It’s National Poetry Day. I love National Poetry Day. I’ve been thinking about poetry from the moment I got up this morning.
The ones that live in my head are mostly Yeats and Auden, snatches of Frost and E.E. Cummings, lines of Robert Lowell, fragments of TS. (Do I dare to eat a peach?)
I thought though that I should find one about a horse, you will be amazed to hear. The best poem about horses is Yeats’ glorious galloping paean to Galway Races, but I posted that on this day last year. I read it at my father’s funeral. The last lines almost finished me off, in the quiet of the small Norman church:
‘And we find hearteners among men
That ride upon horses.’
My father was a heartener.
Anyway, I wanted something new. So I hunted about the internet and there really wasn’t much that would do. There’s an epic poem by Byron but it goes on for about ten years and is quite knotty, although I’ll go back and read the whole thing later. There’s The Charge of the Light Brigade, but that is far too sad for this sunny day. One of the best things anyone ever wrote about a horse comes from Shakespeare, in Henry V:
‘When I bestride him, I
soar, I am a hawk: he trots the air; the earth
sings when he touches it.’
But that is not a poem, so today it does not count.
In the end, I found a slender sliver from DH Lawrence, so short that it is almost a haiku, so mere that is it is mystery. I never adored Lawrence’s novels, but I was ravished by his poems. I remember reading The Snake when I was eight years old and being quite mesmerised. I read it forty years ago, and I remember it as if it were yesterday. I remember the feeling of heat and fascination and passion and shame that lived in the poem, and it made me think of snakes in a different way from that day on.
‘And I wished he would come back, my snake.
For he seemed to me again like a king,
Like a king in exile, uncrowned in the underworld,
Now due to be crowned again.
And so, I missed my chance with one of the lords
And I have something to expiate:
This short poem is not one I have ever seen before. I felt rather astonished that it was so new to me, and I’m going to carry it with me in the Scottish sunshine.
The White Horse.
The youth walks up to the white horse, to put its halter on
and the horse looks at him in silence.
They are so silent, they are in another world.
That’s it. That is all he wrote. What mystery hovers between those lines. Did the horse and his boy exist in the world? Had Lawrence seen them, one misty morning, and remembered? Or are they symbols, metaphors, shimmering figures of the imagination? There is something almost holy in that tiny poem.
The funny thing is that the really, really good horsemen and women do work their horses in silence. I talk to mine, all the time. I tell her she is brilliant, or clever, or a silly old billy, or quite safe. I tell her that is only a cyclist and not a mountain lion. I say: ‘There are your sheep.’ She loves the sheep. I say: ‘Find your soft place.’ We are always looking for her soft place.
Opposite my house, there is a grand old building with arched windows and soaring roofs which was built a hundred and fifty years ago by some eccentric old gentleman for his cows. It is known as the coo cathedral, and the days are long gone when it housed cattle. It is used now for weddings and balls and celebrations. There was a charity sale going on there this morning and rows of cars were drawn up and people streamed across the grass in the dazzling sun to do their early Christmas shopping in a good cause.
There was no silence, but a great deal of bustle. I took the mare along to have a look. She likes an event. She said hello to some very small children. ‘Look, Fergus, it’s a horse.’
Fergus, who was not quite two, smiled all over his face. The mare blinked at him with elegant pleasure.
‘Yes, Fergus,’ I said. ‘She’s a very special horse indeed. She is a thoroughbred horse.’
I rode her down to the great old building and peered through the window. A lady saw us and opened the door and the mare poked her head inside and observed the throng, sagely. Within moments, she had many admirers. I felt the spreading delight of absurd pride. I love that she loves to greet complete strangers. I love that whenever any human eye falls on her, it lights with pure happiness.
There was no silence. We were in the world.
But when we went back to the quiet field, that DH Lawrence silence did fall on us, and we stood together, in wordless harmony, and we were, for a moment, like that horse and his boy.
Why does poetry matter? Why does it need a whole day, all to itself? Isn’t it too old school, too old hat, too out-dated, for the rushing modern world?
I think it matters because it speaks to the heart. It may console a bruised spirit, or remind a harried mind of a universal truth. It sings a fine and human song, and everybody needs a song.
It doesn’t really need to be for anything. It exists in and of itself: beautiful, immutable, true. It can be funny and it can be shocking and it can be stark. Unlike almost any other form of words, it can be read for the sheer beauty, even if one does not understand the precise meaning. (I have read The Wasteland about twenty times, and I still could not tell you what half of it is about. Some of it is even in languages I do not speak, and many of the classical references are lost on me. Yet, it still is a poem that can brighten my morning.)
If one is flayed or seared or bashed or blue, a good poem may fall on the battered human self like a balm.
I think that is worth a day.
I don’t have a white horse. I have a red horse. And she is as bright and bold and bonny as the day is long. If I could write poetry, I should write a poem for her. But I can’t, so I shan’t. She has to content herself with the best prose my fingers can type.
I can’t write her a poem, but she is a poem, so it doesn’t really matter: