THINGS THAT MATTER - Passion and peace in poetry
Serendipity: The luck some people have in finding or creating interesting or valuable things by chance. Coined in 1754 by Horace Walpole, from the Persian fairy tale
The Three Princes of Serendip, in which the heroes possess this gift.
– (Collins English Dictionary)
The chance re-discovery by my brother John (risk management guru living in Toronto) of a poem I wrote at 15 and published in the Lodge School Record, was a splendid example of serendipity. And there’s a wonderful link with a similar serendipitous event a few years ago, which led me back to a brilliant classmate poet at Lodge School – long departed, tragically too soon. And that in turn has led me back to reading some of my favourite poetry.
Re-uniting with the poetry of Michael Foster was a second revelation of the depths of my friend. In column number 147 of Common Sense and Evidence in the other paper I wrote:
“Every so often a chance encounter leads to an unexpected pleasure. A few weeks ago I met someone I hadn’t seen in decades, and we spoke of a mutual friend – Walter Michael Foster, known to all as “Spriggetts”. Our chat led me to his mother, who lent me his collection of poems “Things”, my copy of which had vanished long ago.
Spriggetts and I went through school together, from age nine in Prep A, I remember captaining a weak junior house team and he and I bowled non-stop at either end throughout the opponents’ innings, incapable of stopping the flow of runs! But somewhere in middle school Spriggetts became one of the quiet rebels … and we drifted apart until one day in the library in 1959, both age 15, when he showed me a poem – it was “On an Hour Glass” and I thought it was brilliant. I still think so, and after that we used the library to argue about books, biology and evolution, religion and life. His poetry was a continuing, intensifying revelation of his searching and his causes. When he died at 20, on January the eighth, 1965, a few days after a tragic Christmas Eve car crash, he left a modest but rich and mature collection of poems. A selection of these was made by Frank Collymore and published in a limited edition under the title “Things”, in 1965. Several had already been published in Bim. (Colly had the gift of recognising genius, as he did with Derek Walcott and Kamau Brathwaite.)”
Home schooling by our mother until the age of eight created an early love for poetry – sentimental, tear-jerking poetry like “We are seven” by Wordsworth, and humorous but gruesome poems like Henry King by Hilaire Belloc:
The chief defect of Henry King
Was chewing little bits of string.
At last he swallowed some which tied
Itself in ugly Knots inside.
Physicians of the Utmost Fame
Were called at once; but when they came
They answered, as they took their Fees,
“There is no cure for this Disease.
Henry will very soon be dead.”
(You can check the web to see how poor Henry met his end, and the moral of the story.)
In junior school, learning poetry by heart was traditional, but soon forgotten. And then I was introduced to Bim Magazine and my eyes were opened to both the comic verse and the serious, iconic poems of Frank Collymore, to H.A. Vaughan’s brilliant “Revelation” and to some of the early work of Derek Walcott and Kamau Brathwaite. I was especially moved by Walcott’s early sonnet “A city’s death by fire”, on the disastrous fire of Castries in 1948, that could destroy faith, which was in turn renewed by the beauty of the mountains and nature. It concludes:
By the smoking sea, where Christ walked, I asked, why
Should a man wax tears, when his wooden world fails?
In town, leaves were paper, but the hills were a flock of faiths;
To a boy who walked all day, each leaf was a green breath
Rebuilding a love I thought was dead as nails,
Blessing the death and the baptism of fire.
The passion and sense of peace invoked by great poetry seemed almost surreal, and beyond my conception of local skills, in much the same way that the great writers were all from over and away. And so it was a revelation to discover in a chat in the Lodge School library what seemed to me equally brilliant, in an exercise book of my school friend Spriggets. Here is his (to me) revelationary poem “On an Hour Glass”:
ON AN HOUR GLASS
The seeping sands sift slowly, as time
Itself marks the tortured way of ages.
When are not grim recordings of crime,
Treachery and of wretched strife
Seen on History’s bleeding pages?
When will there be lived a life
Of total peace by men?
Before then, I
Should I be troubled?
For all life forever will range
Through Eternal Evil. Hence I bear
Its burdens quietly: can I change
What the Fates willed in Time’s sand?
Let then my silent musing not despair
Of evil - but see better things in man.
The awesomely mature perspective this poem revealed “blew me away”. But I thought Spriggets was worryingly pessimistic in his view of life, and I set out to produce a more positive view. This is the poem I wrote, luckily rediscovered last week:
Does man within himself of life enquire
And ask for what, to whom or whence he should aspire?
In sober thought and tranquil peace of mind
Does he reflect? What does he hope by this to find?
Are questions asked of ages long ago?
Do probing thoughts reveal the mysteries old which no
Philosopher or sage has ever solved?
Is man on answers bent? Or has he long resolved
That he should not restrain himself to think
Of things above, beyond this life and find the link
Twixt God and man? The answer lies in this:
Man lives in haste and will eternal comfort miss;
For if he stopped and calmed his weary mind,
And meditated briefly, then he’d surely find
That life’s too short to waste in thoughtless haste
When God’s delights are here in ample time to taste.
What surprised me in my return to favourite poems in these past few days is the passion in my favourite poets – in Walcott, Brathwaite, Eddie Baugh and others, but I’m thrilled on re-reading my own poem, Michael Foster’s Hour Glass, and the great Derek Walcott’s “A city’s death by fire” and to see the similarity in the poet’s search for love and faith and peace … and to share with Walcott the inspiration of nature – his “hills were a flock of faiths”. What a beautiful world, so much marred by man!
Bouquet: To Senator John Watson, for pointing out in the Senate on Tuesday the pointlessness of the Senate in its intended role of providing the checks and balances of a bi-cameral legislature, the core principle of Western democracies. Our constitution provides for 12 government senators and a token two opposition. This defeats the principle of checks and balances that operates elsewhere, e.g. Britain and the USA, and while not assuming the omniscience of legislative drafting claimed by some in government, it guarantees its omnipotence.
Professor Fraser is Past Dean of Medical Sciences, UWI and Professor Emeritus of Medicine and Clinical Pharmacology. Website: profhenryfraser.com