On my Poetry School intermediate course (which opens for September bookings on July 15th) I teach a term on voice, where we think about forms that involve a particular addressee – odes addressed to creatures or concepts; elegies to the dead; ghazals to unobtainable beloveds; prayers and spells that call on higher powers. All of these have a kind of anxiety underpinning them – they are one-sided acts of communication directed at a listener who might not actually be listening. I also touch on the lullaby, though it isn’t quite the same – the baby is listening. But they are probably not understanding: or they are only understanding on the level of Frost’s ‘sound of sense’, and because of this there is a tension at the heart of them. It often feels as though the message of their soothing lulla-noises directly contradicts the darkness of the lyrics. ‘When the bough breaks the cradle will fall…’ ‘There’s a poor wee little lamby. / The bees and the butterflies pickin’ at its eyes.’ They superficially soothe, whilst actually articulating the 4am fear of sleep-deprived mothers, many of whom must have lived in times of terrible infant mortality. There could even be a case to be made for some lullabies being the earliest poems of post-natal depression. Lorca has a wonderful essay ‘On Lullabies’ in which he argues that the Spanish cradle songs are the darkest of all:
This little turtle-dove
Hasn’t got a mother,
A gipsy woman bore him
And left him in a gutter
All the work is done
By the wretched women,
Waiting in the dark
For their men to come.
Others seem weighted with threats – the oldest surviving lullabies, from Babylon in 2000BC, tell the baby off for disturbing the House God with crying; whilst Kenyan women sing: ‘rock, rock, the baby who cries will be eaten by a hyena.’
When my niece Rose was born I wrote a poem in the form of a lullaby, October Roses. But now I have my own son who loves being sung to, and this week I realized that despite my fascination with them I don’t actually know any of the tunes beyond ‘Rock-a-bye Baby’, so decided to find a lullaby I liked online and learn it by heart to sing to him. During my research I stumbled on a fascinating BBC world service documentary, ‘The Language of Lullabies’, which argued that in every culture the signature inflections of the mother tongue are carried in lullabies, and that their frequent use of 6/8 time mimics the movement of the womb. It also featured a snatch of a gorgeous Manx lullaby, so I tracked down the full lyrics and a performance of it here, and spent an afternoon memorising it. It is not, as it happens, dark like so many others, but instead seems to be about children needing to be both wild and to come home:
Oh hush thee my dove, oh hush thee my rowan,
Oh hush thee my lapwing, my little brown bird.
Oh fold thy wings and seek thy nest now,
Oh shine the berry on the bright tree,
The bird is home from the mountain and valley.
Oh horo hi ri ri. Cadul gu lo.
Gruff seems to like it. And then yesterday, by coincidence, our friends Anna and Rufus brought the lovely new book Hook, Line and Singer by Cerys Matthews as a present for him. It’s an anthology of family songs, from music hall tunes to sea shanties, with lyrics and music, and features a whole section on lullabies, so I have no excuses not to learn some more…
In non-baby news, Ovid’s Heroines is doing very well, with a great review in The Times two weeks ago. And I’ll be having a launch event as part of the Copeland Book Market at Bold Tendencies in Peckham on Sunday the 21st of July at 5.45. Arrive promptly if you want to see me give a 30min performance from the book in the auditorium – afterwards I will be moving up to Frank’s Café on the roof terrace to drink campari and soak up the view, and I’m told there will also be readings from the wonderful Clinic poetry collective. Hoping Gruff will sleep nicely!!
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