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Ian Caws

A Mystical Elegance of Form


IAN CAWS has shown himself a gifted poet since the first poem of his which I read. It was published by the late Martin Booth’s Sceptre Press and was about the Cavalier poet Richard Lovelace most famed for the exquisite lyric, ‘To Lucasta on Going to the Wars’. Caws’ poem features the ending of Lovelace’s life in poverty and sickness,


His estates taken, death laid low

The flourish of loyalties he

Thrust into a style.

‘flourish of loyalties he / Thrust into style.’ sums up, with an equally fine turn of phrase, Lovelace’s sentiments in the Lucasta and other lovely lyrics we have of the Cavalier poet. It is all said with poignant evocativeness, concretely expressed, the desolate ending of Lovelace, ‘In a corner, pimpled with rust, / Its edge gone, lay the sword that once / He offered to the King of France.’

The poetic development of Ian Caws revealed early―e.g., in a deeply thoughtful poem like ‘Jesus and Mary’ or in a poem like ‘Banners’ (both from Boy With A Kite, his first full collection) ―a striving to understand, to reach beyond the obvious, ‘Trying almost to touch those fading notes’. One of Ezra Pound’s many suggestions anent the purpose of poetry was to ‘extend human consciousness’. That is an everywhere apparent motive of, and achievement in, Caws’ poetry. His world―despite its despairs and sorrows―is staggeringly beautiful. It is the most ordinary world seen aright by the light of imagination. Two short poems, again both in his first collection, and titled ‘Wind’ and ‘The Light’, one of which I quote in full:




The noise of wind lifts me through soft layers

Of sleep, back to the dark room, the whistling

House. Yes. There only ever was this sound,

Desecrating, scattering the prayers

Of the lost who lie awake, their rustling

Souls like paper in its draught. It will find

No rest until the world is desolate,

Until there is nothing left but bristling

Wind. A thud from the coast staggers inland

And the lifeboat cuts out into our night,

Shrugged off by a churlish sea, mauled by wind.

― the other I mention simply its last line, ‘Yet a survivor on the seas’ breathing.’ That further illustrates this tactile magical touch. Which leads me to observe, as it were, en passant, the enormous number of fine and memorable lines present throughout his published career; lines like, ‘Listen to the clock chewing time’, ‘Looks out again at the untruthful sea’, ‘slowly over a nervous sea’―lines which twenty-three years on from Boy with a Kite become ever more integrated metaphors of nature like, ‘Then suddenly, his life became public / Like a dead tree root the sea had thrown up’.

It would not do justice to his work to say that Ian Caws writes best about the sea, is simply our finest seaside loiterer whose powers of marine observation are among the best of contemporary poets now writing, for he writes just as well when his gaze is firmly focused inland. But I know of none who quite so well gets the moods of the sea into verse, ‘Next / Moming there had been a clean up. Relaxed / As smoke, the sea purred and the roofs were sleek’. This, an observation in a poem about a local murder!

Edward Thomas said that, at bottom, all poetry was ‘nature poetry’, a description open to mis-interpretation; as was my use of the phrase ‘metaphors of nature’ and how, in Caws’ work, I have endeavoured to exemplify it, might create a narrowing perspective in the mind of anyone reading this article. But a trawl through his various volumes soon shows that ‘nature’ for this poet contains the human as well as that external, Wordsworthian nature, even the hidden ‘Divine’ nature, which is revealed from time to time through the numinous expressiveness of his poetry. And, like I say, the human has been there from the start― a marvellous poem entitled ‘Young Woman at a Party’ that begins:


All right, so it was the fall of her hair,

            Her riding breasts and whatever it is

In her voice that unbuttons my lust. Sure,

            I’ll admit the frenetic lights, the booze …

moves on to a poignant analysis of a lonely woman who had devel­oped a carapace to her loneliness, ‘I suppose you could call it cour­age. In / A sense, self-protecting … or just maybe / A spirit magnifi­cently human’.

Over the years his poetry has attracted perceptive comment from various publications. The TLS observed that his poems ‘are forever wrestling with patterns of light in a variety of times and places’ and The Observer was even more precise when it described his ‘unrestful investigations into the shadows’ showing ‘humane feelings and an unusual power of construction’. And, before I leave the poetry for the poet, I would like to touch on ‘construction’, that is to say, form.

Ian Caws has gradually evolved a unique form or formal approach in which an elegant construct for each poem is made that is the re­sult of conjoining measurement by the eye with measurement by the ear. The visual and the aural meld so perfectly that the poems read as well aloud as on the page, despite the fact that they appeal strongly to the eye of the silent reader at first glance.

There is a mystical elegance about his form that imbues his content. And the reasoning behind this fascinating development is best expressed in Ian Caws’ own words taken from the preface to one of his Salzburg University books: ‘Poetry which is solely for the outer ear is an art form that has, by definition, been reduced…Poems have shape and the shape is as much a part of the poem as anything else. It helps define it and needs to be seen.’

Ian Caws has lived in West Sussex for many years. Places like Rustington, Littlehampton and Arundel resonate much throughout his poetry, while the poets Ted Walker and Leslie Norris have been important personal influences. For most of his working life Ian has been a social worker, then an arts development officer; and he has been married for many years, quietly raising a family away from the London literary limelight.

Nevertheless, despite a life of provincial exile, he has received prizes and awards: an early Gregory Award, placings in the Nafional Poetry Competition and the TLS / Cheltenham Festival competition, plus a PBS Recommendation for his 1990 volume The Ragman Totts. Additional to his poetry, his other craft is music, for which he is locally well-known. Socially a very likeable and agreeable man, nevertheless, Ian Caws has a sharp and deeply thoughtful mind as his poetry everywhere demonstrates.

First published in SOUTH 31, April 2005.

The article was followed by a selection of poems by Ian Caws including work from Boy with a Kite (1981), The Ragman Totts (1990), Chamomile (1994), The Feast of Fools (1994), The Playing of the Easter Music (with Martin C. Caseley & Brian Louis Pearce, 1996), Herrick’s Women (1996), Dialogues in Mask (2000), Taro Fair (2003) and The Blind Fiddler (2004).


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