Poetry for my dad
I was buzzing along quite nicely in the Panda recently when I thought of my late father. For no particular reason I can think of, I suddenly remembered a poem I’d written when I’d finished my studies and was taking a ‘gap year plus’ in the UK, starting off in Scotland where I was born.
I really loved Scotland, although I never became fully acclimatised to its cold weather. But I did love the friendliness of its people and their ‘Never say die’ attitudes, and I was mesmerised by the beauty of the Scottish landscape. It spoke to my soul.
I found myself composing a poem about it one day while I was travelling through the rural countryside. I wrote the poem in sonnet form because the format of the great poets of the past seemed somehow fitting. Many years later, back in South Africa, I shared this poem with my dad by writing it down for him (in my best handwriting) at the front of a book I’d given him for Christmas. He was really appreciative.
My dad, Ralph Gray, was always a great fan of poetry, with a particular enjoyment of the great English poets of yesteryear – Keats, Blake, Milton, Coleridge, Tennyson, Thomas Gray, Wordsworth, Shelley, Byron – as well as Shakespeare of course, and also a few Irish and Scottish poets including WB Yeats and naturally Robert Burns. With all due respect, I don’t think he was necessarily as enamoured of American poets, though he did quote Robert Frost’s The Road Not Taken every now and then. I think it spoke to him.
We used to chat about poetry sometimes and I remember him, quite often, pulling a few lines from his favourite poets out of the air and sprinkling the conversation with them. This generally led to some interesting moments, which makes me smile when I look back now.
In my mind’s eye I can see him, taking a brief break from whatever he was doing to enter, instead, the higher realms of beautiful language and take a short time-out from life’s obligations. Happily, of course, it made me take a short time-out also.
For example, when winter started to bite, I would wait for my dad to quote the first four lines from Thomas Gray’s The Eve of St Agnes, rolling his Scottish accent around the words with a certain glee:
“St. Agnes’ Eve—Ah, bitter chill it was!
The owl, for all his feathers, was a-cold;
The hare limp’d trembling through the frozen grass,
And silent was the flock in woolly fold…”
When my dad was feeling frivolous, it was the turn of Coleridge’s Kubla Khan, usually accompanied by a philosophical discussion about The Person From Porlock who interrupted the whole thing:
‘In Xanadu did Kubla Khan
A stately pleasure-dome decree:
Where Alph, the sacred river, ran
Through caverns measureless to man
Down to a sunless sea.’
And when my father was feeling a bit more sombre about life, it was the turn of the misguided sailor who went against seafaring traditions and killed the albatross which had brought luck on the journey, thereby bringing fatal and appalling circumstances to all those on board ship with him. Here is Coleridge again, The Rime of the Ancient Mariner:
‘It is an ancient Mariner,
And he stoppeth one of three.
‘By thy long grey beard and glittering eye,
Now wherefore stopp’st thou me?
‘… And a good south wind sprung up behind;
The Albatross did follow,
And every day, for food or play,
Came to the mariner’s hollo!
…’God save thee, ancient Mariner!
From the fiends, that plague thee thus!—
Why look’st thou so?’—With my cross-bow
I shot the albatross.’
As I look back on this snapshot of beautiful words that my dad so loved, I do miss him.
We all do, those of us who knew and loved him.
I think you would go far, today, to find someone as knowledgeable about that section of English poetry as my father (outside the academic world of course).
But more than knowledge, my dad felt the beauty of these words penned by those long-ago poets. And in his love of words, he bequeathed something amazing to his two daughters, who today also love words and their power, beauty and potential: to inform, make things happen and touch people.
As I mentioned earlier, my dad would occasionally quote Robert Frost’s The Road Not Taken, and as I read Frost’s closing lines now, it reminds me to keep an open, adventurous and enquiring mind. And perhaps in that way, my late dad and his poetic moments passed on to me and my sister a true heritage.
From ‘The Road Not Taken’:
‘I shall be telling this with a sigh
Somewhere ages and ages hence:
Two roads diverged in a wood, and I –
I took the one less travelled by,
And that has made all the difference.’
(And here now is the poem that I wrote those many years ago and which my dad so liked:)
We came to look with strangers’ eyes
And found the land but stranger still
Cattle roamed deserted hills
Beneath the overhanging skies
And evergreen the legacy.
Purple heather, running streams,
The sole, wild realm – or so it seems –
Of mountains brooding, quietly.
Stuff of dreams or yet cliché
Dependent on the heart and will
Dependent on the thirsty mind
For while you pass oblivious by
The strangers, drinking deep their fill
Reclaim the birthright left behind.
This entry is for Linda and Ralph Gray, to acknowledge my great good luck which had them meeting each other a few decades back and ultimately giving me my Scottish heritage. And also for my sister Lorna, whose use of language is the purest and most cogent that I know.