In Presiding Spirits, we ask a contemporary poet to produce a new work drawing on a poem from the past. As Kate Clanchy explained to Mick Delap, her new poem for Magma is strongly influenced by one of her consistently present presiding spirits, Andrew Marvell (1621 – 1678).
You are a young mother rejoicing in the antics of your 10 month old son. He’s toddling, loves to push his trolley indoors — and one fine spring day, attended anxiously by his dad, for the first time heads it outside and across your garden. Do you reach for the camera — or your notebook, and your copy of the seventeenth century poet Andrew Marvell? For Kate Clanchy, this young mother, it was no choice. Once son and husband were safely inside again, she turned up the opening image from one of her favourite poems, Marvell’s The Picture of Little T.C. in a Prospect of Flowers:
See with what simplicity
This nymph begins her golden days!
In the green grass she loves to lie,
And there with her fair aspect tames
The wilder flowers, and gives them names;
But only with the roses plays,
And them does tell
What colour best becomes them, and what smell.
In his poem, Marvell goes on to try and imagine the child as a grown woman. Then ends by returning to the child playing before him in the garden:
But, O young beauty of the woods,
Whom nature courts with fruit and flowers,
Gather the flowers but spare the buds,
Lest Flora, angry at thy crime
To kill her infants in their prime,
Do quickly make the example yours;
And ere we see,
Nip in the bud all our hopes and thee.
And with the image of her young son and his attentive father playing before her in their own garden, Kate Clanchy deliberately echoed Marvell’s title for her poem, In a Prospect of Flowers:
So he can walk. We follow
his little trolley out
across the greening garden,
and hope he’ll always learn
like this: the random
swipe of feet firming
over months and weeks
to these determined
stiff short steps. Next,
we’d have him sing, or paint,
or play – trumpet, violin –
not scales, you understand, but
all that jazz cut off from us,
so schooled, well-versed…
Look out! He’s making off.
You go before to sweep the way,
I bend in his mower’s wake,
his brahmin’s pace. Our scholar’s gait.
In her two earlier collections (Slattern, 1995, and Samarkand, 1999, Picador) Kate Clanchy offered vivid poems based on her immediate concerns: her professional life as a young English teacher, comparing the life of her current students with her own school days; and from her more intimate relationships, striking love poems, and the progression towards the intense joy of setting up a shared home. But these were poems that combined immediacy with considerable metaphysical depth. They jumped and buzzed with the here and now, and crackled with light. They also asked big questions about the darker side of life. And they were so finely crafted, their musicality sang out. Now Kate Clanchy is a mother, and not surprisingly motherhood is figuring prominently in her current writing.
As she explains, she was at first doubtful that as commonplace an experience as watching her ten month old son take his trolley out into the garden for the first time merited a poem: "I wasn’t sure. It seemed too sentimental: how marvelous, what he’s learnt for himself! No way! But my excuse for writing In a Prospect of Flowers is that I also wanted to explore the thoughts it raised about nature and nurture, how education is a kind of corruption, a fall from the natural state; how we can’t raise a natural child, but only transmit our own values. And immediately I started to think about these things, I started to think about Marvell, and his great themes of how the cultivation of a garden or the building of a house, or indeed, growing up, start out as an attempt to create something revolutionary and fresh and new, but how the attempt always results in a kind of fall. We plant a lawn, the grass grows, and then, by mowing it, we destroy what we’ve created. I’ve liked Marvell and his mower since my teens — how he uses irony for a serious purpose. He is so open, so good at creating pictures. But he adds touches of the absurd, and there’s always darkness to go with the light. My poem, which is a celebration of a young child learning to walk, also looks forward to what might lie ahead — and it very definitely ironizes the rather earnest parents and their ambitions for their child!"
Her poem, says Clanchy, is built up from the two phrases that form the concluding couplet. "From very early on, I liked the idea of rhyming mower’s wake (my son pushing his trolley reminded me when I saw it of a tiny version of Marvell’s mower) with scholar’s gait (my husband, who is a scholar, leaning over the child)." And, as with most of Clanchy’s work, it’s written tightly in stanzas. "I like little boxes. I think the constriction of writing in a form helps you clarify your thoughts. This poem has three beats to the line, and small, three line stanzas – to match the small, halting steps of a child. And it’s narrow and long, like the prospect of a garden seen from indoors. I knew it was going to end with a couplet, and then it fell quite easily into its final shape once I’d decided I wanted it in three (beats) by three (lines)". But what Clanchy still doesn’t find so easy is turning her initial idea for a poem into the finished article. "I rewrite every poem at least a hundred times. It takes me ages. It’s such a weary process. But I know it’s got to be done. The joyous moments are at the beginning, when you think of it, and, for me, when it’s about three quarters done, and I’m into what I think of as the end game."
So what’s going on during this lengthy re-writing? "The ordering of the poem, getting the form, the rhythm, the rhyming right, is exhausting. I usually start to know the line length from deciding what the first line is going to be. That’s a help. I do love doing line breaks, and stanza breaks. Here, the line break at the end of the first line, we follow – pause, and we’ve passed from house to garden. Then a bigger pause at the end of the first stanza, in which mother and father turn to each other. Or at the end of the second stanza, after feet firming — big pause — over months and weeks…. I think of the stanza breaks as time passing. That white space is very active space. And all the words that fling out into that space should have a reason for being there. Then at the end, I wanted the last stanza to stand on its own – so it has four beats, not three, and the rhyming couplet. I don’t "put the sounds in" or add them later, as some students think I do! The sounds are always organic. I wanted to write this poem because I wanted to rhyme mower’s wake and scholar’s gait. If a poem doesn’t have sounds I want to put in, then it’s not a poem, it’s something else. Where do the sounds come from? I’ve no idea. I think probably the great, the super things you’ve read."
Kate Clanchy studied English at university, and went on to teach it in school, before she herself started writing poetry at 27. She’s widely read: "all the poets I like are the ones I liked when I was 16 or 17 – though I’ve added a whole range of contemporary poets too! People like Anne Stevenson, Philip Larkin, Carole Anne Duffy .…And every poet I like is good at sound …" As she’s explained, she likes to connect her own poems with what her presiding spirits have written. "It’s a continuum. Why do I want to write? Because I love reading. My first passion was reading, and some of my most powerful encounters with people, with voices, have been on the page. I can’t imagine why you’d want to write unless you’d had that experience".
But she accepts that most readers will be looking at her poems, not at what’s behind them. "I like to write things that are really clear, accessible, immediate. However, when I’m being read critically, in a scholarly way, I do worry about how I’m perceived. I do think that there’s a tendency to assume women poets are only influenced by women, and male poets by men. It annoys me to be always reviewed by women, and always to be disconnected from everyone except Sylvia Plath. Philip Larkin was influenced by Emily Dickinson. And my own first collection — it’s so Larkinesque it’s ridiculous. Nobody mentioned that connection."
So, being confessional isn’t enough, without both craft and knowledge? "There are very good confessional poets. I love Robert Lowell, Anne Sexton, and, yes, Sylvia Plath. But they’re not great because they had bad times. They’re great because they’ve transformed their experience. They were enormously well read, and cared passionately about literature. I don’t think it matters if something is true in the literal sense. I think it matters whether it rings true on the page. And if it doesn’t ring true on the page, we’re going to have to invest it with a lot of the things that will make it ring true."