12 April 2012

Poems for Easter (5): ‘Easter Poem’ by Ted Walker

Punters in summer sunshine on the River Cam below the Bridge of Sighs at Saint John’s College, Cambridge ... Ted Walker read modern languages here (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2011)

Patrick Comerford

For my Poem for Easter this morning I have chosen ‘Easter Poem’ by the prize-winning English poet and writer Ted Walker (1934-2004).

This poem was read on Easter Day last year in the Chapel of King’s College, Cambridge, by the chaplain, the Revd Richard Lloyd Morgan, who introduced it simply saying: “The paradox of Easter is explored in the English countryside.” Since then, recordings of this reading have received many hits on YouTube.

Ted Walker was born in Lancing, West Sussex, and went to school at Steyning Grammar School before reading modern languages at Saint John’s College, Cambridge.

This poem is dedicated to Ted Walker’s school friend, John Cotton. Together they had founded a poetry magazine, Priapus, and Walker published some work in the early numbers, which mark the beginning of his poetic career. Key figures who influenced Walker’s literary development included the Welsh poet, Canon Leslie Norris (1921-2006), whom he knew as a canon of Chichester Cathedral.

Walker’s first published poem, ‘Breakwaters,’ appeared in The New Yorker in June 1963. This poem was first published two years later in his first collection, Fox on a Barn Door (1965), which focuses on the Sussex countryside and coast.

Walker also wrote plays for the BBC and adapted Kenneth Grahame’s The Wind in the Willows (1995) for a television animated production with a voice cast including Alan Bennett, Rik Mayall, Michael Palin and Michael Gambon. But for most of his working life (1971–1992) Walker earned a living as Professor of Creative Writing at New England College, an American liberal arts academy with a campus in West Sussex.

The Revd Richard Lloyd Morgan (right) at King’s College, Cambridge ... he has introduced Ted Walker’s poem to a wider audience through YouTube (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Easter Poem (for John Cotton), by Ted Walker

I had gone on Easter Day
early and alone to be
beyond insidious bells
(that any other Sunday
I’d not hear) up to the hills
where are winds to blow away

commination. In the frail
first light I saw him, unreal
and sudden through lifting mist,
a fox on a barn door, nailed
like a coloured plaster Christ
in a Spanish shrine, his tail

coiled around his loins. Sideways
his head hung limply, his ears
snagged with burdock, his dry nose
plugged with black blood. For two days
he’d held the orthodox pose.
The endemic English noise

of Easter Sunday morning
was mixed with the mist swirling
and might have moved his stiff head.
Under the hill the ringing
had begun. As the sun rose red
to press on seemed the best thing.

I walked the length of the day’s
obsession. At dusk I was
swallowed by the misted barn,
sucked by the peristalsis
of my fear that he had gone,
leaving nails for souvenirs.

But he was there still. I saw
no sign. He hung as before.
Only the wind had risen
to comb the thorns from his fur.
I left my superstition
stretched on the banging barn door.

Canon Patrick Comerford is Lecturer in Anglicanism and Liturgy, the Church of Ireland Theological Institute, and a canon of Christ Church Cathedral, Dublin


Anonymous said...

Is belief in the Resurrection of Jesus Christ "superstition"? If that is what is meant, how does this poem become suitable for reading or hearing at Easter?

Del Oldham said...

Possibly, that Easter is a 'movable feast'. Surely if Christ's resurrection occured on a certain day, then how can it vary on a yearly basis? I understand that this is in line with the phases of the moon, but that hints toward superstition. Just a thought.

George Walker said...

As the younger brother of the late Ted Walker I can confirm that he was an atheist for most of his life, and certainly without faith by the time he wrote 'Easter Poem'. I was often the first person to hear his latest poem read to me by him over the telephone. This one was one such. On the dust-jacket of one of his books he lists his 'loss of faith' as one of the chief motivators of his poetry. In his teens and early twenties he had been quite devout, even considering conversion to the Church of Rome but by the age of thirty his faith had gone.
I happened to catch the reading of the poem from King's Chapel and immediately thought:
"Oh dear, have they got the wrong end of the stick!'

George Walker

HFM said...

Hi George,
I am really glad to read your comment. It's always irked me that this is used in a religious context, because to my mind it is always damning Christian faith, at least to some extent. It's a wonderful poem. I loved it as it is written here (and as it is read on YouTube within sermons) that i bought a copy, a reissue from 1969. However there is a difference in one of the verses, and I wonder if you (or anyone else with a different edition perhaps?) could help me figure whether Ted altered this himself later, or if it's been altered by persons not Ted.
In the fourth verse, on this blog, the poem reads:

of Easter Sunday morning
was mixed with the mist swirling
and might have moved his stiff head.
Under the hill the ringing
had begun. As the sun rose red
to press on seemed the best thing.

But in the 1969 reissue of 'Fox on a Barn Door' by Ted Walker, the ending of the fourth verse is quite different, and changes the poem substantially:

of Easter Sunday morning
was mixed with the mist swirling
and might have moved his stiff head.
Under the hill the ringing
had begun. As the sun rose red
on the stains of his bleeding.

If anyone can help on this matter I'd be very grateful!

George Walker said...

August 1963, Encounter magazine: Easter Poem first published. '...to press on...'is the line used. Obviously a first draft. Here is the link - I hope it works!


You may have to fiddle with it to make the print big enough to read.
TW altered the line for the book version. Strange about the extra syllable!

George Walker

Unknown said...

Hi George,
Thanks very much for taking the time to respond and also provide the link. And yes, it works!
All the best,

Robert Jackson said...

Lovely poem! Hope you are still playing jazz guitar George! Bob Jackson

George Walker said...

Bob, glad you liked the poem. I have seen pics of you on the web, still blowing. I gave up playing about four years ago after 25 years full-time as pro musician. For more details email me: jollygeroge@hotmail.com
The mis-spelling of george is intentional! Cheers, G