Today I’m reading ‘Chickens’ and Robert Herrick, still thinking about what’s good and what’s great …

Chickens and Other Ammals

There’s a little board book called  ‘Chickens’  (Priddy Books 2008) which many of my readers probably don’t know, but for my granddaughter, Agnes,  aged 18 months,  it is undoubtedly a great book. Chickens, to her, form part of the biological genus ‘ammals’, a genus in which she takes great interest, as she has mastered  many of their names and sounds. She’s keen to read, and reread, and reread ‘Chickens’.

For all its diminutive size and  strictly delineated subject matter, ‘Chickens’ seems to me a quality book, since it allows for thinking about different kinds of chickens and makes some wonderfully true distinctions, asking its readers to look hard at the reality it recreates in its pages and to notice some important variations. Some chickens are ‘white’, others are ‘roosters’, and yet others are ‘chicks.’  You can do a lot of  thinking with Priddy’s ‘Chickens’, including a practical introduction to morphology, though Agnes wouldn’t call it that. She’d just call it ‘chickens’. Yet the book is teaching her about morphology – the study of different forms – even though she may never fully understand that big word. ‘White hens’ is one type of thing, ‘Rooster’ is another. This is a book that helps the mind create distinctions and patterns, create ways of understanding the world, meanings. That’s what the human mind can do. That’s partly what we are for, the making of meaning.

But not all eighteen month old children are into ‘ammals’ and so this book might not be a good book for  everyone  (thought I bet most would get interested for a while if you read it to them with enough intensity…). There are probably similar books, called ‘Vehicles’ or ‘Buildings’, aimed at toddlers with different  obsessions. Hope so. These are good books, but by their very nature, somewhat restrictively specialist. Still, they point me to part of the distinction I wish to make. It’s about complexity.

Human experiences are rarely simple, and at the tough end, our most difficult problems are frustratingly knotty and hard to iron out. To understand life – oh, to understand all us human ammals – we need complex language and practice in differentiating one thing (he hates me!) from another (he’s insecure!). We need to be able to make careful distinctions and to match our current experience against prior models of experience we have stored up from real life or from stories. If this – understanding humanity – is the subject matter, then I am looking for a complexity in my reading matter.

I was introducing  the concept Shared Reading to a woman working in an Arts Centre a few years ago, when she said to me, ‘But we want to work with unemployed working class men.  Great literature isn’t going to appeal to them. I was thinking of starting with fishing magazines.’

Now, there’s nothing wrong with Carping Weekly but will every ‘unemployed working  class’ man be interested in it? At that level, the level of the obsession, the hobby, reading subject matter is individual. Some will want Autotrader, others The  Hindu Times and still others Grazia. All fine. All good reads, if you are interested in reading them.

But what I’m looking for, when I look for good  or great or quality literature is something people will be able to connect to, whether their thing is chickens or heroin, motorbikes or the need for love.  Because four people with those personal obsessions  could be sitting round a table together in a Shared Reading group, each as different from the other as white hens are from roosters, and I’m looking for something that is complex enough to speak to everyone.

As white hen and roosters are to chickens, so lives  of heroin or motorbikes or  the need for love are to humans. Imagine Priddy’s little board book of ‘Humans’. That’s Shakespeare, isn’t it?  Or Poetry?

Is that why poetry turns out to be, often, the most loved and useful reading matter in a Reader Leader’s library?

Here’s one, by Robert Herrick,  for such a group,  but oh dear, I am almost out of time. What have I been doing this morning?

The Coming of Good Luck

SO good luck came, and on my roof did light,
Like noiseless snow, or as the dew of night :
Not all at once, but gently, as the trees
Are by the sunbeams tickled by degrees.

Lovely title – I’m immediately thinking, what does good luck feel like in a life, and how long was the bad luck run going on?  Love the way the poem starts with ‘so’, as if we had been the middle of something. There was a long time before that word ‘so’ came, but now that good luck has come, we turn from it. We just feel the luck, like light. We bask in it.

It seems more than personal, this good luck time, because it lights on his roof, as if it touches the whole household. Light here must mean ‘alight’ – descend. It came down, it settled on his roof.

Late, must go…








A few more daffodils & the ‘d’ word

C6UBW9zWgAA6Mv8.jpgphoto from @liverpoolparks

Robert Herrick ‘To Daffodils’

I love Robert Herrick.  I love ‘To Anthea, who may command him anything’ and I love ‘So Good Luck Came’, ‘To The virgins to Make Much of Time’, ‘Corinna’s Gone a-Maying’ – we’ll come to that in May – and many, many others. What do I love? Herrick’s brilliantly balanced between loving this world and knowing how short a date it has.

But his poem ‘To Daffodils’ I have passed by many times, not really noticing it, not reading it, because I’d glance-read it and assumed I’d got it. After all, it is very short. But today, I’m stopping to read.

Fair Daffodils, we weep to see
You haste away so soon;
As yet the early-rising sun
Has not attain’d his noon.
Stay, stay,
Until the hasting day
Has run
But to the even-song;
And, having pray’d together, we
Will go with you along.
We have short time to stay, as you,
We have as short a spring;
As quick a growth to meet decay,
As you, or anything.
We die
As your hours do, and dry
Like to the summer’s rain;
Or as the pearls of morning’s dew,
Ne’er to be found again.


On Saturday my friend Angie (A Little Aloud Angie, yes) told me the daffodils planted along the roadside and in tubs in Hoylake (the next little town along from us) were spectacular and  that it was worth going to Hoylake just to see them. That evening we were going to the pictures (don’t ask) and I drove  a roundabout route, via Hoylake, to see them. They were magnificent, fluttering, dancing, yes like stars, and seemingly never-ending. Well done, Hoylake!

We were nearly late for the film but I wanted to take Angie’s advice because I knew I next time I tried to look they’d be gone. Like almost everything the nature, they do come and go very quickly. This is a thing you know more intensely as you get older because time speeds up as years pass. Does anyone remember that moving interview between Melvin Bragg and the dying Denis Potter, in which Mr Potter speaks of the joy of still being alive and being able to see this year’s blossom, ‘the blossomest blossom ever’?

Well that’s what Robert Herrick is talking about. ‘We weep to see/you haste away so soon’ because we see our own hastening mirrored in yours. ‘Time’s ah running out’, as Captain Beefheart says.  Interesting that Herrick repeats the verb ‘haste’ in the day’s ‘hasting’ – as if everything now were moving at a tremendous time speed.

Let’s get to the end, he’s saying, then we’ll go. ‘We’ll go with you along.’ There’s an implication of being made to go along? of being unwilling?  Let’s get to the end of the day, then we’ll go. But what is the end of the day for a human? ‘Stay, stay,’ the poet cries, trying to  slow time down. In the first stanza, I know Herrick is really talking about himself (and me) but he covers it with daffodils as if it might only be about the passing of a flower’s quick life.

But the second stanza takes away any pretence.

We have short time to stay, as you,
We have as short a spring;
As quick a growth to meet decay,
As you, or anything.
We, daffodils, all, any material thing has short time, short spring, has growth heading to decay.  ‘We die’, says Herrick  boldly, baldly, giving the thought the whole short line. what I was surprised by was not that, but ‘Ne’er to be found again.’ No  rising on the last day, no  after life. Or if there is, not relevant here.  Though, now I look back, he mentions ‘praying together’ in the first stanza. Still, it’s this life he’s mourning here.
This morning as I was reading, I thought, I want to get ready to die (no, I’m not dying, any more than I have been, as far as I know. All’s well.). I just have a sense that I want to get ready to do it. I want to make it part of my life. Don’t want to be taken by surprise, unable to do it well. Then I saw the poem.
A poem like this is a tiny practice for dying. And thus also for living.
And a timely reminder: go and see the daffodils. Go now. Do not waste any more time, love it all, enjoy it all: daffodils, Anthea, Herrick,  Hoylake, Dear Friends. Oh, happy day, we’re still here and so are the daffodils.