Letter from a Far Country
A Postscript, originally written for e magazine
by Gillian Clarke
This is a letter to you, reader, from my far country. Each of us lives in a far country. Every time we try to communicate our humanity to another, person to person, writer to reader, every time we make a work of art, as the poem says in its opening lines, it is like putting a letter in a bottle and throwing it into the sea. It’s an act of faith that maybe some day someone on the other side of the ocean will find it. In the poem I say it might ‘take a generation to arrive.’ The far country, I have written elsewhere, is the beautiful country where the warriors, kings and presidents don’t live, the private place where we all grow up.
The poem was written in the 1970s. It was commissioned as a 30 minute poem for radio. I wrote it to be spoken by one voice in the rhythm of natural, unrhymed speech. The voice was heard over and between sound effects of the sea, birdsong, people gossiping or singing, sounds of nature and human activity now and a hundred years ago. The poem describes a place shifting between present and past, between the sea and the land, between farm, field, mill and village. In the broadcast version the poem opened and closed with a simple song, sung unaccompanied like a nursery rhyme. ‘If we launch the boat and sail away’ appears as three rhymed verses in the printed version of the poem.
I’ve been challenged by students about the words of this song. ‘Why’, they ask, ‘did you let down the feminist spirit of the rest of the poem?’ That’s the trouble with print. The song was intended to be heard occasionally throughout the piece, sung, played or hummed in little snatches, like an annoying tune you can’t get out of your head. The words are subversive, and intended to be so, because the nursery rhymes and fairy stories we all loved as children reinforce gender stereotyping from the very start. They tell us that women live this way, and men live that way, in separate far countries. The song is a new nursery rhyme using a traditional form and playing the old tricks such rhymes play. It reinforces the old message, showing how deeply we are influenced in childhood by words, by lullabies, nursery rhymes, fairy stories and playground chants, whether we know it or not.
The ‘far country’ of the title has many meanings. It is childhood, the past, the future. It’s from me to you, from here to there. It is being a woman in a world that is still, three decades after I wrote the poem, governed almost entirely for and by men, and by masculine principles of competition, aggression and war, rather than co-operation, conciliation and the common good. When I wrote this poem, in the late 1970s, it was my small contribution to the feminist debate. At the extremist end of 1970s feminism some of the argument was sad, simplistic and selfish, and as violent as the male world it attacked: women should take charge of their lives, grab the best jobs and get rid of the men.
Is the poem true? Is it personal? Well, it is not autobiography. Like most writers of poetry and fiction, I use personal experience, research, memory and imagination. It is written in the voice of one imaginary woman on behalf of all women, not just the privileged few who are educated, have money, professions, babies, child-minders and cleaners. I began writing in anger, frustrated by the situation in which most women found themselves. I wrote fiercely, listing the housework. But as soon as I began to describe the washing, the clean sheets, the texture and smells of comfort, the food, the jam making, the poem became a kind of litany, a sacred list. I was back in my childhood remembering the women who made life good, mothers, grandmothers, aunts, who loved us, spoiled us, read bedtime stories, tucked us up at night. I was seduced from anger by remembered pleasures, by thinking of the creativity of generations of anonymous women, half the human race that went uncelebrated and unremembered. The poem that began in anger turned into a celebration. At school and university we studied many epic poems, all of them about war and heroic deeds. I wanted ‘Letter’ to be about ordinary women, an epic about housework, a hymn to the cleaners and the carers, the cooks, the nurturers and the bedtime storytellers who, at their best, make life beautiful for those they love. They were, and are, the forgotten ones.
It is the story of a day in the life of one woman, working, thinking, dreaming, remembering. It is layered with stories and history, because that is how the human mind works. Inside every ordinary person is the astonishing private theatre of the mind. The poem’s narrative begins in the morning as her children depart for school, leaving her alone with her work and her thoughts. It ends at tea-time when the children arrive home. She tidies and cleans the house, meditating as she works, remembering, imagining. She daydreams about running away. She recalls her childhood on her grandmother’s farm and thinks about the history of the place where she lives. Layered into the narrative are lists of tasks done, remembered childhood terrors, of the jams and preserves her grandmother used to make, the names of the farms and houses in the neighbourhood and the people who lived in them a hundred years before. These are real farms, in the real neighbourhood where I now live, and real inhabitants and their work, or lack of it, recorded in the census of 1876. The events are fact. The suicide in ‘that innocent smallholding’ happened in 1930, in the house where I live. The cause was poverty. Her name was Marged. The poem is Marged’s silence speaking from long ago and far away.