on the companionship of poetry
My Father died when I was eleven years old, I was away in Norfolk with my Grandmother when the news was brought by a policeman, as there were no phones where my great Aunt and Uncle lived. I distinctly remember, in the days that followed, writing a long poem that included images of a bee on my windowsill flying away and the walks we took through a sugar beet field. Where that instinct came from I do not know, but it has been an instinct I have gradually come to trust.
Poetry has been a lifelong companion to me though there are times when I have not reciprocated that kindness and benevolence. Through my 30’s and 40’s I was an inconstant friend. In the heat of trying to make a life and sustain a family I strayed from the reading of poetry and the fearful blank page that always beckoned me. Only when I turned 50 did I hear what I described in the title poem of my first collection as ‘the call of the unwritten’.
The only qualification I left school with was an O’level in English Literature and that was thanks to the Welsh Poet Dylan Thomas. His lyrical power in lines that I didn’t comprehend with my mind had such emotional power and a physical effect on me. The poem Fern Hill hit me like a freight train, phrases like : ‘famous among barns – once below a time – the tunes from the chimneys – fire green as grass’. One line in particular stayed with me – ‘Nothing I cared in the lamb white days, that time would take me up to the swallow thronged loft by the shadow of my hand.’ I read years later that this was the poet recognising that his hand passing over the page and the shadowy presence of his poetry would place him in the company of poets so beautifully captured as the ‘swallow thronged loft’. This imagery informed my own work and the sense that I was like one of those swallows and I needed to emerge from this loft through the practice of writing. In ‘The Call Of The Unwritten’ I have this line : ‘A flight that captures the fierce jeopardy of living so I can render its path for others to read’.
In these words I felt an invitation to record the fierce jeopardy of living and heard myself finally responding to the companionship of poetry. I had no idea then that it would guide me through such dark passages in my life. In a piece from A Night Sea Journey called writing as therapy I say that I am ‘speaking lines gleaned from a dark no-mooned night, when only my pen knew its way’. This collection charts my anxiety breakdown in 2014 and my subsequent recovery. Poetry – the writing and reading of it provided me with an umbilical connection to the working of my inner world. I could begin that fearful dialogue with all the elements of my self that were asking me to pay attention to them. In a way it enabled me to experience my psyche reaching out to me, inviting me to an encounter that, though terribly challenging, has made me feel far more alive.
Recently I have begun to pay attention to another phenomenon that, again, I first encountered in Dylan; a poetic sense of place. The soliloquy at the beginning of Under Milk Wood evokes the town of Llareggub, a cipher for his home town of Laugharne, laying asleep before him and you the reader have that privileged sensation of standing next to him. The interleaving of people and place, placing the reader in that interstitial liminality between waking and sleeping enchanted me and invited me to explore what Wordsworth calls the genius loci of a place. For me the place is Sheffield. I have lived in the city on and off since I was a child. After my breakdown I began to feel an affinity with my city that had also been through a breakdown (of an industrial nature) and was struggling with its identity. I began to walk the city like a Parisian flaneur, though being a Northerner I called it traipsing. I felt like one of those artists who makes pieces from found objects; though I was collecting images. I am gradually forming these poems into a collection that will hopefully be accompanied by my photographs taken as I walk.
Barbara Hannah one of Jung’s closest companions says ‘animals almost invariably represent instincts when we meet them in dreams and active imagination’. Recently I have been dreaming of animals and reflecting on the place of animals in my life. The companionship of poetry is such that where others might turn to figurative art to represent their inner world I turn to writing. Alongside my Sheffield pieces I am gradually accumulating poems about animals both from my dreams and from my walking life. These are the deep instincts that I felt all those years ago when I first heard Dylan Thomas, they are the inner forces that awaken in us as we pay attention to the world of dreams. Poetry gives us the courage to make these night sea journeys and to find the shining beauty of the extraordinary in the ordinary weave and weft of our days and nights.