I’m currently taking a poetry class where many of the students are from overseas. They know England from their reading – many have studied English Literature – but this is their first personal experience.
Knowing the country and its culture as well as they do, it must feel like a sort of home-coming. It certainly provokes such delightful situations as when one asked about the flowers on the secretary’s desk: “Are those daffodils? Like Wordsworth’s daffodils?”
Last week they were very doubtful when I assured them that, far from being over, the winter may not really have arrived yet. Yes, we’ve had storms, but that isn’t necessarily winter weather; what we haven’t had, at least in the Midlands, is real cold. And now March has come in like a lamb, I am more convinced than ever that the snow must come eventually.
We have had a few flakes, of course, and one of the overseas students has already written a poem where the adult protagonist sees snow for the very first time. It got me thinking about clichés and poetic subjects.
If a writer who has grown up knowing the English climate describes snow as feather-like, it’s unoriginal; but if someone who’s never seen it before uses the same description, can it be seen in some way as having more originality or more value? It is a clear and natural metaphor, after all, using a familiar image to relate to and depict a previously unknown experience.
What if it’s written by someone who isn’t familiar with English writing and may not have come across the comparison before?
Then again, although that particular poem had a freshness for me as I can’t imagine not knowing what snow is like and it went some way to capturing that sense of wonder, is it possible that, like “the first cuckoo of spring”, the actual subject “the first time I saw snow” may itself be a cliché in some cultures?
I was going to include a draft here of a poem here that I am working on based on last week’s class when we took a brief nature walk. Having found the photo of primroses as an illustration, though, and having been told yesterday that spring has come to my mother’s garden – there are snowdrops, crocuses, violets, daffodils and primroses all in bloom – I was reminded of a poem she used to recite:
If I should ever by chance grow rich
I’ll buy Codham, Cockridden, and Childerditch,
Roses, Pyrgo, and Lapwater,
And let them all to my elder daughter.
The rent I shall ask of her will be only
Each year’s first violets, white and lonely,
The first primroses and orchises-
She must find them before I do, that is.
But if she finds a blossom on furze
Without rent they shall all for ever be hers,
Codham, Cockridden, and Childerditch,
Roses, Pyrgo and Lapwater,-
I shall give them all to my elder daughter.
It is the first of four Household Poems by Edward Thomas, written for his eldest daughter Bronwen, although I rather think my mother promised to “give them all to [her] youngest daughter.”
No doubt if, one day, I find myself driving past Codham Hall (or even Childerditch Industrial Park) I will feel a sense of home-coming. In the meantime I will continue to ponder how on earth I can write about an English spring with any degree of originality.