Poets I go back to
by Gillian Clarke
Spring is here, and so is Larkin.
‘The trees are coming into leaf
Like something almost being said.’
The lanes are yellow with daffodils, and Wordsworth will not be silenced. Here we go again. The poets are taking over my mind. It is a particularly seasonal experience. In winter,
‘Earth stood hard as iron
Water like a stone.’
Christina Rossetti’s poem, learned by heart in childhood, speaks the very words of winter, until Keats butts in with
‘The owl, for all his feathers, was a-cold;
The hare limped trembling through the frozen grass,
And silent was the flock in woolly fold.’
Annually Ted Hughes reminds me that ‘October is marigold’. Leaning with me on a gate in summer, it is Shakespeare who transforms the meaning of a field of flowering dandelions.
‘Golden lads and girls all must,
As chimney sweepers, come to dust.’
There are internal seasons too. Sorrow, grief, guilt, love, desire. Shakespeare speaks them all. Love and desire lie half concealed in Emily Dickinson, and find full voice in Dafydd ap Gwilym, Herrick, Donne, Yeats, Auden, and so many others, past and present. None quite goes away, and Shakespeare is never out of mind. He reached me early, straight after nursery rhymes, A.A. Milne and A Child’s Garden of Verses. I was 10. I was taken to Stratford by Auntie Phyllis, a railway clerk who taught herself in the evenings to become a teacher of speech and drama. That first year we saw King Lear and A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Afterwards I was too excited to sleep. It was much better than the pantomime, I reported when I got home. Over the next 12 years Auntie Phyllis took me to over sixty productions.
Emily Dickinson came to me early too, first with her poem about a snake,
‘A narrow fellow in the grass
I loved especially, ‘He likes a Boggy Acre/ A Floor too Cool for Corn’, and my schoolgirl poems were soon full of capital letters and dashes. The clinching moment, though, and the lesson that a true poet does not leave the reader’s heart complacent, is the way the poem closes,
‘But never met this Fellow
Attended, or alone
Without a tighter breathing
And Zero at the Bone.’
Soon afterwards, when I was still young enough to relish the fearful pleasures of playing in churchyards - including the one where my own grandfather was buried under a lilac tree - careful not to tread on graves, reading the stone stories on each one, I discovered another Emily Dickinson poem,
‘Safe in their Alabaster Chambers -
Untouched by Morning -
And untouched by Noon -
Lie the meek members of the Resurrection -
Rafter of Satin - and Roof of Stone!’
Yet of her 1775 poems, a mere handful were published in her lifetime.
Studying W.B.Yeats opened his books for me. ‘Inisfree’ left me cold, but the love poems captured me. The story of Yeats’ romantic love for the Irish revolutionary, Maud Gonne, the intriguing imagery of apple blossom, thorn trees, blossoming thorn, orchards, hinting at the private facts of their story, unlocked the language and let me in. One of my favourites is still ‘Solomon and the Witch’, which concludes with Sheba’s words,
‘The night has fallen; not a sound
In the forbidden sacred grove
Unless a petal hit the ground,
Nor any human sight within it
But the crushed grass where we have lain;
And the moon is wilder very minute.
O! Solomon! Let us try again.’
Yeats, for me, was always one of the great dead. R.S.Thomas was alive, Welsh, part of my own culture. His books came with me all my adult life since the first poem of his that I ever read, in a literary journal. It was ‘The Fisherman’. One image caught me and never let me go.
‘A simple man,
He liked the crease on the water
His cast made, but had no pity
For the broken backbone
Of water or fish.’
Until his death in September 2000, I bought each collection almost on its publication day, and his poems are still my daily, living companions. I tend to be obsessed by one poem at a time, sometimes by just one line, opening the page again and again to see how it’s done, until the whole poem is committed to memory. Such a poem is ‘Zero’. It begins with a commonplace question, and takes us through many of the world’s great cultures, stories and mythologies, until it reaches a typically unsentimental RS conclusion. But, to the beginning,
‘What time is it?
Is it the hour when the servant
of Pharoah’s daughter went down
and found the abandoned baby
in the bulrushes? The hour
when Dido woke and knew Aeneas
gone from her?’
It ends of course, ‘It is no time at all’, just time enough for men to prepare themselves for yet another ‘crass deed’, leaving zero at the bone.
(This piece first appeared in The North )