My current project of delving into the history of my hometown, through exploring the lives of 'ordinary' people buried in the church and graveyards there, generally favours the medium of prose to the tell extended family stories. But sometimes what I want to say fits into the shape and concentration that poetry offers - a measured and gradual revelation, down the page, of image and emotion.
When I first started writing poetry it was 'all about me'! I was totally unaware of the idea of needing to craft my experiences and language choices so they spoke to a (much!) wider audience.Ty Newydd, the National Writing Centre of Wales, in Llanystumdwy on the Lleyn Peninsula in North Wales. The course was called 'Poetry in Mountains' - and, true to the description, we were encouraged to write poems and climb mountains, including a couple of sessions of rock-climbing. And if that wasn't enough to make me fall in love with poetry combined with the natural world, some advice given to me by one of the course leaders, Terry Gifford, completely changed my approach to writing.
'At some point, Lynne,' he said, 'Catharsis has to give way to communication.'
This wasn't just the proverbial light-bulb switiching on. This was a whole stadium of floodlights illuminating my understanding of, and relationship to, writing poetry.Learning How to Fall, was published in 2005 and while I am still proud of that work, I can see how many of those poems rely heavily on poetic craft, the 'fireworks' of writing poetry, if you like: lots of figurative language, intertextuality, the punchy power of line break. These days, I'm more in Philip Larkin's camp, when he said:
“One is constantly conscious of trying to measure the effects of what you have written on someone starting from cold who may not have the experience you have had. This may not sound very significant, but it does cut out an extraordinary number of things which are quite common in other poetry. It cuts out obscurity, it cuts out references to literature and mythology which you cannot be sure they know. It means you are writing fairly simply in the language of ordinary people, using the accepted sense of words and using the accepted grammatical constructions and so on. That is my own practice.” The Guardian from 1973.
'The language of ordinary people' is exactly what I need to write about the lives of ordinary people, lives that are often extra-ordinary: experiences shaped by the times they lived through, by the press of events often beyond their control.
And here is a poem I read at Port Talbot Library in January this year. Over the previous year or so I had located and photographed the graves of all the men and boys at St Mary's, Aberafan who lost their lives to war. Both individual Commonwealth War Grave Commission Portland stone headstones and those memorialised on family graves.
Simplicity, like truth, is a powerful thing.
We have gathered them here –
the men and boys whose names
are inscribed on Portland stone
or memorialised on family graves
because their bodies lie in foreign fields,
or were never found.
We have conjured them
from their births and baptisms,
from census returns for the streets
where they lived. We have met them
as they were, before
their names on telegrams broke
the hearts and fractured the lives
of families, of mothers and wives.
Let us remember them now
before those cruel years
obliterated so much light,
when they still whistled and sang,
when they still had dreams,
when their thoughts were full
of Saturday football,
or the local rugby team,
or a pint with their dads, or sons,
at The Prince of Wales, The Avonvale
or The Craddock Arms.
When they were still holding
their children in their arms,
or trying to win a kiss from girls
they’d met on the sands,
at a dance or a market stall.
Fathers, brothers, husbands, sons
before they fell. Here they are
tipping the caps on their heads
or rolling up shirt sleeves,
or cigarettes, slapping their mates
on the back, their smiles and laughter
predating gunfire and shells.
And they go home
to those they loved, who loved them.
And us too,
their lives and deaths,
we will remember them.