The Talking-Skull, poems by James Reeves

A Graph Review:   45 with highpoint 60

(0=dont bother, 100 =best ever)

talkingskull trimmed piccymy copy is Heinemann, jacketed hardback

published 1958

This was Reeves’ fourth collection of non-childrens poetry. He is possibly better remembered as writing poetry for children or editing anthologies and also as a literary critic. He was also the first to edit a volume of folk-song and traditional poetry from Cecil Sharp’s collection for many of music had been previously published:  titled ‘Idiom of the People’.

I was pleased to find this old edition containing  his poetry.  The themes as per title on death and sadness might have weighed a little heavy  but there were enough variations, interests and touches of humour to balance the collection nicely.  You need to know your Classic Greek and Roman at times in order to get full reverberations from some poems.  (Here I admit  lacking somewhat though I have a couple of very handy books to help the old memor)

Some 47 poems, some harking back to Hades, to Catullus and ‘Field of Lies’  (I also mentally transposed it to Lilies), not forgetting ‘Frogs’ .  Then a poem I found almost hypnotic, the title being:  ‘And so they came to live at Daffodil Water’.   Thumbing through to pick out my choicest, it gets more difficult as I read.  Classicism may not be much in the current mode but it is a refreshing style with its variation of lines and word selections that do not fall so frequently nowadays.

Yes, I know I am being generalist and shouldn’t.  This is just my current stance on recent reading, there are plenty fabled, old and new who lean on the classics in theme or style but remember James Reeves and tuck him into a corner too.

What drew me initially to this book was the first poem (second, if you include the poetic dedication):  ”The Savage Moon; a meditation on John Clare’  beginning:

‘I saw a dead tree, and the moon beyond,

Low in the sky, untroubled, full and round;

Nearer, the thin rain’s diorama fell

And blurred the surface of the brimming pond’

There follows, in a number of verses a brief resume of John Clare which is full of the passion and emotion that reading Clare’s works and knowing his life can produce.  Clare clutched at fame briefly and then fell away with his mental instabilities holding sway.  Moved up from labourer suffering ‘enclosure’ to poet in London Society, down again to a poor labourer with family and thence to Epping and Northampton asylums.  His Nature was an obsession. His observation and writing was with a passionate but still clear eye though his mind was often clouded.  (sorry, bit of a hobby-horse, see some earlier blogs, even better pick out some of the now-growing number of books on Clare , life and critical studies to see his place in the poet’s spectrum)

And again in this collection, in  a different poem; ‘On a Poet’ Reeves uses the lines:

‘When he is dead and his best phrases stored

With Clare’s and Hardy’s in the book of gold,

She with her unpresuming Saxon grace

In the Queen’s starry train will take her place’.

‘She’ being the poet’s muse in the poem but read more of James Reeves life to seek a possible person.  The important element for me is the position Reeves places Clare as a poet, but then you might also judge from this that all poets deserves such a place.

This book, trying to resist my enthusiasm for its Clare content, is a worthwhile read if you like to vary your period and styles and like to taste currently less well known authors.  There are no great leaps into beat or modern or skeletal poems. but romantic, assuming brittleness, classical references, clutches of humour and touches of sorrow.  Compare with Douglas Dunn: Elegies (Faber) or Christopher Reid: A Scattering (Areta books)

Poems noted above are worth finding, as are the poems: Academic, Bottom’s Dream; and ‘The Talking-Skull’, seems especially good for recital.


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