My first encounter with Gillian Clarke was at a NATE Conference in South Wales, where she read to a willingly captive audience of English teachers, poems selected in the moment. How many poets are so in touch with their audience that they can do that? So I am not surprised to find that in 1990 she co-founded a writer’s centre, Ty Newydd in North Wales. When I retired from teaching, her poetry was part of the English GCSE syllabus. In some respects then, this binary collection represents two sides of what might be called, writing behind the poem; so it is not about ‘poetry’ although she does touch on the same kind of themes and principles that Eliot and Heaney touched upon, as did those before them.
In the Journal part, describing one year, she is as meticulous about detail as Hopkins was in his Journals. Why ‘At the source’? On one important level, the ‘source’ is obviously sensory experience, but a reflective interpretation of that experience also becomes a source, and perhaps ultimately there is also, that mysterious awareness that is prior to thought and being, of what may later take the form of a poem. The initial six essays are to some extent a journey through earlier poems, in much the same way that one might use snapshots. ‘Cordelia’s Nothing,’ for example, refers to Lear’s daughter, but her poem called ‘The King of Britain’s daughter’ took time to evolve. Eliot talks about the task of the poet is ‘to purify the dialect of the tribe’; Clarke points out that ‘nothing is until it has a word,’ which I feel takes Eliot’s insight to another level.
On the cover is a photograph of a hare and the first poem here is ‘Sgwarnog,’ about the hare, which ends with the line ‘murmuring mother tongue.’ When she talks about animals giving birth – there are a lot of sheep here, it is the same wonder at birth and mothering. There are other themes and images gleaned from the Mabinogion. I recall setting for a piece of coursework, three texts: Clarke’s ‘Blodeuwedd’ – and the original, Owen’s ‘The Send off,’ and a beautiful short story, ‘After the storm’ by Attia Hosain, about a girl orphaned by the post-partition civil war, who thanks her benefactor with a vase of flowers: the theme, of course, Flowers. Apart from this book evoking fond memories of using her poetry in the classroom, this is the kind of book that one can just sit down and read and be delighted, and the kind of book when you are reading, you can easily lose the sense of ‘reading.’
This small, lyrical masterpiece of a book is a praise-poem singing humanity's dependence on the landscape for sustenance, habitation, mythology, language and the stuff of art. It consists of two parts: six essays about aspects of family, culture and the making of poetry, of which 'Cordelia's 'Nothing'' spoke most resonantly to me; and twelve chapters in the form of a year-long journal, illuminating lives lived close to the land in rural West Wales. With infinite care and tenderness, Gillian Clarke explores the surprising interestingness and potential of ordinary (often disregarded) things, and that rich web of memories, associations and experiences, of joys and unfairnesses, of evocations and atmospheres which we call life. This is a warm, funny, thoughtful, sharp, densely-layered and occasionally provocative book, which makes real and simple the archetypal and universal potential of all modest local experiences. It is beautifully paced and written in straightforward, unfussy language. I closed the last page with reluctance, and with the smell of the land in my nose, a vision of creative modern lives happily inhabiting a green and ancient landscape before my eyes, and earth - shaken fresh from the roots of poetry - under my fingernails.
This collection of reflective. autobiographical essays from the National Poet of Wales deserves more recognition and a wider readership. Each piece is beautifully shaped with the prose reading as poetry as she. with a few deft phrases, brings to the reader pre-war Wales, her loving and beloved Welsh-speaking father, her ambitious English-speaking (Welsh) mother, the farmhouse she nutures back to life and the wild life in her field and hedgerows. She conjures scenes from the present and the past with economy and power and leaves the reader both satisfied but wanting more.