Saturday, 24 September 2022

Caroline Gill : part two

What poets changed the way you thought about writing?

Perhaps the simplest way in which to address this question is to list the poets and their individual influences on my own poetry journey. 

To begin at a point close to the beginning, my initial instincts were to emulate to one degree or another the forms of the poems I encountered. This meant largely writing rhyming quatrains in ‘abab’ (following the form of ‘The Cow’ by Robert Louis Stevenson) or in ‘aabb’ (after ‘The Tyger’ by William Blake); and indeed the first two poems I entered in competitions, at the ages of nine and ten years old, adopted the ‘abab’ pattern. It appealed to me that one could bring an animal, seascape or situation to life on the page. 

I may have been a reserved child in real life; but in its flights of fancy, my imagination often transported me to Lear’s ‘land where the Bong-Tree grows’, to the ‘many-tower’d Camelot’ of Tennyson’s ‘Lady of Shalott’, and to Shakespeare’s dreamworld of ‘spotted snakes’ and ‘thorny hedgehogs’. 

I studied Classical Studies as an undergraduate and went on to teach Greek texts and poetic playscripts in translation. During this time, I began to appreciate the concepts of structure and sound. It intrigued me that Pope had composed his own poetic version of Homer’s Iliad, and I began to write a mock-heroic epyllion of my own, complete with epigraph written out by hand in the Greek language. If Homer’s Odyssey showed me the power of narrative, Virgil’s Georgics demonstrated the importance of observation, particularly in writing about rural life, and (in his case) bees in particular.  

My husband and I moved to Tyneside in 1986, where a tutor at a WEA Creative Writing course mentioned that one of my poems reminded her of some poems by Tony Harrison, which she thought I might like to read. She also pointed out that that some of Harrison’s stanzas followed an ‘abba’ rhyme scheme, which I might like to try. Harrison’s poems were an education in language itself, causing me to think about linguistic issues such as the matter of received pronunciation and the value of local idiom. 

Fast forward through five years in Cambridge, when I was working and finding it hard to find a writing group, to the early 1990s when we moved to Swansea, hometown of Dylan Thomas. I took some classes in the Welsh language and soon became acquainted with simple greetings, mutations, and popular words such as ‘hwyl’ and ‘hiraeth’.

A few months later, Peter Thabit Jones introduced me to some English versions of the Englyn. Thanks to poems in English by Gerard Manley-Hopkins, I came to understand something of Cynghanedd, the Welsh notion of ‘sound-arrangement’ or harmony within a single line, achieved by following one of four set patterns involving rhyme and alliteration. I would recommend Listening to Welsh Verse by Mererid Hopwood (Gomer Press, 2005) for those who are interested in learning more.

I have a deep love of poetry forms. This was nurtured by The Book of Forms: a Handbook of Poetics by Lewis P. Turco. Little did I expect to have three of my own sample poems, a Clang, a Folding Mirror poem and a Bref Double with Echo, published in the turquoise-covered 2012 edition, which included odd and invented forms. 

During my Swansea years, I came to love the poetry of Edward Thomas, whose four grandparents hailed from Wales. I was already familiar with ‘Adlestrop’, but was unaware that Thomas had written so many poems in such a short space of time before his untimely death in the Great War. ‘Swedes’ may not be a ‘typical’ Thomas poem, but it immediately caught my eye and made me realise how powerful metaphor can be and how the smallest details can transform a text. In ‘Swedes’, the discovery of an ancient Egyptian tomb is compared to the opening of a swede clamp. David, my archaeologist husband, and I became so intrigued by the detail in the poem that we undertook some research and wrote a short paper, ‘Leaving Town’ and ‘Swedes’: Edward Thomas and Amen‐Hotep (Notes and Queries, Volume 50, Issue 3, OUP, September 2003, pp. 325–327).  

The Imagist poems of William Carlos Williams, perhaps notably ‘The Red Wheelbarrow’ and ‘Spring and All [By the road to the contagious hospital]’ made a marked impression on me some years ago when I was taking a Poetry School 1-2-1 course with Heidi Williamson as my tutor. I became more aware of the importance of image in the context of creating what I might call poetic impact. A poet is often juggling several balls at once (and here I am thinking of form, metaphor, line-endings, alliteration etc.); and if one is not careful, the key image can become overshadowed by other elements.  

Back in 2008, David and I began to take our holidays in Scotland. I bought a copy of The Tree House by Kathleen Jamie and was immediately captivated by the Scottish wildlife encounters the poet evoked in language (largely English, occasionally Scots) that was crisp, succinct and compelling. I may not have Jamie’s knowledge of Scots as a language, but I would like to feel that her work has made me aim for concision and precision in my own poems. Jamie’s whales in ‘The Whale-watcher’ continue to ‘breach’ through my poetic consciousness. 

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