Keats At Teignmouth, Spring 1818, by Charles Causley:
By the wild sea-wall I wandered
Blinded by the salting sun,
While the sulky Channel thundered
Like an old Trafalgar gun.
And I watched the gaudy river
Under trees of lemon-green,
Coiling like a scarlet bugle
Through the valley of the Teign.
When spring fired her fusilladoes
Salt-spray, sea-spray on the sill,
When the budding scarf of April
Ravelled on the Devon hill.
Then I saw the crystal poet
Leaning on the old sea-rail;
In his breast lay death, the lover,
In his head, the nightingale.
In the email inviting participation in this series, Scott MacDonald asked for “a short reflection… on a personal encounter with a particular work in the humanities — a work of literature, poetry, philosophy, history, scholarship, criticism or a creative work — that has been significant … personally or professionally.” He continues, “Pick a single work in the humanities that has profoundly affected you — that inspires you, haunts you, changed the way you think about things, convinced you to pursue your life’s work, redirected your life’s work… in short, a work that has made your life in some way deeper or more meaningful.”
Mercifully, he did not ask for “life-changing encounters with great works in the arts and humanities” (as the Transformative Humanities web site styles it). I say “mercifully” because I simply cannot single out one work. And I wouldn’t want to. To use a splendid term and notion of Paul Fleming’s, I have been “bookmarked,” that is to say, marked by books, my whole life through. But not just books. I have also been marked by paintings, such as Las Meninas by Spaniard Velázquez (d. 1660), St Jerome at Prayer by the Dutchman Hieronymus Bosch (d. 1516), and the oeuvre of Sinaporean Tay Bak Koi (d. 2005) and Indian (though he went into elf-imposed exile later in life), M. F. Husain (d. 2011. And by music (Fairuz and the Grateful Dead…), comic books (Lucky Luke and Calvin and Hobbes…). Buildings (the Chrysler Building, Humayun’s Tomb…), the lists are long, so I am grateful to have had the good fortune of being able to share a great number of these at “The dr T project" over the past six years.
To return to the question of being transformed, I realize it was not any given work but rather the individuals who taught me to appreciate any given work that had the true impact, in the main, my parents and my high school teachers. The earliest quotation, from a work of literature I mean, that I can recall hearing is from my father (he must have been thinking about French politicians in the late 60s), as follows:
You blocks! You stones! You worse than senseless things! / O you hard hearts, you cruel men of Rome!
From him I first heard Shakespeare, then; first learned that literature and life could intertwine; and first noticed cadence and rhythm in language, language, that is, other than nursery rhymes and doggerel and of course song. Song was my mother’s domain—she would sing all the time. From her I learned Aznavour’s:
Emmenez-moi au bout de la terre / emmenez-moi au pays des merveils,
il me semble que la misère / serait moins pénible au soleil
dost dost na raha, pyar pyar na raha
Language. Lyric. Poetry. I circle back to the poet with whom I opened—Charles Causley. I first encountered Causley in The Oxford Book of Twentieth Century English Verse (1973), edited by Philip Larkin, offered to me by a visitor to our home in 1974, when I was 11. I don’t recall who specifically gave it to me, but I think it was the same person who gave me a Cousteau book, which is inscribed as follows:
This is not a book of poems
but hope you will still enjoy it!
I did what I often did with books at that age: I read it cover to cover. I was too young for a lot of it, but no-one—at any age—is immune to
Turning and turning in the widening gyre
The falcon cannot hear the falconer;
Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
I discovered Yeats and Sitwell and Betjeman and Larkin and, most of all, Causley. Here is Causley, in a poem on Betjeman:
I saw him in the Airstrip Gardens
(Fahrenheit at 451)
Feeding automative orchids
With a little plastic bun,
While above his brickwork cranium
Burned the trapped and troubled sun.
That poem—which as fate would have it I would later study for my ‘O’ Level English Literature exams—surely prepared me for:
You see, he feels like Ivan
Born under the Brixton sun
His game is called survivin’
At the end of ‘The Harder They Come’
You know it means no mercy
They caught him with a gun
No need for the Black Maria
Goodbye to the Brixton sun
Perhaps this is why I decided to study literature in college. Yet, I did not choose English Literature, or French, or Spanish Literature, which I could already read, but decided to learn a new language in order to gain access to a new literature. I picked Arabic.
Of course, none of this explains my interest in sf, in superheroes, in soccer. But that is to be expected. And maybe at another time, in another place, I can explain the origins of those interests. Ideally a place like Klarman Hall.