home. Books with beautiful leather covers and gilded edges to the pages and names stamped in gold on the spines: Walter de la Mare, John Masefield, Longfellow, Worsdworth, Keats and Browning.

The only problem was that at school in those days nearly everything was learned by rote. Time after time we repeated our times tables so that we knew them off by heart. The same applied to important history dates and, of course, poetry.

The idea was that we would be able to recite a poem from memory, like a party trick. The problem was all we were taught were the words, not the real meaning behind them and why they were put together in the way that they were.

"Is there anybody there," said the Traveller,
Knocking on the moonlit door; 
And his horse in the silence champed the grasses
Of the forest's ferny floor:
And a bird flew up out of the turret,
Above the Traveller's head:
And he smote on the door again a second time:
"Is there anybody there?" he said.

Those among us of a certain age, and those who study English poetry, know these as the opening lines of The Listeners, by Walter de la Mare.

I remember more than 60 years ago reciting the whole poem in synchronisation with my fellows.

We knew the poem but poems don’t stop at the end.

Poems ask questions and seek answers.

Who was that Traveller?

What building could be entered if that moonlit door was unlocked?

But no one descended to the Traveller;
No head from the leaf-fringed sill
Leaned over and looked into his grey eyes,
Where he stood perplexed and still.
But only a host of phantom listeners
That dwelt in the lone house then
Stood listening in the quiet of the moonlight
To that voice from the world of men:
Stood thronging the faint moonbeams on the dark stair,
That goes down to the empty hall,
Hearkening in an air stirred and shaken
By the lonely Traveller's call.

We learn a little bit more about the Traveller, his eyes are grey, but is he an old man returning from years abroad, or a young man gone off on a quest having promised to return to his love.

Or had he gone to make his fortune to save the family home, only to return too late as the family and servants are now dead and only their phantoms remain.

And he felt in his heart their strangeness,
Their stillness answering his cry,
While his horse moved, cropping the dark turf,
'Neath the starred and leafy sky;
For he suddenly smote on the door, even
Louder, and lifted his head:--
"Tell them I came, and no one answered,
That I kept my word," he said.

Who did he expect to find? A lover? a father – a mother? Certainly someone to whom he had given his word and had kept faith.

Was the house empty because all were dead or had his love been given to another?

Never the least stir made the listeners,
Though every word he spake
Fell echoing through the shadowiness of the still house
From the one man left awake:
Ay, they heard his foot upon the stirrup,
And the sound of iron on stone,
And how the silence surged softly backward,
When the plunging hoofs were gone.

I realised that the only way I would ever find out about the Traveller and the phantom listeners was to learn more about poetry.

Certainly in my brief sojourn at the grammar school I learned more about literature, including Shakespeare and poetry, than I had learning to repeat the lines by rote.

As well as the books in the household as I grew up I also added my own choices and one of the first poetry books I bought was The Mersey Poets, Penguin collection of works by Roger McGough, Brian Patten and Adrian Henri.

Oddly enough a few years later I met them when I reviewed their evening of poetry at the Basildon Arts Centre.

That was a night to remember.

In fact it was one of many nights to remember because the Arts Centre did not only provide a stage for local amateur groups but also for musicians, poets and actors of renown.

Published by Robin

I'm a retired journalist who still has stories to tell. This seems to be a good place to tell them.

2 thoughts on “Poetry: so much more than just words on a page

    1. I’m still searching after all these years. I rejected the idea of him being a lover come to claim his bride after taking part in a “quest”. He gives up too easily and is impatient to be gone.
      The same applies to a son returning with a fortune to repair the family home – impatient to be gone.
      I now tend towards the world of phantoms and spirits or lost souls, which is something Walter de la Mare was interested in.
      The Traveller left to try and discover the mysteries of life and had promised to return at a certain time to reveal his findings.
      Maybe he is like the Flying Dutchman – doomed to wander the world eternally in search of answers.
      In a way we are all searching for a meaning to many things in life.
      Returning to a poem can often bring new ideas and new answers.


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