by Gillian Clarke
One October some years ago, a close friend died. She was the poet Frances Horovitz. She was 45. It’s a shock when someone you know dies too young. You feel guilty and glad to be alive, all at the same time. The funeral was in the village of Orcop, in Herefordshire. She was buried in the churchyard there on a damp October day. Many people came to the funeral, and many wept.
How to read the poem for its content:
Read the poem carefully. The poem is set in two places - as are many of my poems.
(Ask yourself the following questions before you go on reading these notes.)
- Where is the poem set in verse 1?
- What am I doing?
- What am I thinking about?
- At what point does the poem shift to the other place?
- What is the other place, and what is happening there?
- In verse 3 I return to the first scene. How does the mood and language of the poem change?
First I describe the scene outside my window at home - the autumn garden, a ‘sharp shower’, a stone lion’s head with dead lobelia plants in it. Summer is over. There are other signs of autumn weather: the wind has broken a branch in a poplar tree; the trees are ‘bright’, not green but yellow. The second verse moves back a few days to a different scene. ‘My friend dead and the graveyard at Orcop’. She doesn’t weigh much - she was very thin. She’s ‘lighter than hare-bones on men’s shoulders’, when they carry her coffin to the hawthorn hedge where she’ll be buried. I shift again. The poem leaps across both line-ending and verse ending this time, from the moment when the coffin is lowered, and we cast in our handfuls of earth and flowers, to the place where the poem started. At home, by a window, writing. I must get on with it. Life is short. I must not waste time. The thought comes to me: everyone knows their birthday, but nobody knows their death-day.
How to read the poem for its form:
There are three unequal verses. The poem doesn’t rhyme. Verses 2 and 3 divide in an unusual way. The poem, while beginning with one line of iambic pentameter*,
(‘Wind in the poplars and a broken branch’)
immediately breaks free from the traditional 5-beat rhythm*. However, here and there the beat surfaces, not confined to the line, but you can still hear it. As it’s a common speech rhythm it’s quite natural for it to occur in free-verse poetry. For example: ‘The grave / deep as a well takes the earth’s thud’, and ‘the pen / runs faster than wind’s white steps over grass.’ Or even this:
‘fall of flowers.
Over the page the pen’
So why do both the line and the verse break there, between ‘flowers’ and ‘over’? I think it’s because the poem must speed up suddenly to respond to the swift change of thought. ‘The slow / fall of flowers’ happens slowly, is spoken slowly. It’s a short line but there’s nothing more to say about the funeral. Pain and panic take over. I must get on with being alive. I must write. There’s not a moment to waste. The second half of the line leaps the gap, like a hare leaping a ditch, to a new verse, a new mood, a new thought. I must be alive to the natural world, to seeing and hearing and writing ‘like the wind, year after year/ passing my death-day, winning ground.’
How to read the poem for its language:
The first two lines describe a stormy October. Summer is over. A life is over. The trees are ‘bright’ with autumn colour. The lion ’darkens’ in a sudden rain shower. His ‘dreadlocks of lobelia’ are ‘grown long’, and ‘brown’. The shower is ‘sharp’. Hail, perhaps, or cold, fierce drops. The season and the weather are in tune with the mood of events: a tragic death, a funeral. The ‘broken branch’ is ‘a dead arm in the bright trees’. Both metaphors* refer to Frances. The ‘stone face of the lion’ in the rainy garden is echoed later in the graveyard: ‘our faces stony’. The rain also connects with the weeping in that line: ‘rain, weeping in the air’. Nature and people are reflecting each other’s grief. One is a symbol of the other. Summer and her life are over.
The verbs* play an important part in this poem. Notice ‘tremble’, ‘darkens’, the grave ‘takes’ the earth and the flowers. The pen ‘runs faster than wind’s white steps over grass.’
To see the image (metaphor) of the ‘wind’s white steps’, watch a patch of long grass turn silver as the wind blows over it. The two metaphors, the ‘wind’s white steps, and later ‘panic running the fields’, connect with each other and with the hare, whose bones are also the slender, white bones of the beautiful woman in the coffin. The wind is a hare. Panic is a startled hare. Frances, dead, is as light as a hare.
Hope lies in the white page, symbol of future writing, a metaphor for the clean white page of the future. Now the pen is the hare, running, writing like the wind.
Look at my A-Z of poetry terms for explanations of alliteration, assonance, metaphor, rhyme, rhythm, simile etc, with examples from my and other set poets’ work.
Look at Seamus Heaney’s poem about a funeral, ‘Mid Term Break’. Also compare this poem with Seamus Heaney’s ‘Digging’. Think about the pen, the spade, and the work writers do. Look at Seamus Heaney’s comments on this in his own notes.