This year is the eightieth anniversary of the birth of the poet Jon Silkin. These sunny summer spells when we sometimes find ourselves sprawled across a lawn - studying the ground-level flora a little more closely than usual and from some unfamiliar angles - never fail to remind me of his work. One of my favourite poems of his concerns a flower that blooms down there at lawn level and at this time, 'A Daisy'.
Despite this small and common flower being little valued - and when they crop up in the more carefully-tended lawns, enthusiastically eradicated - I predict you'll never look at them in the same way after reading Silkin's precise and yet uncanny description.
Uncanny partly because of the precision. He's studied them minutely; he's considered them meticulously. These familiar, everyday flowers are re-presented to us new and strange. (Observant and long-standing readers with good memories may remember this poem being posted around about this time last year. But, hey, it's a favourite - I may put it up this time every year.)
Look unoriginalBeing numerous. They ask for attentionWith that gradated yellow swellingOf oily stamens. Petals focus them:The eye-lashes grow wide.Why should not one bring these to a funeral?And at night, like children,Without anxiety, their consciousnessShut with white petals;
The unwearying, small sunflowerFills the grassWith versions of one eye.A strength in the full lookCandid, solid, glad.Domestic as milk.
In multitudes, wait,Each, to be looked at, spoken to.They do not wither;Their going, a pressureOf elate sympathyReleased from you.Rich up to the last intervalWith minute tubes of oil, pollen;Utterly without scent, for the eye,For the eye, simply. For the mindAnd its invisible organ,That feeling thing.
Silkin's imagery seems wonderfully fresh to me. And yet, he was working within - and echoing - what we might describe without exaggeration as a tradition of daisy poetry. It may seem unlikely that such an unconsidered, everyday flower - weed, even - should support its own poetic tradition but it does. As literary environmentalist Bobby Ward wrote in his 'A Contemplation of Flowers' (a book I've recently discovered and something of a treasury):
After the rose and the lily, the daisy is probably the flower most often mentioned by poets. Chaucer was passionate for it, Shakespeare included daisies in the drowning Ophelia's 'fantastic garland' of flowers and Wordsworth wrote at least three poems to it. Robert Burns, Ben Jonson, Percy Bysshe Shelley, John Clare, and countless others referred to this simple but adored flower.
From early on the daisy had dual uses as an oracle and a herb. It became popular for telling prophesies because its composite form, or collection of numerous florets comprising the flower head, made the petals easy to pluck. Goethe supposedly gave Marguerite [incidentally, a French word for daisy] a daisy-like flower to determine Faust's love for her as she recited the now popular chant, 'He loves me. He loves me not.' Further, because the flower head looks much like an eye, herbalists using the ancient Doctrine of Signatures thought daisies could cure bloodshot eyes and various other eye problems.
So the daisy was being written about when the first recognisable English was being written. The 'passionate' fan, Chaucer, gave us an etymology:
That men by reason will it calle mayThe daisie or elles the eye of day
Of Ward's other examples, Wordsworth and his 'To the Daisy' interests me as it seems so consciously to embed itself in this floral tradition. And it ends by bequeathing the flower to future poets. Its penultimate verse also appeals mystically, even magically, to what Silkin describes as 'that feeling thing':
When, smitten by the morning ray,I see thee rise alert and gay,Then, chearful Flower! my spirits playWith kindred motion:At dusk, I've seldom mark'd thee pressThe ground, as if in thankfulness,Without some feeling, more or less,Of true devotion.
And all day long I number yet,All seasons through, another debt,Which I wherever thou art met,To thee am owing;An instinct call it, a blind sense;A happy, genial influence,Coming one knows not how nor whence,Nor whither going.
Child of the Year! that round dost runThy course, bold lover of the sun,And chearful when the day's begunAs morning Leveret,Thou long the Poet's praise shalt gain;Thou wilt be more belov'd by menIn times to come; thou not in vainArt Nature's Favorite.
It's a shame that Silkin - writing in 1965, so well before Ward wrote his book - wasn't included in 'A Contemplation Upon Flowers'. But then Ward's taste is traditional. Which also presumably accounts for Williams Carlos Williams' exclusion. He was an American admirer of Pound and his own daisy poem provides, perhaps predictably, a wilder, more expansive context for our little flower. I think it's rather wonderful that he begins it with a nod to Chaucer's 'the eye of day':
The dayseye hugging the earthin August, ha! Spring isgone down in purple,weeds stand high in the corn,the rainbeaten furrowis clotted with sorreland crabgrass, thebranch is black underthe heavy mass of the leaves--The sun is upon aslender green stemribbed lengthwise.He lies on his back--it is a woman also--he regards his formermajesty andround the yellow center,split and creviced and done intominute flowerheads, he sends outhis twenty rays-- a littleand the wind is among themto grow cool there!
One turns the thing overin his hand and looksat it from the rear: brownedged,green and pointed scalesarmor his yellow.
But turn and turn,the crisp petals remainbrief, translucent, greenfastened,barely touching at the edges:blades of limpid seashell.
'Turn and turn/the crisp petals remain'. Perhaps more so than he knew.