Poetry in Widnes by Pauline Rowe

          At the age of six I read William Blake’s The Tyger, a poem I found in a book my mother used for her night-school studies.  It was 1969, the year Lulu won the Eurovision Song Contest with Boom-Bang-a-Bang, when Patrick Troughton was Doctor Who, and Oliver Postgate’s Clangers first appeared on television. In the world, there were riots in Derry, the British Government sent the troops into Northern Ireland and Barbara Castle published her white paper In Place of Strife.  In my world I lived with my older sister, Mum, Dad, Uncle Joe and Aunty Wendy and attended a Catholic primary school that required a ten-minute walk and a twenty-minute bus ride to reach.  It was a year since my Mum’s younger brother and sister came to live with us after Grandad Attwood died in our front room.  My Dad worked at Fords and my Mum worked as a dental receptionist in the day and a part-time bingo caller at the Regal for a couple of nights a week.  She was also a student at Widnes Tech, where she was studying for her O levels at night-school.  My Mum and Dad were both marked in different ways by the experiment of Secondary Modern education.  My Dad was a good singer, a great believer in exercise and keen advocate of the radio. He was, briefly, a professional rugby player signed to Widnes, then to Liverpool City, who lost his chance of life as a sportsman because of injury.  My mother was present and absent in her reading of books.

          I was curious about the power one of her books seemed to possess.  I imagine, for I do not clearly remember, that the book opened at a frequently consulted page, but my first reading of this poem seemed to me to be an act of discovery.    I was pleased to see an eccentric spelling of tyger.  I read the poem silently inside my head:

Tyger! Tyger! burning bright

In the forests of the night,

What immortal hand or eye

Could frame thy fearful symmetry?   …

So much begins here.  The word tyger repeated; tyger, tyger: as alliterative invocation, as defiant challenge to the command ‘twinkle, twinkle,’ as a spell, a magical call to the wild, wide world of creation.  Words on a page that I could hear somehow inside my own head as a voice, words composed centuries before, words that had travelled through time to become a new personal experience.  I did not know the meaning of every word but I understood that this poem possessed a power through its sounds, its incantatory qualities and its complexities. It struck me like a spell and I fell in love with the defiant singularity of the encounter as well as the text, those words first published in 1794 belonging to me somehow, a child growing up in a Northern industrial town, being raised by a young mother who longed to be educated. 

          The pages of Mum’s poetry book were creamy and thick like buttermilk and the poem had a small black and white woodcut print of a tiger just above it, the size of a first-class stamp.  Tyger, tyger, burning bright.  This was better than Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star and had the vivid heat of Great Grandad’s coal fire about it.  In the forest of the night.  Like the thick, sharp vines and thorns around the castle in Sleeping Beauty, but the moon has moved behind a cloud. I could see the fire of the tiger’s coat moving like a torch in the dark, hot enough to set light to my Bri-Nylon nightie.   What immortal hand or eye Could frame thy fearful symmetry?  I liked the sound of these sentences.  They made me think of mum pinching the skin on my arm if I messed around in church.  Her eyes would burn at me.   In what distant deeps or skies Burnt the fire of thine eyes?  I liked this William Blake who had his name on the poem.  He was telling me that this tiny room would not be where I would stand forever.  The distant deeps – like in Captain Nemo.  Now I could see the tiger’s eyes burning green from the thorny jungle and his coat burning orange and yellow with flashes of purple. 

          I read through the rest of the poem, it rang in my head like the Angelus, my heart was beating hard – What dread hand? And what dread feet?  I knew that, in these words, a very different kind of God was living than the Father God resident in St Thomas More’s church around the corner.  I felt that my heart too had sinews that had been twisted although I didn’t imagine it was God’s hands that caused the pain.  I carried the book to my bottom bunk and placed it under my pillow.

          I took the poem to my teacher, Mrs Hobday, a cheerful, practical woman and she asked me to read it aloud to the class.  I was unafraid, articulating Blake’s words in front of thirty silent peers, even though I didn’t know what sinews looked like or what else in the world might possess ‘fearful symmetry’.  I was reciting something like a prayer with its thys, thees, thines and “he who made the Lamb,” – and in its pronouncement I was protected from the fearfulness celebrated in the poem. 

What the hammer? what the chain, 

In what furnace was thy brain?

What the anvil? what dread grasp, 

Dare its deadly terrors clasp! 

This was my discovery of poetry as both magic and mystery.  At six the experience I had was a profound experience through reading.  The nature of the poem, what it is, remained true in my partial understanding of it as much as in its very self.  A poem is an animation of the spirit of an idea. It becomes, in part, the person of the poet as well as the person of the reader.  It is a direct connection from the hand of the poet to the eye of the reader, from the voice of the poet to the ear of the mind.  Tyger embodies, for me, the essence of what poetry can achieve in language, rhythm, concept, vision and magic.

          Our tyger is “burning bright/in the forest of the night.” It is both a conflagration and a beacon, an illumination and a signal to darkness and danger.  It lights up the night, a night that is also a forest. The metaphor does not need to be doubted for the forest is a known place of danger and magic in a child’s imagination.  To the child I was, this was both knowing and not knowing.  When I read the poem out loud to my class it felt to me as though the very words could conjure up the tyger. I was used to hearing the incantations of mysterious language every Sunday.  There was a feeling of power in becoming the sayer of mysterious words. 

          But I did not love this poem because I wanted to conjure the tiger but because of its language and its intimacy, because I wanted to be myself and the poem helped me to be myself in a way that I did not understand except in the light of the poem.  Tyger was both proclaimed and public and personal.  No other art achieves such electricity in both its stillness of being and reception. That is something to do with its process of making within the mind, through the body (in the act of writing) and out of the experience of one person and then, in its telling, to the mind of another.  There is voice here and sensation but always through the prism of language, the inadequacy of words, a reaching for meaning, an attempt to distill and capture human experience.   In Poetry in the Making Ted Hughes describes this as follows:

Words that will express something of the deep complexity that makes us precisely the way we are…Something of the inaudible music that moves us along in our bodies from moment to moment like water in a river.  Something of the spirit of the snowflake in the water of the river.  Something of the duplicity and the relativity and the merely fleeting quality of all this.  Something of the almighty importance of it and something of the utter meaningless.  And when words can manage something of this, and manage it in a moment of time, and in that moment make out of it all the vital signature of a human being – not of an atom, or of a geometrical diagram, or of a heap of lenses, but a human being – we call it poetry.   (p.124)

It is also helpful to consider poetry and the language of poetry in contradistinction to narrative prose because poetry favours figurative and metaphorical language in its various testaments to human experience as integral to its own nature as an art.  I took the book of poems into Mrs Hobday’s class in response to her invitation for us to take in our favourite stories.  This is the first moment in my life that I recall making a conscious decision about my preference for poetry rather than prose. This is a preference for a distinct way of thinking and organising words.  In a recent lecture published in Poetry Review Anne Carson described the painter Francis Bacon as wanting “to defeat narrative wherever it seeks to arise.”  This defeat of narrative has also become part of poetry’s purpose in post-modern times. As John Berger  argues in And Our Faces, My Heart, Brief as Photos:

Poems, even when narrative, do not resemble stories.  All stories are about battles which end in victory or defeat.  Everything moves towards the end when the outcome will be known.  Poems, regardless of any outcome, cross the battlefields tending the wounded, listening to the wild monologues of the triumphant or the fearful.  They bring a kind of peace, not by anaesthesia or easy reassurance but by recognition and the promise that what has been experienced cannot disappear as if it has never been.  The promise is that language has acknowledged, has given shelter to, the experience that demanded, that cried out.”    [‘Once in a Poem’.]

Tyger speaks of the terrible power of nature and the wrath of God.  In its question: “Did he who made the lamb make thee?” I was on familiar ground, used to reciting: “Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world, have mercy on us.” 

          In my childish reading of Blake I experienced the poem as liturgy, knowing nothing of Blake’s Songs of Innocence. Its power is in its magic, images, its metaphors, its priestliness and mysteries, its sounds and its rhymes and in it becoming my own, belonging to me personally as a gift; similarly, it has remained with me, for I know it by heart and have carried it inside me ever since.          

          I started to write my own inventions when I was in Junior school, aged seven.  I have a clear memory of writing a poem about a whale that began:

This creature lives under the sea

as fierce, as fierce can be…..

With the romantic, nature-loving instinct of a child I scribbled half lines and rhymes about animals and weather, about creatures and seasons.  My whale poem concluded with a drawing of a whale.  I learned about writing through reading and through looking and then attempted to think with a pencil in my hand.  I had three endeavours that related to writing.  The first was the idea that I would be a writer and in pursuit of that I made my own writing space in the shed that I shared with my pet rabbit.  I used an old dressing table as my desk and book-shelf. The second endeavour involved a gathering of resources, of tools I would need, including my books, writing paper, pencil and pen (I was some years away from my first typewriter).  The books I kept in the shed were my weekly library books, The Observer Book of Pondlife (perhaps my most important book) and A Puffin Quartet of Poets (which included Eleanor Farjeon, James Reeves, E.V. Rieu and Ian Serraillier), a book I consulted regularly. My third endeavour was in thinking.  I spent a lot of time thinking about and working on descriptions of observed objects, and I was particularly interested in insects and portraits of human faces.  Writing about the human face is something I associate with prose and school, rather than poetry. The insects were, for me, poetic and personal material. The face-writing was linked to creative work that a young student teacher, Miss Hays, developed with us in fourth year.  Although I cannot remember the result, I recall the thinking and struggle I encountered when trying to compose a descriptive piece about Thomas More’s face. 

          Writing is how I think and negotiate my space in the world. My first experience of writing was associated with silence and space away from everyone else, reading, discovering books and thinking. These are aspects of writing that remain central to my life. The experience of that first poem established for me the importance of reading, seeing in the mind (imagination), rhythm, magic, rhyme, sound, voice, thinking (the working out) as essential components of my own creative and writing life.

About the Author

Dr Pauline Rowe is Poet-in-Residence for Mersey Care NHS Foundation Trust. Her publications and achievements include    The Ghost Hospital (Maytree Press, 2019) Shortlisted, best poetry pamphlet category — Saboteur Awards 2020; The Allotments (Victoria Gallery & Museum, LOOK Biennial 2019)   Sleeping in the Middle (Open Eye Gallery, 2018)  and earlier Voices of the Benares (Lapwing Publications, 2014)   Waiting For the Brown Trout God (Headland Publications, 2009).