“School’s Out” may have been Alice Cooper’s first big hit single but did you know it’s also the title of a poem by a Welsh poet born in 1871? If you left school a few decades ago, you’re probably more familiar with the poet as the author of “Leisure”, with its famous opening couplet: “What is this life if, full of care, / We have no time to stand and stare.” No doubt “Leisure” was once, for many young people, their first encounter with printed poetry. The author, of course, is William Henry Davies, sometimes nicknamed “the tramp poet”.
Davies began writing after a serious accident in which, trying to jump onto an express train in Renfrew, Ontario, he was dragged under the wheels. His work doesn’t usually dwell on the uglier side of vagrancy, but celebrates the pleasure and joy (two emotions which he was at pains to distinguish) to be had from nature and the simple life. His exuberance seems entirely unforced. There is no self-pity, although he endured a good deal of hardship in prisons and doss-houses before accomplishing his dream of publication, and his “leisure” must surely have been painful at times. Limping on a primitive wooden leg, he had good reason to slow down and gaze around him.
Davies delivers homilies in some of his verses, but he is never pompous or pious. He is the poet as everyman, using his eyes, his humor and his common sense; a natural lyricist with a direct line to the rhythmic vitality of our dear unfashionable old friend, the Common Muse.
As often with Davies’s poems, “School’s Out” is glancingly autobiographical. It is not a child’s-eye view, and it was not intended, as far as I know, to be a children’s poem. But then, I’m not entirely sure what a children’s poem is. Before writing for children became an industry, children simply looked over the adults’ shoulders, and found plenty to enjoy.
This little poem could be a medieval lyric: it could be a nursery rhyme or a carol. It’s as timeless as the liberation it delights in. A wry self-mockery reveals to the knowing reader the poet’s personal story: the “old man” he orders to “hobble home” may well be himself. But the dimeter rhythm gives the poem a gusty, bouncing pace, the staccato verses succeeding each other like short sharp flurries of March wind. Everything is in fugue – the children, the animals and birds as they hasten out of the way – and the tramps, at possible risk from so much vitality. Any hint of darkness is banished in the cheery apostrophe of the last two lines. There’s a lovely contrast between the skippety dactyl of “Merry mites” and the surprising, ceremonious spondee, “Welcome”. Perhaps it’s not strictly a spondee, but, in bagging a line all to itself, the word seems to insist on taking two full stresses: well come!
So this Poem of the week welcomes anybody who can remember what Alice Cooper described as one of the best moments in life: “the last three minutes of the last day of school when you’re sitting there and it’s like a slow fuse burning.”
If they can,
I also have to add this cute little poem, though I do not know who it is by:
It’s time to say good-bye
Our year has come to an end.
I’ve made more cherished memories
and many more new friends.
I’ve watched your child learn and grow
and change from day to day.
I hope that all the things we’ve done
Have helped in some small way.
So it’s with happy memories
I send them out the door,
With great hope and expectations
for what next year holds in store.