Joseph Thomas talks to Neil Philip about myths and muses, radical artifice, genre switching, and the love of children’s poetry.
I WAS WORKING on my PhD when I first encountered Neil Philip’s work. This was back in 1999, shortly after the publication of the revised edition of The New Oxford Book of Children’s Verse. Neil was the editor. His anthology played a large role in my decision to make children’s poetry my main area of research. After encountering it, I searched out Neil’s other work, discovering his abiding interest in folklore and mythology, two subjects dear to me.
Neil also admires cats, an appreciation we share. When he speaks of his twenty-year-old cat, Ariel, enjoying a restorative walk in the garden—if the light’s just right—you can catch a glimpse of a kind of veiling flare, an ineffable something I detect in Neil’s best writing, for he has a way of seeing that comes as much from his long study of mythology, folklore, mythopoesis as it does from walking garden paths and living among cats.
Neil’s home is in the Cotswolds, England, where he lives surrounded by books. He has spent decades honing his skill at communicating that which resists telling, making in scores of books and essays those connections that are too-often invisible, enriching our world by revising—revisioning—our poetic, mythological, folkloric, and literary historical traditions. That’s no small thing. He is also a poet.
— Joseph Thomas
Joseph Thomas: Over the years, you’ve produced some extraordinary works in a variety of genres or modes. Could first you talk a little about how you move between them?
Neil Philip: As for the variety of my work, I feel there is a central cohesion to it. My PhD in the ‘70s was on “Myth and Folklore in Children’s Literature,” and myth, folklore, and storytelling—and I think we can include poetry as a branch of storytelling—have informed pretty well everything I have written over the last forty years.
At the moment I’m working on three big prose projects at once, which is rather over-stretching. There’s The Hidden Matrix, which I think of as my big book on myth, a vastly ambitious attempt to understand what myth is and why it matters, ranging over the whole of human history and culture, from the Ice Age to now. I’ve also got a kind of companion to that, my big book on the fairytale, which will gather together all the thoughts I’ve had over the years about fairytales. And I’m also working on a vastly expanded new edition of the very first book I published, A Fine Anger: A Critical Introduction to the Work of Alan Garner; this came out in 1981, so there are forty years of work, and forty years of thinking about Garner, to incorporate.
Of course at the start of a writing career you take what work you can get. I used to write recipes for the Time-Life series The Good Cook, for instance, and I wrote documentary film scripts on subjects that didn’t really interest me, but I also did a huge amount of literary journalism—reviews, articles, interviews, all on subjects that interested me deeply. I was very lucky to have several mentors who put such work my way, and also to have the journal Signal as an outlet for my critical essays. Signal’s editor Nancy Chambers appointed me as a judge of the Signal Poetry Award (the forerunner of The Lion and the Unicorn Award), and it was my three years doing that, along with knowing Iona Opie from both the folklore and children’s literature worlds, that enabled me to later edit The New Oxford Book of Children’s Verse.
So poetry anthologies, collections of folk and fairy tales, books on mythology, and literary criticism have been the staples of my writing life, and even projects that stand outside those genres, such as my novel The Tale of Sir Gawain, my play about John Clare, or my books on Native American topics or on social history, connect across to them by various direct and indirect conduits.
Writing my own poetry has been a great pleasure to me. I wrote a lot of poetry as a young man, a few were published and a small press even offered to put out a collection. That offer made me look long and hard at what I had written, and my conclusion was that it wasn’t good enough—not sufficiently distinctive in its ideas or modes of expression. So I gave up writing poems for fifteen years, just occasionally composing them in my head and then letting them slip away and be forgotten. But in 1988 I published an anthology called War and the Pity of War, and in the course of editing that, two things happened. The first is that I started translating poems by the French poet Jacques Prévert (“Barbara” is in the book) and then couldn’t stop. The second is that clearing permissions brought me into contact with the Japanese poet Kijima Hajime. We became, by mail and latterly email, close friends. He was my poetic mentor, as Langston Hughes was his. We used to exchange “Linked Quatrains” according to the rules he had invented, and published quite a few cycles of them in books and in poetry magazines; once I started writing poems, he translated some into Japanese. So those two things, my friendship with Kijima Hajime and translation, from Prévert, Apollinaire, Cendrars, Rilke, and Heine, primed me to start writing my own poems again. And to my amazement, I had matured into a publishable poet—by which I mean one with my own voice.
JT: As a boy, did you encounter a book or poem that inspired your first attempts at making poems, and do you remember the moment—or concatenation of moments—when you realized that poets were real people out there in the real world and that you could join their ranks? That is, do you remember when you decided that you were a poet, and if so, could you tell us what sparked that decision?
NP: My mother studied English Literature at Durham University through WWII, where her professor was W. L. Renwick, a great authority on the border ballads and on the poetry of Edmund Spenser. So I think an awareness of the importance of literature, and of poetry specifically, was an essential part of the world I grew up in. I was slow to learn to read, because the school I went to used a colorless reading scheme called Janet and John, which had no literary merits at all. I couldn’t see the point. Then the first children in the class got to the end of the scheme, and suddenly a bookcase arrived in the class which they were allowed to select real books from. I remember going up to the teacher’s desk and asking to read the first Janet and John book aloud—you had to do that without stumbling in order to go on to the next book. And then I read the entire series one after another, faultlessly, so keen was I to get access to that bookcase.
The first poetry book I can remember is Louis Untermeyer’s Golden Treasury of Poetry, which I chose for myself and bought with my birthday money when I was eight. I can remember the moment I reached out and picked it off the shelf. What attracted me to it I can’t now say. I never much liked the illustrations, but something about the heft of the book, its sense of generosity and variety, really appealed to me. And that’s a book that has really stayed with me through the years. I remember liking the mixture of prose and poetry in Kipling’s Just So Stories and The Jungle Book, and I also have vivid memories of reading an adult story by Kipling in an anthology we had, “The Strange Ride of Morrowbie Jukes,” a claustrophobic and terrifying story about a man trapped in the quicksands of his own imagination. Other books that made an impact on me were J. M. Barrie’s Sentimental Tommy (a very unsentimental book about the centrality of the imagination), and among more modern children’s books, C. S. Lewis’s Chronicles of Narnia, and Meriol Trevor’s time-slip fantasy Merlin’s Ring.
By the time I went to grammar school at eleven years old, I had moved on to adult books, and that’s when I read a huge amount of fiction and also a great deal of poetry. We had some excellent school anthologies edited by Geoffrey Summerfield under the general title Voices, which featured a lot of contemporary verse. And this was the period when Penguin Books were publishing their first series of Penguin Modern Poets, which selected from three living voices in each volume (Barker, Bell, Causley; Corso, Ferlinghetti, Ginsberg). Penguin Modern Poets 10 made a big impression: it was the only one with a title, The Mersey Sound, and the three poets, Adrian Henri, Roger McGough, and Brian Patten, made poetry seem as urgent and alive as pop music. Years later I was to give Roger McGough the Signal Poetry Award for his collection Sky in the Pie, describing it as, in the words of the poet Hugh MacDiarmuid, “alive as a bout of all-in wrestling.”
So the years of my teens were when I discovered poets who are still favorites, such as Ted Hughes and Charles Causley, and also first became aware of American poetry and also poetry in translation (Penguin also had a series of Modern European Poets). We studied T. S. Eliot for A levels (the final exams at high school), and “The Waste Land” still seemed incredibly daring and modern to me (in fact it still does), and sparked my interest in the free verse being written in France at around the same time by poets like Apollinaire and Cendrars.
Now here’s a weird thing. In all my time at school reading poetry, I never met or heard a living poet, nor imagined one could do so. After finishing my A levels in 1972, when I was just turned 17, I booked in for one reading at Poetry International on the Southbank. The Poetry International festival had been started by Ted Hughes in 1967. The advertised readers were W. H. Auden, John Ashbery, and Allen Ginsberg. Auden had a stranger in tow—the poet Joseph Brodsky, just escaped from the Soviet Union, and being clucked around by Auden and Stephen Spender like a pair of mother hens. So as well as the three main readers, I also got Brodsky reading in Russian, and Robert Lowell reading the poems in English translation. That was my very first poetry reading, and is probably still the one that had the most impact!
When did I decide I was a poet? I may not have decided that yet. A friend of mine just posted the poem “Berryman” by W. S. Merwin on Facebook. These are the last two stanzas:
I had hardly begun to read I asked how can you ever be sure that what you write is really any good at all and he said you can't you can't you can never be sure you die without knowing whether anything you wrote was any good if you have to be sure don't write
JT: In a previous answer, you helpfully point to The New Oxford Book of Children’s Verse, a collection that had a profound influence on me as both a scholar and a poet. Could you talk a little more about how you came to edit that collection? What specific challenges and unexpected delights did you encounter while putting it together?
NP: I can’t remember the exact circumstances now. I think I was already doing some work for Oxford University Press (OUP) and I suspect OUP was aware that the Iona and Peter Opie Oxford Book of Children’s Verse needed updating, probably approached Iona to ask her if she felt able to do so. She may have suggested me.
It was made clear to me that they intended to keep the Opie volume in print alongside my book, which was liberating for me because it meant I didn’t have to include all the early verse that was really of academic interest rather than likely to appeal to any modern child. So I had a relatively free hand, though equally I wanted to include some poems that were already in Opie (something for which I was criticised by some reviewers, but I felt my book had to stand on its own). The main thing I wanted to do, apart from acknowledging and including the poets who had written for children since the Opies, was to enlarge the book by adding English-language poets from the USA, Canada, Australia, New Zealand, the Caribbean. Now that I need to, I can’t lay my hands on my copy of Opie, but I’m sure even going back so far as James Whitcomb Riley I was able to include a lot of American verse they had not—going on to Carl Sandburg, Vachel Lindsay, Elizabeth Madox Roberts, Edna St Vincent Millay, to David McCord, Langston Hughes, Theodore Roethke, Gwendolyn Brooks, Lucille Clifton, Nikki Giovanni, Joy Harjo and others. Perhaps the biggest unexpected delight in editing the book was the help I received from Julie Cummins at the New York Public Library, who pointed me towards poets I would never have heard of, such as Paul Fleischman.
I may have missed a few British poets in my keenness to broaden the range! If I were editing a new edition now there are loads of poets and poems I would try to make room for, but I’m not unhappy with the book as it is. There’s one poem I included I wish I hadn’t (Wilfred Owen’s “Sonnet: To a Child,” which was put in to appease OUP’s reader), and one I wish I had: I wanted to include the whole of Rudyard Kipling’s story “The Sing-Song of Old Man Kangaroo,” even though it’s technically in prose.
Thinking of anthologies generally, I have always loved them. The first book I bought with my own money, when I was eight, I think, was Louis Untermeyer’s Golden Treasury of Poetry. That had a profound effect on me, and has influenced my taste in poetry to this day. I think it’s a great work, and I had it in mind when I made my own anthology A New Treasury of Poetry (which, unlike The New Oxford Book of Children’s Verse, was not confined to poems specifically addressed to children). I think I’m a natural anthologist—I love making mix-tapes, for instance—and I’ve greatly enjoyed editing anthologies such as Singing America, or It’s a Woman’s World. A few really good anthology ideas fell by the wayside over the years—one I regret was an anthology of children-as-poets, which grew out of my fascination with the child poets of the ‘20s, Hilda Conkling and Nathalia Crane.
JT: Can you talk a little more about children’s poetry? Poetry for children is much more esteemed in the U.K. than it is in the U.S. Why do you think that is? Of the children’s poets writing today in the U.K., who do you find most interesting and why? Or, if you’re not keeping up with contemporary children’s poetry, can you mention a few of your favorite children’s poems of the past—either folk or literary—and tell us what you find interesting about them.
NP: I think the high value placed on poetry for children in the UK is partly based on our love of nursery rhymes—pretty well every child learns in their early years a store of nursery rhymes, and those rhymes are jam-packed alive with zest for language, story, and humor. So it means that children arrive at school ready-primed to enjoy poetry—to appreciate the nonsense verse of Edward Lear or Lewis Carroll, for instance. Quite a few first-rank British writers have turned their best attention to writing poetry for children—Robert Louis Stevenson and Rudyard Kipling are two obvious examples. In the second half of the twentieth century, two of our foremost poets, Ted Hughes and Charles Causley, both wrote wonderful poems for children, enough to warrant fat volumes of Collected Poems for Children alongside their adult collecteds. And besides these voices there has also been a great surge of energy coursing through the UK schools, powered by writers such as the irrepressible Michael Rosen and the equally irrepressible Benjamin Zephaniah, by teacher-writers such as Brian Moses and Pie Corbett, who speak very directly and amusingly to children, and inspirational teachers such as Jill Pirrie and Kate Clanchy.
While there have been some very substantial additions to the children’s poetry bookshelf since I made my choices for The New Oxford Book of Children’s Verse—books by writers such as Helen Dunmore, Carol Ann Duffy, and Christopher Reid, for instance, I will admit to not having kept as closely abreast of new publications as perhaps I should, especially in the USA. So I think I’ll stick to saying a few words about why I rate Hughes and Causley so highly as children’s poets.
The two men were close friends, but apart from their nonsense epics Nessie the Mannerless Monster (Hughes) and The Tail of the Trinosaur (Causley), their children’s poetry isn’t much alike. I have written substantial essays on both (“The Shawl of the Beauty of the World: The Children’s Books of Ted Hughes” in Signal 100, 2003, and “Beyond Eden Rock: The Children’s Poems of Charles Causley” in Michael Hanke ed. Through the Granite Kingdom, Wissenschaftlicher Verlig Trier, 2011), so I won’t try to re-tread old ground, but simply write from the heart.
Ted Hughes first. An imposing presence, like a Christmas present from Easter Island, as Philip Larkin observed. I was privileged to see Hughes read to schoolchildren, and he gave them a special kind of respectful attention which they in turn responded to with rapt appreciation. A lot of Hughes’ children’s poems are about the natural world, which he related to and observed with such specific intuition. They are poems that look both at the world and through it, and demand that the reader does so too. When Anthea Bell and I gave Hughes the Signal Poetry Award for What Is the Truth? in 1985, he wrote to me (5 June 1985): “I was very gratified to hear that my book What Is The Truth? had won such strong approval from you. It began, actually, with Roger the Dog, and was to have been a brief collection of verses in that mode, each with its illustration opposite, for the Nethercott ‘Farms for City Children’ run by my friends Clare & Michael Morpurgo. But then it took off, got more complicated, and was such a delight to me I had difficulty confining it, in the end, to its present length. And I gave up any idea of restricting it to the original simplicity. Though I hope it is still simple, in spirit.” It is this mixture of delight and simplicity that makes What Is the Truth? such a special book.
I didn’t know Hughes, but I did know Charles Causley, except I didn’t really, because of all the people I have ever met he was the most truly unknowable, a secret even to himself. He had been the headteacher at a little primary school in Cornwall, and he gave me two books of poems his children had written—some of them lovely, all of them with Charles’s imprint on them. He obviously had a huge influence on the children he taught—someone recently won a million pounds on the TV quiz show Who Wants to be a Millionaire, and credited their success on having been taught by Charles. But whereas Hughes’s poems, though sometimes brutal and dark, pulse with life and energy (“Life is Trying to be Life,” as one of his poems puts it), Charles’s are forlorn and sad. Piercing and full of beauty, but haunted by loss. He once recited to me from memory this stanza from Edward Lear:
Calico Pie, The little birds fly Down to the calico tree, Their wings were blue. And they sang “Tilly-loo” Till away they flew, — And they never came back to me! They never came back! They never came back! They never came back to me!
So I suppose I will round up this answer with a little bit about the 1920s child poet Hilda Conkling.
Will you love me tomorrow after next,
As if I had a bird’s way of singing?
This couplet, composed when she was four years old, tells us almost all we need to know about Hilda Conkling’s extraordinary poetic gift. The poems came to her naturally, like song to a bird. Hilda was born in 1910. Her mother Grace Hazard Conkling was herself a poet, and taught at Smith. She was also interested in children’s response to literature, publishing Imagination and Children’s Reading in 1921. So it’s not surprising Hilda loved words and poetry, but her childhood poems, written between the ages of four and thirteen, have a remarkably consistent quality and tone. They are the work of a real poet, with her own voice and her own developing style.
She published two books: Poems by a Little Girl, when she was nine, in 1920, and Shoes of the Wind in 1923. Her free verse style (which reflects the fact that her poems were orally composed rather than written down) allies her to the Imagist poets such as Amy Lowell, who wrote the introduction to Poems by a Little Girl. Lowell wrote, “No matter who wrote them, those passages would be beautiful, the oldest poet in the world could not improve upon them.”
Hilda was in the mainstream of modern American poetry, in which the poet’s breath-pattern has dictated the shape of the words on the page. She seems to have had an innate grasp of William Carlos Williams’s dictum, “No ideas but in things.” Her flowing cadences and pin-sharp images made true poems that are as fresh and alive today as when she first brought them one at a time as love gifts to her mother. Here’s one of hers, made when she was five or six:
Water The world turns softly Not to spill its lakes and rivers. The water is held in its arms And the sky is held in the water. What is water, That pours silver, And can hold the sky?
JT: The poetry I enjoy most exhibits what Marjorie Perloff calls “radical artifice.” She explains, “Artifice, in this sense, is less a matter of ingenuity and manner […] than of the recognition that a poem or painting or performance text is a made thing—contrived, constructed, chosen—and that its reading is also a construction on the part of its audience” (Radical Artifice 27-28). While radical artifice is often observed in works associated with the twentieth-century avant-garde—be it Langage writing or visual poetry, the Oulipo or Dada—it exists on a spectrum, and its traces can be found in unexpected places, such as Yeats’s more baroque compositions, Auden’s experiments with unusual meters, and certainly Gerard Manley Hopkins’s experimentation with accentual, sprung rhythms.
You have mentioned that in your poems you “aim for … density of meaning and simplicity of expression,” but, for instance, your three-stanza “Idbrury Morris”—with its groovy, accentual-syllabic, alliterative pentameter—manifests an ancient sense of artifice that reminds readers, this is verse, a made thing, a work of art. Let me illustrate what I mean by reproducing the second stanza, where the poem pivots on that arresting, enjambed slant rhyme (times/tries) at the center of the poem:
A cuckoo calls a clear bubble of sound
echoing from the ancient woods below
He smiles. He's heard the story many times
of the Idbury simpletons who tried
to trap the cuckoo, hoping by such means
to capture summer too. That marshy field
between two streams is still called Cuckoo Pen.
And thus my question: How do you approach “artifice”—radical or otherwise—in your poetry? I’m thinking specifically of line breaks, enjambment, meter, typographical layout—and even more overt sonic effects like assonance and consonance and various stripes of rhyme. Put differently—and this may resonate with your answer to question one—how do you approach form in your poetry; how do you figure the stuff of language in your poetry differently from your prose?
NP: That’s a question and a half! I like poems that make a pleasing shape on the page, and poems that make a pleasing shape in the mouth—poems that read well and also read aloud well, combining the visible and the audible. I have made one venture into concrete poetry—a poem called “Birds on the Saltmarsh” I made in 2004, inspired by Apollinaire’s calligrammes, in which short poems about a little egret, a heron, an avocet, and a harrier, are arranged on the page to make an image of their own subject matter. These are poems which, if read aloud, would entirely lose the graphemic features that distinguish them on the page. Therefore although they were fun to construct, I don’t regard them as ultimately successful. Other poems resemble their own subjects in less obvious ways—“Silver-Gelatin Seascapes by Hiroshi Sugimoto” is two four-line rectangular stanzas balanced on top of each in the same way he balances sea and sky in his photographs. Again, this is evident on the page but not in oral performance.
Most often, I am trying both on the page and when reading, to capture the rhythms of a voice, whether my own or that of a character—Loki in “In Loki’s Cave,” the captured merman in “The Wild Man of Oxford,” the chooser of the slain in “A Viking Ship-Burial on the Volga,” John Reeve in “A Divine Looking-Glass.” And that’s what I’m attempting in my translations, to find the right voice for Apollinaire or Cendrars or Heine.
Looking at the poems in the three books I have published, each poem seems to naturally find its own shape, quite different from the others. This isn’t planned on my part. In terms of line breaks, these are generally when I have come to the end of a phrase, but don’t want to have to add a punctuation mark. So it’s a way of marking a natural pause. I was always impressed how Apollinaire decided just to remove all the punctuation marks from Alcools at the final proof stage. Assonance and half-rhyme I use, but seldom full rhyme. Stress is the fundamental element of English-language poetry, rhyme intruded from French song.
I think when writing a poem I am trying to “adjust / Real vision to right language,” in Robert Browning’s words. But when writing it on the page, I am trying to do something like what Blaise Cendrars says about his typewriting, in one of the poems I translated as “Three Love Letters to a Typewriter”:
There are spaces only I know how to make
you can see at a glance it’s my page
JT: Finally, to wrap up, could you choose a recent poem of yours that you find interesting, and share it with our readers. Then talk a little about your compositional process, first, as much as possible, by taking us through the drafting of this particular poem, and second, by explaining how the composition of this poem compares to your more general approach to making poems – if there is one.
NP: My most recent poem that’s not a straight translation, though it is inspired by an existing text, is called “Spell to Become Immortal.” It derives from the so-called “Mithras Liturgy” in the Greek Magical Papyri, and is punctuated by nonsense sounds that stand in for magical hisses, pops, and booms that are required to make the spell effective. It’s rather long and the subject matter is obscure. The original text is esoteric and complex, and I wrote the poem to try to comprehend what was going on in it. I wrote it on 27 August 2019, and that first draft is complete and almost identical to the text today. None of the revisions amount to much—mostly playing around with the meaningless vocables. I tend to write poems—even quite long ones—in one intense burst. Then follows the process of trying to improve them by removing redundant phrases or clichés and replacing inert words with ones that fizz and zip. That can go on until a poem is published, at which point, of course, the remaining flaws leap out at me from the printed page with an accusing stare.
Now, I’m only going to give you a few lines of “Spell to Become Immortal,” and the source material it’s based on, because you’ve really got to be interested in this stuff to keep with the poem the whole way through. After that I’m going to try to write a new poem. Let’s see how that goes!
So here’s the beginning of “Spell”:
Fate and my soul, forgive me as I write these mysteries which the great god Mithras the unconquerable sun revealed to me so that I alone may know immortality and rise into the heavens to survey the universe. Ssss... psss... Becoming, I became. Being, I grew. Of air, fire, water, earth I was made complete, Neil son of Enid, by the power of your right hand in the radiant darkness where nothing and everything co-exist.
Now the source material for this in Hans Dieter Betz, The Greek Magical Papyri in Translation (these being magic spells written in Greek but from Greco-Roman Ancient Egypt) is much longer and more complicated:
Be gracious to me, O Providence and Psyche, as I write these mysteries handed down [not] for gain but for instruction; and for an only child I request immortality, O initiates of this our power (furthermore, it is necessary for you, O daughter, to take the juices of herbs and spices, which will be [made known] to you at the end of my holy treatise), which the great god Helios Mithras ordered to be revealed to me by his archangel, so that I alone may ascend into heaven as an inquirer and behold the universe.
First origin of my spirit, AEĒIOYŌ, first beginning of my beginning, PPP SSS PHR[E], spirit of spirit, the first of the spirit in me MMM, fire given by god to my mixture of the mixtures in me, the first of the fire in me, ĒY ĒIA EĒ, water of of water, the first of the water in me, ŌŌŌ AAA EEE, earthy material, the first of the earthy material in me, YĒ YŌĒ, my complete body, I, NN whose mother is NN, which was formed by a noble arm and an incorruptible right hand in a world without light and yet radiant, without soul and yet alive with soul.
So I hope that gives a bit of insight into my poetic practice when working with existing texts. Of course many of my poems are transcripts of or responses to things that I have witnessed and experienced, but the long ones tend to have their origin in a source like this—so, my poem “A Divine Looking-Glass” derives from the writings of the Muggletonian prophet John Reeve, in whose voice it is written; my poem “A Viking Ship-Burial on the Volga” is based on the tenth-century eye-witness account of the Arabic traveler Ahmad ibn Fadlān.
The new poem I am about to draft before your eyes is based on the myth of Orpheus, best-known I guess in Ovid’s version in Metamorphoses, so I have that by my side, but also some scholarly works such as Radcliffe G. Edmonds’s Myths of the Underworld Journey: Plato, Aristophanes, and the ‘Orphic’ Gold Tablets and Redefining Ancient Orphism: A Study in Greek Religion, M.L.West’s The Orphic Poems, Dwayne A. Meisner’s Orphic Tradition and the Birth of the Gods, and Jason Colavito’s translation of The Orphic Argonautica. So I’m all set.
May the Muse inspire my song of things never told before of Chaos and Time and the Night. No singer has ever sung such songs of power that countered the songs of the sirens that sung the mysteries of twice-born Dionysos and taught how to flee the wheel of sorrow. On my wedding day the torch of Hymen sputtered and smoked and refused to burn. Walking in the meadows with the Naiads my lovely bride Eurydice was bitten by an adder. And so I left this world, descended through black fog to the realm of thin ghosts. The god and goddess of that silent realm wanted to hear my songs, but I refused to play. All I wanted was Eurydice back, thrilling with life as she used to be, warm and mortal in my arms. Even the bloodless ghosts wept tears for me. Even the Furies cried. And there was Eurydice, limping, snake-bitten, but alive as you or me. She can come with you, I was told, but until you have left the black valley you must never look back. Long, long we trudged up the steep path. Wrapped in darkness and silence. She was limping hard, falling behind, falling behind. I turned to give her my arm, At the very lip of light. As my hands wrapped round her, she dissolved in my embrace. Where she once was was only air, never to be held again. Beyond despair. These are my soul’s truths. Now I am gone, hear from the echo of my voice the things that were hidden.
OK, I started this poem at 16:00 on Sunday 18 April 2021, and it is now 16:45. What do I think of it? Well, I’m not sure, having just written it. I’ll look again tomorrow, and let you know of any immediate changes I want to make. I didn’t seem to need the reference books. The form of it seemed to come naturally. I’m not a great one for rhyme and meter, I prefer to let my poems have the natural rhythms of my speaking voice, but nevertheless every poem has its innate form, and this one settled very early into tercets.
I’ve referred to Orpheus before in poems—in my “Seven Modulations of El Desdichado,” for instance, but also in the poem I wrote in memory of my poetic mentor, the Japanese poet Kijima Hajime, which refers to the inscriptions for entering the afterlife engraved on Orphic silver tablets. Here’s the poem for him, while I think of it:
Metamorphosis Inside the womb he first grew gills then wings— his dream was to become everything that ever lived His thoughts swarmed through the dizzying maze of memory— one became many and many became one Child of earth and starry heaven he has flown free from the wheel of grief— straight to the heart of singing light
JOSEPH T. THOMAS, JR is a poet and scholar of American poetry and children’s literature. He directs the National Center for the Study of Children’s Literature at San Diego State University, where he is a Professor of English and Comparative Literature. In addition to co-editing Prizing Children’s Literature: The Cultural Politics of Children’s Book Awards (Routledge, 2016) and All of a Kind: Remembering June Cummins (Cats in the Basement, 2020), Thomas has published numerous essays, poems, and two books, Poetry’s Playground (Wayne State UP, 2007) and Strong Measures (Make Now, 2007). He can be found on Twitter @josephsdsu.