Yesterday’s Daffodils prompted me to recall ‘Miracle on St David’s Day’ by Gillian Clarke. It’s not Shared Reading but it the closest thing to an account of what can happen in The Reader’s groups. I read it in our own anthology (which I see now also contains ‘Are They Shadows?‘) A Little Aloud, edited by my long-time friend and colleague, Angie Macmillan. You’ll find it here.
The point at which I first feel strongly moved by the poem is at the opening of the second stanza, ‘I am reading poetry to the insane.’ The word ‘insane’ jars and frightens me. It is a word we don’t use much any more and soon perhaps will make the poem unacceptable. When I look it up, the word is from the latin, insanus, from in- ‘not’ + sanus ‘healthy’. For me, the word is redolent of 19th century asylums (which of course persisted into the 1990s: read about one such, at Rainhill, here). Because of that, the word carries a sort of violence, which I think Gillian Clarke wants us to feel here, so that her own action ‘reading poetry to the insane’ is also called into question. Isn’t doing that that a bit mad?
Sometimes at The Reader, our Reader Leaders read with people who are very seriously ill, mentally or physically. Or perhaps suffering or depleted in other ways – addictions, the trials of recovery, or simply very busy and stressed at work. In all these situations, reading poetry can seem beside the point. At first. But then I look at the people, here in the poem or in a group I am leading:
An old woman, interrupting, offers
as many buckets of coals as I need.
A beautiful chestnut-haired boy listens
entirely absorbed. A schizophrenic
on a good day, they tell me later.
In a cage of first March sun a woman
sits not listening, not seeing, not feeling.
In her neat clothes, the woman is absent.
I am always moved by these people, especially by the woman who has presented herself neatly but made herself ‘absent’. The three repetitions of ‘not’, ‘not listening, not seeing, not feeling’ make her a powerful presence. And all the time the poet’s voice is not voicing the question: are you mad to do this? Then the big mild man enters;
A big mild man is tenderly led
to his chair. He has never spoken.
His labourer’s hands of his knees, he rocks
gently to the rhythyms of the poems.
The poet, in a great act of trust (and perhaps of experience) does what poets and readers do;
I read to their prescences, absences,
to the big, dumb labouring man as he rocks.
It is a marvellous thing to link ‘presences’ to ‘absences’, as if they were different versions of the same thing, two halves of the same coin and could switch about or flip over.
Sometimes people I have been reading with get upset that man is described as ‘dumb’. It is offered as a statement of fact: ‘He has never spoken.’ but clearly the poet chose not use the word ‘mute’, as she might have done. Perhaps she wants a slight sense of his huge presence as a labourer, not clever, not good with words. Dumb as well as mute?
He is suddenly standing, silently,
huge and mild, but I feel afraid.
‘Suddenly’ sets off alarm bells. I imagine this happening in a group I might be running. You check everything , you note that the man is ‘huge’ but that he yet remains ‘mild’ – you would do all this as the speed of the lines suggest, in seconds, and yet having checked, the reader still must report ‘I feel afraid’. The man is coming to life, or something, perhaps he is violent, he is ‘huge’, what is going to happen?
movement of spring water or the first bird
of the year in the breaking darkness,
the labourer’s voice recites The Daffodils’.
The atmosphere cracks with human electricity. A miracle is happening. The rhythms of the poems have awkened something and the man’s muteness, like ice, begins to melt. I love, always love the ‘slow/ movement of spring water’. The melt is so unexpected, the ice so deep. The line ending at ‘slow’ stops me, I feel my voice become more measured, the world slows,while the man speaks. Something has , as the epigraph to the poem tells us, flashed ‘upon that inward eye.’
Wonderful, highly recommended, read it alongside The Daffodils.