by Gillian Clarke
I am often asked if a poem is personal. I reply, not personal, but true. All writers use personal experience, even those who seem to be making things up. All poets , all fiction writers, use a mixture of experience and imaginative invention.
‘Scything’ is about a mother and her 11 year old son clearing long grass and brambles from a country garden. They are using a scythe. They are sad about something, working quietly. Silence is mentioned twice in the poem. They accidentally destroy a willow warbler’s nest. This event is the catalyst that breaks the silence. They are so upset that for a moment they blame each other, the way people do in any family at a high emotional moment. Restraint is gone. They first shout, then weep, then feel guilty and sad. All of a beautiful May day the little bird reminds them of their hurt, their regret, their guilt, as she searches for her lost nest of eggs. The song of the willow warbler is one the loveliest songs of the spring garden. The mother bird searched in silence, and the potential birdsong of a nest of fledglings was lost too.
A mother always feels guilty when she shouts at her child. I have not revealed in the poem what the cause of their sorrow was. In a way it is not important to know the cause. However, in the context of the collection in Six Women Poets students might like to know that the poem was written at the same time as ‘White Roses’, and that the death of the young boy in that poem is what weighs on the minds of mother and son in ‘Scything’. The boys were best friends. For some reason grief is always associated with guilt. When we grieve for someone we also feel glad and guilty to be alive and healthy. We wish we had done more for the dying, or dead person.
The scythe is a real tool, and we were using it to cut the grass. I never tell lies in a poem. If I say I am using a scythe, it is true. But the scythe is also often seen as a symbol of death, and death often portrayed as a reaper carrying a scythe. Thus Death is the harvester, taking life when its time has come. In Welsh we talk of ‘killing’ the corn. Yet how can we say that a twelve year old boy’s time has come? It was no more time for a 12 year old to die than for the hatching eggs of a willow warbler to be destroyed. The scythe was a ‘scalpel’, the shell the bones of babies.
In the last line I recall the heat of birth, of the sudden breaking of birth waters, the waters of life. I intend the poem to end with life, not death, and of course the mother and son are soon sorry for shouting, talking about their grief at last, and able to comfort each other.