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So I was listening to the radio – not properly listening – but it was on in the background, and suddenly 'Timothy Winters' came through.
There's something incomparably satisfying about a poem you can join in with, because most of it has stuck indelibly in your mind decades ago – without your ever having to learn it. That's 'Timothy Winters' by Cornish poet Charles Causley, who died in 2003, and whose poems will be remembered – or this one most certainly will.
Poets are highly preoccupied with the idea of being overlooked while alive, and forgotten when dead. You can mention the name 'Charles Causley' in a group of younger poets and see blank faces. But not in poets of a certain age. And not in those who studied his ballads at school. And even those who aren't sure about the name 'Charles Causley' – you see them fumbling through the memory files when you mention him – try them on a line of 'Timothy Winters', and see what happens. 'Ears like bombs and teeth like splinters: / A blitz of a boy is ....'
I think I met Causley in person once, but I was only in my teens, and now I can't be sure. But I met 'Timothy Winters' before that, and he has always stayed close.
What a poem! And it illustrates another thing about poetry: its ability to educate – and I don't just mean educate about socio-historic human deprivation. Who had ever heard the word 'helves' before they encountered
At Morning Prayers the Master helves
For children less fortunate than ourselves
My Picador Collected footnotes the word helves as Cornish dialect 'the alarmed lowing of cattle (as when a cow is separated from her calf); a desperate, pleading note'. I always inferred it meant 'appeals for help', which suggests the sound of the word in context led to not inappropriate interpretation. I have never read the word elsewhere, but I've always remembered its strangeness, and its curious rightness in this poem. Not just there for the rhyme, I think, though rhyme it certainly does.
But most importantly of all, the poem ends 'Amen'. To the many generations of UK children who were once closeted in daily school assemblies and enjoined to pray, 'Amen' meant the closing of something formal and the opening of doors. We had no idea of the meaning of 'Amen' in Hebrew, or that it was originally Hebrew at all. We just knew it signified the end, and the bit we could join in with, agree with – joyfully – if it meant getting on with something else that we hoped wouldn't involve praying.
You can know what words mean without knowing what they mean.
But you can never write (or hear) a poem that ends on the word 'amen' without remembering Timothy Winters, and therefore Charles Causley: humane, metrical, melodic and haunting.
So come one Angel, come on ten:
Timothy Winters says 'Amen
Amen amen amen amen.'
Timothy Winters, Lord.