What made you choose poetry as a career?
by Gillian Clarke
I didn’t choose poetry. Poetry chose me. I’m very surprised it turned into a career. It didn’t start like that. It sort of grew. Poems were just fun. I thought every child made up poems. I thought it was natural as song and dance to make up poems for going up stairs, poems with my father in the car to pass long boring car journeys, poems to annoy my sister, poems to make my grandmother laugh when we were out for a walk.
So where did the poems begin? Before I could read there were nursery rhymes.
‘Boys and girls come out to play
The moon doth shine as bright as day
Leave your supper and leave your sleep.
Join your playfellows in the street.’
I’d look out of my bedroom window on a moonlit night hoping to see all the children playing in the street. I loved the strange word ‘doth’.
Also before I could read there were hymns, Welsh ones in chapel with my grandmother, and later English hymns in church and school. There was a bit of one hymn which I’ve never forgotten.
‘There is a green hill far away
Without a city wall’.
I dreamed about that green hill far away. I loved the strangeness of it. Why did it say that the green hill didn’t have a city wall? Much, much later I knew that the green hill was outside a walled city. Those lines had everything poetry should have: music and mystery, a brand new word, and the power to make me shiver. I said the words over and over on purpose to make my head burst. I’m told that the first long sentence anyone heard me say repeatedly to myself was this:
‘Ga put menthalatum on her sciatica and Ceri soaks the clothes in Parazone.’ Ga was my grandmother, Ceri was my aunt, Menthalatum was an ointment for rheumatism (sciatica), and Parazone dissolved stains before washing. I’d put together lovely words the grown-ups said. I didn’t know what they meant, but that didn’t matter.
I know could read by the time I was four, because I could read before I went to school. It wasn’t because I was clever, but because I was a natural born bookworm. My father told great stories, especially in the car, and my mother read me poems and stories every night. I couldn’t go to sleep without a book, then or now. As a child I wanted to be a writer, but I thought I wanted to write stories. I think my poems are like stories - although poetry is truth, not fiction, my poems almost always have a narrative. So, by the age of four I was ‘good at English’. I was expected to write the best story, the best poem, right from the beginning. And that is where it all started.