I’ve always been amply supplied with good teachers, regardless of what they do for a living. Good teachers excite us to remedy our ignorance. Among my chief educators today are such bloggers as Mike Gilleland, David Myers and Stephen Pentz. Each reliably alerts us to new writers worth reading and new ways to read worthwhile old writers.
On Monday, Stephen posted a fine poem by Stanley Cook (1922-1991), an English poet whose name I’m certain I’ve never heard before, though the title of the collection Stephen cited, Woods Beyond a Cornfield: Collected Poems (Smith/Doorstop Books, 1995), evoked a happy memory. If you look out the window of the second-floor study in Arrowhead, Herman Melville’s home in Pittsfield, Mass., where he completed Moby-Dick in 1851, you’ll see to the north the whale-shaped silhouette of Mount Greylock. But if you lower your gaze, you’ll see a field of corn and beyond it a line of woods. Melville planted the field in corn and potatoes the year he finished Moby-Dick.
Cook’s poems are gently ruminative, unpretentious in their engagement with the natural and human worlds. He’s the sort of quietly confident poet who would never presume to speak of “poetics” because he’s too busy trying to write good poems. For most of his life he was a teacher in Yorkshire. He had a wife and three children. He was “literary” only in the sense that he produced literature. In his introduction to Woods Beyond a Cornfield, the poet Peter Sansom quotes from an introduction Cook wrote to a pamphlet of his poems:
“I hope the steelworker and his wife next door would never need a dictionary to read my poems. I like to feel, too, that I have been as practical and unsentimental with a poem as if I had farmed, smithed or carpentered it—that the rest of the family would think I had done some `real’ work and not let them down.”
Often the subject of Cook’s poems is village life and the lives of his neighbors and relatives. He writes without a sense of self-dramatizing alienation. A poet and teacher is a worker among workers. Cook romances neither himself nor his working-class neighbors. None is a case study. Here is “Summer Evening”:
“Every Summer comes a transparent evening
Before the leaves are shopsoiled with dust
Or dated with Autumn. The eye and landscape
Linger upon each other, houses and hillside
Like an undeclared lover about to say
What he means. Time stops in the long twilight
For lovers outdoors; beyond the reach
Till the next time at least of biology
They watch the insects on scaffoldings of grass.
Games grow meaningless with repetition
And children whom rivalry nudges no longer
Go home together cooling in their sweat.
People exhibit their lives and life leaves time
To marry everyone: but the shops shut,
Bingo comes out, pubs close,
The bright sky tinges like petals of a flower
Stood in ink and the last bus runs.
Mind more than ever is crucified upon the body,
But the evenings I imagine must exist
For me to think of them even in error.”
Few poets today betray any knowledge of the lives of others in their poems. Cook has a fiction writer’s interest in human quiddity, its hardiness and vulnerability. I haven’t detected even one lapse into political pleading or posturing in Cook’s poems. The poetic precursor he most often cites is John Clare, another chronicler of nature and village life. In “To John Clare,” Cook might be addressing himself:
“Ghosts of smoke from the low cottage chimneys
Fail to define themselves, as they drag in the breeze
Beneath the weight of the rain-filled air
That utters the first stammering drops of a shower.
“Evening comes on and trees are dark
As a patch of damp, flowers from hemlock
And hedge parsley beaten down
By previous rain dim on the ground.
“Nothing clear remains for me to measure by
As shadows gather momentum toward the night;
Real and imaginary sorrows move
Gigantically within the gloom.
“Too dark to read: all I do is remember
Parts of your poems; time is maddening enough—
That all these trees stand around to pick
Your buried bones—without the world’s neglect.”
Like Clare and Melville, Cook has suffered “the world’s neglect.” Someday, perhaps, as has happened with Clare and Melville, this failure will be redressed.