On Thursday 16 March 2017 I had a revelation: I would, henceforth, make sense of my life through the medium of – poetry.
Given that most of my efforts at writing poetry so far have been of the kind that, set to music, easily pass for spoof country-and-western songs, this might seem pretentious of me. Who am I to think that I can write poetry?
That has always been my trouble. It’s the ‘who am I’? part. I’d tell anyone else, don’t worry about all that: just think it, feel it, sense it, write it. Why don’t I allow myself the same?
No. Instead I have to make a joke of it: like in my song, ‘Country Ladies’ – about the time when I lived ten miles out of town and had to take a bus if I needed to go anywhere. It was about the women I saw on the bus and it was sad and it was silly – as if I couldn’t just offer the sadness without wrapping it up as an amusement.
But what if I didn’t feel like making a joke? What if I wanted to be serious? Or just, I don’t know: be normal? Somehow I didn’t feel I was allowed to think in terms of poetry. I didn’t even know what it ought to mean to me.
Two things happened: I lay in bed, ill, and listened to ‘Poetry Please’ on Radio 4 with Roger McGough. I don’t always listen with full concentration because I’m usually doing something else but that day all I could do was lie there and surrender. The theme was ‘In-between days‘). There were two poems by Paul Henry (‘Three trees’ and ‘Between two bridges’) and one called ‘Growth Rings’ from the collection Murmur by Menna Elfin (which I enjoyed hearing in Welsh as well as in the English version, translated by Damian Walford Davies). I listened with more than my usual attention. And something in me seemed to break. Part of that wall that I put around myself. Every day, writing fiction, I feel like I need to climb over that wall to get away from everyday life and into the realm of freedom. But it seemed to me that, though poets do transmit stories, they are often sharing a pure form of experience. Unguarded, thoughtful and honest. Without walls. It must be a beautiful and also quite a scary way to live – ready to be pounced upon and to pounce.
Then along came my first-ever twitterchat on Poetry by Women Writers – hosted by Laurie Garrison (@lauriebg_) of the Women Writers School under the hashtag #women_writers. These chats are co-hosted by For Books Sake (@forbookssake) and Kendra Winchester (@k_d_winchester). This time the guest hosts were Afshan D’souza Lodhi (@AshLodhi) and Jen Campbell (@jenvcampbell).
I made one useful comment in answer to the first question (to say that my favourite poet is Sheenagh Pugh) and then in one swift hour was overwhelmed by the diversity and range of the poets and poems recommended. Some of the suggestions, which you can follow from Laurie’s article, involved performances in You-tube videos. Suddenly, poetry seemed like a way of getting to know not just a person but another culture, a different view of the world from the one I see out of my window. I thought – yes I want more of this!
And why 100 years asleep? Prompted because it’s 100 years since Edward Thomas died. The story of how this writer of prose, often frustrated at the volume of ‘hack work’ he had to produce to support his family, came to be a poet in the last three years of his life, just as anything like a normal life was being overtaken by what we now call the First World War, has always seemed poignant and a great lesson in getting on with doing what is essential for your creative soul – before it is too late. 100 years asleep – that’s how I feel sometimes when I think how much time has passed in low awareness. Sometimes you can’t avoid how you feel. Grieving is like that. When my husband died, in April 2010, I found some comfort in copying out Thomas’s poem, ‘These Things Also are Spring’s’ and keeping it where I could see it, with one or two small things of significance that belonged to Mike. It helped me because I was so aware of Thomas’s limited time to live and his focus on what he could still experience. The poem is bleak with its ‘banks by the roadside with grass long dead’ and yet affirming: what is there to be seen but a ‘chip of flint’ or ‘mite of chalk’ or ‘small birds’ dung’ when you search for ‘earliest violets’. It’s funny and ironic and it appreciates what is. I can imagine him walking and looking and this is what he saw. From these small observations he makes something and its meaning grows and resounds a hundred years later.
I realised that I should stop worrying about whether I was worthy of writing poetry and instead become alive to experiencing the world around me – in small ways. Trying to put an image or a feeling into words is just one way of intensifying and keeping that experience. It’s likely to make you receptive, more able to notice, to accept the painful and brilliant truth: we are all alive while we are alive. Then we are no more.
Still poetry (all of it) felt too big and baggy – where to start? I decided I would make things easy for myself by focusing on the shortest form, with a strict structure: the haiku.
And here my adventures in poetry begin.
Which poem helped you through a difficult time in your life?
Who are your favourite poets?