Castaway poet Sarah Wimbush chooses three poems to take to a desert island. She talks about getting to know Ted Hughes, taking permission to be braver from Liz Berry and how Paul Bentley’s long poem about the 1984-85 miners’ strike, ‘The Two Magicians’, resonates with her
Only three poems! Tricky. If you’d said I could only have one poem, it would be an easier choice: ‘Wind’ by Ted Hughes. To be so committed to one poem might seem unadventurous to say the least – boringly predictable too perhaps – but I do have good reasons.
First of all, perhaps like a lot of latecomers to poetry, I didn’t have a clue where to start reading good poems. Initially, I nibbled away at pieces on-line, mainly to make it as cost-effective as possible. It seemed sensible to concentrate on established poets, and within that remit a local Laureate seemed like a fairly good place to start.
Ted Hughes lived in Mexborough in my home town of Doncaster from the age of seven until he went to Cambridge University. I’d never been introduced to his poems at school, which seems sacrilegious as I say it now, so I was naturally drawn to this co-Doncastrian and keen to get a feel for his writing. I wanted to get to know his poetry; to appreciate it, yes, but also in the hope that his voice could be something I could relate to and learn from. It became all those things. I bought a copy of Ted Hughes’ Selected by Simon Armitage (Faber 2000), and there, among the bounty of super poems, was ‘Wind’ in all its gorgeous raw energy.
Like a lot of Hughes’ work, it’s the sheer physicality of ‘Wind’ that makes it such a heart-stopping poem for me; wild, sensory, vivid and visceral, with a stomping foot-work of half-rhyme and internal rhyme. All but one of the stanzas use enjambment onto the next stanza, feeding the pace of the poem, and the first person intensity, along with the canny use of the “ing” suffix throughout, adds to the glory of its roller-coaster richness. That active narrative is also brought to life by a tumble of poetic devices, for example the sound of the house being battered by wind becomes more splendid, not just as a goblet that rings, but as “some fine green goblet”. Yow!
It’s the sheer physicality of ‘Wind’ that makes it such a heart-stopping poem for me; wild, sensory, vivid and visceral, with a stomping foot-work of half-rhyme and internal rhyme
Of course, the wind also serves as a metaphor for stormy relationships, undoubtedly Hughes’ own, and that is part of its appeal for me – that it can be either or both things. Regardless, it’s one of those poems that should definitely be read aloud for it to be appreciated, preferably on a stormy night next to a roaring fire.
The second reason for loving this poem is much more personal. When our daughters were young, our rickety old house still had its rickety old windows and during bad weather the whole building became some Hughesian-like tent straining its guy ropes – at times it was really scary, for them and for us. One blustery bedtime SPOT wasn’t hitting the mark, and although I wasn’t sure how a grown-up poem would go down with young children, I decided to read ‘Wind’ aloud – embracing the weather’s hullaballoo rather than fighting it. The effect was magical! As soon as I kicked-off with “This house has been far out at sea all night”, the swaying curtains, rattling drainpipes and thrashing trees simply became part of the reading, and year on year our girls would snuggle down absorbing both the weather and the words. Now, as women, the poem has become an iconic part of their childhood.
‘Wind’ was a green light, enabling me to explore my inner Saxon by using fiery, muscular language in my own poetry. Some of my Gypsy poems, for example ‘Gal’ and ‘Bloodlines’, which started life in my first pamphlet of the same name, Bloodlines (Seren, 2020), inhabit the same colourful ourdoorsy worlds.
This house has been far out at sea all night,
The woods crashing through darkness, the booming hills,
Winds stampeding the fields under the window
Floundering black astride and blinding wet
Till day rose; then under an orange sky
The hills had new places, and wind wielded
Blade-light, luminous black and emerald,
Flexing like the lens of a mad eye.
For my second choice, I’d bring along the glorious ‘Bird’ by Liz Berry which describes a young bird’s first hesitant steps out of the nest – a metaphor for Berry herself, evolving as a poet. That’s probably why this poem strikes such a powerful cord with me, the stepping out into the world of poetry, both as a reader and writer. ‘Bird’ deservedly won first prize in the Poetry London Competition 2011 and is the starter poem in Berry’s Forward Prize prize-winning first collection, Black Country (Chatto and Windus, 2014), a voluptuous exploration of the area’s industrial past as well as the domestic and the personal.
‘Bird’ is a great advert for being braver and, dare I say it, simpler; it gave me permission not to be constrained by form, enabling me to feel freer and more explorative
Interestingly, ‘Wind’ and ‘Bird’ are both one word titles – perhaps a humdinger of a physical poem is better served by a simple title. Also ‘Bird’, like ‘Wind’, begins with a redoubtable first line, “When I became a bird, Lord, nothing could stop me”, the semantics of “Bird / Lord chiming together. After that punchy opening Berry then assembles lines in a seemingly random manner (there’s certainly nothing random about them) as if sparrow-like dainty footprints are stuttering and hopping their poetics across the page. From there, the poem flows through a luxurious mix of hesitancy combined with determination; incredible imagery delivered inside perfectly poised spacing, and a blend of colloquial language and regional dialect, transforming the writer into a fully-fledged poet while she crucially retains her roots and her identity. That mix of pace, imagery and the use of unconventional language is something I try to be mindful of when writing. I particularly love the centre of the poem:
My heart beat like a wing.
I shed my nightdress to the drowning arms of the dark,
my shoes to the sun’s widening mouth.
I found my bones hollowing to slender pipes,
my shoulder blades tufting down.
I spread my flight-greedy arms
to watch my fingers jewelling like ten hummingbirds,
my feet callousing to knuckly claws.
As my lips calcified to a hooked kiss
then an exultation of larks filled the clouds
and, in my mother’s voice, chorused:
Tek flight, chick, goo far fer the Winter.
So I left girlhood behind me like a blue egg
and stepped off
from the window ledge.
Berry does use translation and that’s a device I’ve found useful in my own poetry. There are other poets who include glossaries, such as David Morley. In the same way, Berry gives just enough detail without compromising the power of each poem.
‘Bird’ is a great advert for being braver and, dare I say it, simpler; it gave me permission not to be constrained by form, enabling me to feel freer and more explorative. In the final line Berry simply states: ‘and this is what I sang …’ the ellipsis illustrating that this poem is not an end, but a beginning. Perfect! Like Hughes’ ‘Wind’, this is a poem that needs to be heard in Berry’s own voice as she owns and celebrates the melody of her Black Country accent.
My last choice is a poem very close to my heart – ‘The Two Magicians’, from the pamphlet Largo by Paul Bentley (Smith/Doorstop 2011), a winner in the 2010 Poetry Business International Book & Pamphlet Competition and shortlisted in the Michael Marks Awards. Largo is my all-time favourite pamphlet to-date. It only contains three poems, each one brilliant in different ways, but ‘The Two Magicians’ is the poem which resonates with me the most, having grown up in a coal-mining area myself.
Not a short poem by any means, ‘The Two Magicians’ is a powerfully woven domestic and political exploration of the Miners’ Strike of 1984-85 as seen through the eyes of a teenager. Rich in popular culture, sex, politics, sport; at times tragic; at times heart-warming, it is spoken from hardy experience in colloquial language. This poem is so intricate it could be accused of being flash, but like any tapestry, it’s the marriage of colour and texture that increases the power of its delivery.
For me, ‘The Two Magicians’ is dramatic masterpiece; rich, visceral, and moving
‘The Two Magicians’ was originally a folk song in the form of a ballad where a young coal-black smith longs for a lady and the lady transforms into various animals to evade the young man’s desires. There is also a mention of Porphryo in the first section which throws a respectful nod to another romantic piece in its similar 48 rhyming iambic stanza poem – the narrative poem The Eve of St. Agnes by John Keats. Combined, these references set the scene, and send the reader on a journey through a world riddled with conflict and the unattainable, set in the South Yorkshire coal-fields:
Daz coming in with Claire, tirra lira.
Her breasts round beneath her jumper. Fishnets.
They’re taking the dog out. He’s having her
in the woods, in her dad’s pigeon huts,
all over. The pigeons all going wooo, wooo…
And heaven knows I’m miserable now.
Her belly growing round beneath her mohair.
On the telly another pit shut.
The miners all coming out at midnight.
Kev Robinson’s sister going to bed.
Porphyro stealing along at midnight
in the poem we’re meant to have read
about the soul’s progress.
Magic mist. Waiting for her to undress.
The mine-shafts echoing, as the clocks strike midnight.
She comes, she comes again, like ring-dove frayed and fled.
It’s evocative, raw, and beautifully accomplished. The rhyming stanzas are split into eight sections and each begins with Latin field-guide descriptions of animals, reflecting the cat and mouse drama of the conflict. References to the natural world act as analogies and show how the working-class miners were seen as a different species: “III Arachnida. This class serves more than anything else as a convenient way of grouping a strange assortment of creatures … Spiders are actually of no economic importance.” And each section ends with a “Chorus” of ebullient voices, highlighting some of the exchanges between police and miners: “Solo: (from a policeman) Morning, wankers!”
For me, ‘The Two Magicians’ is dramatic masterpiece; rich, visceral, and moving. It reminds me of a time when ordinary people suddenly became ‘the enemy’ and how they responded in the only way they could. The epitaph at the beginning of the pamphlet poignantly puts The Strike into context for us today, almost 40 years later, nodding to the resurgence of neo-liberal politics and the rise of ‘the individual’ in 1980s Britain, and beyond:
Brian Walden interviewed Margaret Thatcher on Weekend World in 1983 –
Walden: … when you say you agree with those values, those values don’t so much have a future resonance, there’s nothing terribly new about them. They have a resonance of our past. Now obviously Britain is a very different country from the one it was in Victorian times when there was great poverty, great wealth, etc., but you’ve really outlined an approval of what I would call Victorian values.
Margaret Thatcher: Oh, exactly. Very much so.
For entertainment I’ll enjoy the complete set of Shakespeare works (thank you, the Frip), and for company I’d bring along the formidable anthology, ‘Women’s Work’, edited by Eva Salzman and Amy Wack (Seren, 2008) which celebrates women’s poetry from across the English-speaking world. My bag is packed!