HAT is it like to complete a poem after working on it for 52 years? I must be one of the very few people in history who can answer that question. I certainly have a sense of fulfilment, enhanced by the fact that now, at last, I can tell the story of the poem’s slow development.
To understand how it all began you must add another ten years —and a battered teddy bear. I loved my teddy, but there came a night when I went to bed without him because my mother felt it was "time to grow up". With teddy no longer clutched in my arms, our imaginary bedtime adventures became a thing of the past. Teddy sat in a distant chair.
In my teens I declared that I wanted to be an Anglican priest. While this may have been partly genuine, it was also a way to annoy my anti-clerical parents. I didn’t go far down the priestly road, but I did embrace Christianity, and my view of those fantasy romps with Teddy became heavy with undigested faith. I enshrined it in a poem whose solemn tread of four-beat lines reflected the Rupert Bear books that had complemented my childhood.
The opening verses display an unhappy mix of hubris and Christology:
Jesus Bear was cosmonaut in cosy chaos, long ago.
Ex nihilo, I set us there
to tumble headlong through the night.
I probed his wounds to penetrate — my loving hands —
the bigness of a human soul,
the sweep of universal might.
A few verses later, the poem ends crudely, with childhood magic and teenage earnestness driven out by filial grouch:
What. . . turned bear-love into loneliness?
. . . mother who, when I was older,
told me not to play with dolls.
HIS was an unprepossessing start to the writing career I later pursued. My books included children’s history, children’s fiction, and materials for overseas learners of English. One of my greatest joys was translating The Book of Margery Kempe from Middle English.
Her "Book" is both an autobiography and a variety show. In it, we see Kempe rolling in the dirt both literally and metaphorically; yet her religious transports carry her to Heaven, where she becomes God’s bride; to the Nativity, where she "made Our Lady a nice hot drink"; and to Calvary, to see the crucifixion in all its raw brutality.
By contrast, my own inner life had been inhibited by the time I was six or seven. I could blame the big, bad, adult world for Teddy’s demise, but I’d marked my coming of age with a poem that endorsed what had happened. I’d buried Teddy under reach-me-down theology and colossal presumption.
In place of my youthful "Ex nihilo, I set us there", I wanted to say, with Wordsworth: "Heaven lies about us in our infancy" — and to cherish the hope that it might remain. Recasting my poem took decades. Eventually, though, the syllables started dancing in threes instead of plodding in twos, and threesomes replaced the earlier four-square grouping of lines.
As verse comes to life, so does the bear. No longer passive, he is fully engaged in the whole adventure, and the first four verses see him as successively playmate, fellow adventurer, lover, and dying hero. Writing in my maturity, I could over-correct the bloodless account of the earlier version. I exaggerate and idealise, with notions and insights far beyond the reach of a child.
My fifth verse sees the bear — I will now say Christ — as redeemer. For a moment we are at "the still point of the turning world", before the poem’s remaining verses express the anguished yearning for a closeness to God which sometimes blessed my early years.
Gone is the easy answer about insensitive parenting! The poem seeks a better answer, but fails to find one. Gone, too, is the total desolation. "Now all is lost," said the earlier poem, disconsolate, bleak and impersonal, while the later one cries to the Lord in passionate hope, "where are you now?’"
HERE is comfort, then. To have such a craving shows that something remains. Moreover, in writing the poem’s opening verses, I’ve conjured up, in embellished form, the very child-life which the later verses seek in vain. I’ve always liked a paradox.
My adventures with Teddy had their own unique content, but every child dreams — and almost every child ceases to dream. This poignant fact has baffled me for 50-odd years, and I do my best to foster and celebrate children’s creativity. I run what I rather grandly call The International Song Project, a small "good cause" that links children’s poems and children’s music, and spans the oceans with friendship and song.
The project has a nativity play, The Travellers’ Delight. I wrote it as a vehicle for Christmas songs by young composers. After completing it, I realised that I’d gone back to the verse-form of my Rupert books. A lifetime spent in relaxing its hold had been swept aside. Truly, the child is father of the man.
Tony Triggs is an author and poet.
To present The Travellers’ Delight in Advent, contact the author at firstname.lastname@example.org