When Charles Causley’s Collected Poems was published in 1975, reviewers in American magazines generally praised his work but somehow managed to relegate him to the limbo of minor poets. By focusing on his mastery of the ballad, they may have given the impression of a Johnny One-Note who, in his idiosyncratic disregard for the main currents of modernism, was engaged in an attempt to write as if Pound and Eliot had not existed. Here, in the opening stanzas of a poem in a characteristic mode, Causley chronicles the fortunes of errant youth:
My friend Maloney, eighteen,
Swears like a sentry.
Got into trouble two years back
With the local gentry.
Parson and squire’s sons
Informed a copper.
The magistrate took one look at Maloney.
Fixed him proper.
This is squarely in the honorable line of descent that begins with the anonymous folk ballads of the late Middle Ages and counts among its later scions Davidson and Hardy. But what is one to make of verse like this, with its comic rhymes and erratic meters, when it issues from a poet of the present day? The tradition of English modernism, while catholic enough to include both the intellectualism and discursiveness of Eliot and Auden and the musical and rhetorical flourishes of Thomas and Barker, establishes few precedents for this sort of faux-naif plainsong. The equivalent American approach would be to frame the observations in the abrupt cadences and unadorned idiom of William Carlos Williams, as if to say that authenticity in dealing with the Common Man is arrived at only by avoiding the poetic forms he has chosen for himself Our own American balladeers, caught between the rock of the literary magazines, which are not likely to give space to anything as reactionary-sounding as a ballad, and the hard place of no alternatives for publication in the popular press, have forsaken the slopes of Parnassus for the lounges of Nashville. Perhaps Causley is fortunate to receive a hearing at all.
Secret Destinations: Selected Poems 1977-1988 provides a generous sample of recent work from a poet, now in his 70’s and writing beautifully, who clearly deserves our respect. At this late stage in his career, Causley is not likely to become American poetry’s current pet Brit (the job has been vacant since the death of Larkin), but readers here should respond well to his best poems and forgive his infrequent lapses. He is a craftsman who employs a variety of formal strategies, from rhymed pentameters to free verse, in an attempt to match form with content; few American poets demonstrate such versatility. Generally, his poems contain strong narrative elements and avoid the subjective personalism that is the bane of too much contemporary poetry. It is possible that his idiom will slow the American reader (“Today / I see the naked-footed children trawl / The dam for yabbies. . . . “), but for the most part the surfaces of his poems are simple and unobstructed.
Causley has been called “England’s Robert Frost,” but trying to imagine an English Frost is about as impossible as summoning up an American Larkin. What he lacks, the element that ultimately raises Larkin to greatness, is a unifying vision: the terrors of existential aloneness that make Larkin’s poems on bachelorhood (a subject largely unexplored in American poetry) so memorable. A poet who takes his religion seriously, Causley often explores Christian subjects and themes, but, to cite another wellknown countryman, his work in this vain lacks the tension of poet-clergyman R.S. Thomas’s poetry. Outside of his ballads, which are not much in evidence in the current collection, he lacks a single distinctive quality—of tone, of idiom, or of sound—that might set his poems apart from those of any number of skilled poets. The quality of the work is high, to be sure, but there is no “Mr. Bleaney” or “Church-Going” here crying out to be read again and again.
Causley was born in 1917, and his many poems about his youth and extended family rank among his finest. The England of his childhood was filled with the human wreckage of the Great War. “Dick Lander,” a veteran who, according to one of the poet’s playmates, is “shell-shopped,” daily stands on a corner “playing a game of trains with match-boxes.” The poem concludes with a childish prank:
At firework time we throw a few at Dick.
Shout, ‘Here comes Kaiser Bill!’ Dick stares us through
As if we’re glass. We yell, ‘What did you do
In the Great War?’ And skid into the dark. ‘Choo, choo,’ says Dick.
‘Choo, choo, choo, choo, choo, choo.’
One relative recalled is “Uncle Stan,” who died in a military training camp in British Columbia. “He might have been a farmer; swallowed mud / At Vimy, Gambrai,” muses the poet, “But a Canadian winter got him first.” Most BOOKS painful are memories of the poet’s father, an invalid who died when his son was seven: “Once again my dead / Father stood there: army boots bright as glass, / Offering me a hand as colourless / As phosgene.” In poems like these one hears second-generation echoes of Sassoon and Graves.
Since his retirement from teaching, Causley has traveled extensively. Several poems draw on Australian locales, “A detritus / Of boomerangs and bells and whips and saddles.” The focus of his descriptions, however, is more often than not on people instead of landscape. “Grandmother” describes a Czech-German survivor of wartime dislocations who “guillotines salami with a hand / Veined like Silesia.” “Bamboo Dance” describes a frenetic Filipino combination of music, movement, physical danger, and love:
The dance is love, love is the dance
Though bamboo shocks their dancing day.
Ceases. Smiling, the dancers go,
Hand locked in gentle hand, their way.
At “Gelibolu,” the Turkish name for Gallipoli, he goes beneath surface, sensing the presence of history: “But this is savaged air. Is poisoned ground. / Unstilled, the dead, the living voices sound, / And now the night breaks open like a wound.”
Aside from Hardy and Landor, it is hard to think of other poets in their 70’s who have written this well. In the book’s final poem, “Eden Rock,” Causley imagines a reunion with his parents, “mother, twenty-three, in a sprigged dress,” and “father, twenty-five, in the same suit / Of Genuine Irish Tweed.” The call for the poet to be gathered to the bosom of his elders is phrased in restrained measures:
The sky whitens as if lit by three suns.
My mother shades her eyes and looks my way
Over the drifted stream. My father spins
A stone along the water. Leisurely,
They beckon to me from the other bank.
I hear them call, ‘See where the stream-path is!
Crossing is not as hard as you might think.’
I had not thought that it would be like this.
There is a valedictory tone that runs through these haunting lines. In Charles Causley’s case one can only hope that it is premature.
[Secret Destinations: Selected Poems 1977-1988, by Charles Causley (Boston: David R. Godine) 118 pp., $9.95 paper]