I’ve been thinking a lot about this subject lately, in order to contribute to a panel discussion with several other poets, put on as part of the campaign to save Redland Library in Bristol. Trawling through my childhood for influences was an interesting and useful process, and I was particularly pleased that the story attached to one of the books I settled on centres on another local library. Moreover, I recommend the exercise. I think it’s important to explore where you come from as a writer, as it helps to establish a route map for future writing. It might even inspire you.
Hymns and Psalms
My grandmother, who raised eleven children between the wars and who always kept a pencil and a scrap of paper in her apron pocket to write down lines of poetry as they occured to her, taught me my nursery rhymes, and these were my first poems, but the first book of poetry I encountered was Hymns and Psalms, the hymn book of the Methodist Church. Methodism influenced my relationship with language throughout my formative years, and has had a huge, if mainly subconscious, effect on how I use it in my writing.
I attended Sunday School every Sunday afternoon from the age of two until I was about 12, and every Sunday morning I sat through the regular church service. Having the attention span of a gnat, I spent years dreaming my way through sermons and prayers. I also found that if I stared very hard at the minister without blinking, I could make a halo appear right around his body, a bit like a Ready Brek kid (only less orange).
The bible stories back then were read from the King James Bible with its strange language and beautiful rhythms, as were the psalms, which Methodists render in a call and response format, between the minister and members of the congregation. The minister reads the first part of the verse, and the congregation the part that answers and augments the original statement. This meant that as soon as I could read, I was speaking poetry aloud, and something about these ritual readings seeped into my bloodstream.
Then there were the hymns. These required serious, getting-to-your-feet attention, and because I was so short, I was allowed to stand on the pew. And the words! … the dark paths on the wings of the storm, the fiery cloudy pillars, the death of death and death’s destruction … and that’s without tackling the magnificent hymns of Charles Wesley, co-founder of Methodism with his brother, John. I really didn’t have a clue what we were singing about, and for that reason, I’m sure these mysterious outpourings had a far greater effect on me than they would have done. I was a five-year-old child soaking up mysticism, metaphor, and the language of poetry. I was a rhythm Methodist.
‘The Red Pony’ by John Steinbeck
Like the Methodist hymn book, this is another case of not fully understanding what I was reading at the time, and the impact that had on my developing imagination. It also involves the second most important place in my childhood, after my grandmother’s house, and that was the old library on the big roundabout in Filton, where I grew up. Even now, if I close my eyes, I can smell floor polish, and picture the 1960s formica reception desk, which wouldn’t have disgraced the Tardis or Starship Enterprise.
My father would take my sister and me to the library every fortnight, but it was when I could read for myself that it really came into its own. Those brown card tickets we had back then were as precious to me as an EU passport, and served much the same purpose, in that you could travel anywhere with them, albeit in your imagination. I soon secured double the number under 12s were permitted to have, and it was a point of honour always to have read all eight books by the time the two weeks were up – unless the book was a particular favourite, in which case I would renew it and renew it until another customer demanded its return.
Neither of my parents had any interest in literature themselves, so my choice of reading matter was largely unguided. For a long time, I was addicted to Enid Blyton; then I moved on to pony books, revelling in stories of gymkhanas, shows and rosettes.
Then one day, when I was about seven or eight, I took out ‘The Red Pony’, thinking it would be more of the same: fictional heroines living my pony dream. If you’ve read it, you’ll know how far off the mark this expectation was. I got as far as this episode:
‘Billy Buck stood up from the box and surrendered the cotton swab. The pony still lay on his side and the wound in his throat bellowsed in and out. When Jody saw how dry and dead the hair looked, he knew at last that there was no hope for the pony. He had seen the dead hair before on dogs and on cows, and it was a sure sign. He sat heavily on the box and let down the barrier of the box stall. For a long time he kept his eyes on the moving wound, and at last he dozed, and the afternoon passed quickly. Just before dark his mother brought a deep dish of stew and left it for him and went away. Jody ate a little of it, and, when it was dark, he set the lantern on the floor the pony’s head so he could watch the wound and keep it open. And he dozed again until the night chill awakened him. The wind was blowing fiercely, bringing the north cold with it. Jody brought a blanket from his bed in the hay and wrapped himself in it. Gabilan’s breathing was quiet at last; the hoIe in his throat moved gently. The owls flew through the hayloft, shrieking and looking for mice. Jody put his hands down on his head and slept … ‘
In the morning Jody awakes and the pony is gone. He runs up over the ridge after it.
‘He looked up and saw a high circle of black blizzards, and the slowly revolving circle dropped lower and lower. The solemn birds soon disappeared over the ridge. Jody ran faster then, forced on by panic and rage. The trail entered the brush at last and followed a winding route among the tall sage bushes.
At the top of the ridge Jody was winded. He paused, puffing noisily. The blood pounded in his ears. Then he saw what he was looking for. Below, in one of the little clearings in the brush, lay the red pony. In the distance, Jody could see the legs moving slowly and convulsively. And in a circle around him stood the buzzards, waiting for the moment of death they know so well.
Jody leaped forward, and plunged down the hill. The wet ground muffled his steps and the brush hid him. When he arrived it was all over. The first buzzard sat on the pony’s head and its beak had just risen dripping with dark eye fluid. Jody plunged into the circle like a cat. The black brotherhood arose in a cloud, but the big one on the pony’s head was too late. As it hopped along to take off, Jody caught its wing tip and pulled it down. It was nearly as big as he was. The free wing crashed into his face with the force of a club, but he hung on. The claws fastened on his leg and the wing elbows battered his head on either side. Jody groped blindly with his free hand. His fingers found the neck of the struggling bird. The red eyes looked into his face, calm and fearless and fierce; the naked head turned from side to side. Then the beak opened and vomited a stream of putrifled fluid. Jody brought up his knee and fell on the great bird. He held the neck to the ground with one hand while his other found a piece of sharp white quartz. The first blow broke the beak sideways and black blood spurted from the twisted, leathery mouth comers. He struck again and missed. The red fearless eyes still looked at him, impersonal and unafraid and detached. He struck again and again, until the buzzard lay dead, until its head was a red pulp. He was still, beating the dead bird when Billy Buck pulled him off, and held him tightly to calm his shaking.’
I got no further. I slammed the book shut and marched straight back to the library with it, outraged. It was the only book I ever recall not finishing – and I never forgot its invocation of death, even during all the years when I no longer remembered the title and the name of the heartless bastard who’d written it.
Later, when I came of age, I read the major Steinbeck novels and short stories, but never glanced right to the bottom of the list of published works – or if I did, I didn’t twig. I was in my mid-thirties before the penny dropped, and I finally read it to the end, and cried for the boy, and the pony, and the old stable hand … and for the child whose imagination was to be so marked by a half-read book.
Birthday Letters by Ted Hughes
When I was 16, the door to my future was slammed shut by my teacher, who insisted I wasn’t good enough to study English at A-level (despite getting two As at O-level). As a working-class girl on an assisted place in a posh private school, I suspect my accent was all wrong, and my face probably didn’t fit either. To make matters worse, my parents, who were firm believers in deferring to one’s elders and betters, sided with my teacher and agreed I should study something else.
I took it to heart. I took it deep. I took A-levels and a degree in subjects that were interesting but weren’t what I longed to study. And since I could no longer be an English teacher, I married the first man who asked me and had four children in six years, two of whom were diagnosed with autism at the ages of four and three respectively. By my thirties I was stuck in a damaging marriage with no career, kids I loved fiercely but who needed all my energy, and no self-esteem. Moreover, I was estranged from literature, and everything it had represented for me, for decades.
Then, the Christmas after Ted Hughes died in 1998, something happened. One evening – by some random miracle – I found myself in the front room when a programme about ‘Birthday Letters’ came on the telly. Somehow my husband and all the kids were elsewhere, and none of them interrupted me. I poured myself a glass of Shiraz, and watched and wept as the story of another destructive love unravelled through poetry.
If you’re familiar with the poetry of Hughes, you’ll know that the fox is a totemic animal for him; a guiding spirit.
London. The grimy lilac softness
Of an April evening. Me
Walking over Chalk Farm Bridge
On my way to the tube station.
A new father – slightly light-headed
With the lack of sleep and the novelty.
Next, this young fellow coming towards me.
I glanced at him for the first time as I passed him
Because I noticed (I couldn’t believe it)
What I’d been ignoring.
Not the bulge of a small animal
Buttoned into the top of his jacket
The way colliers used to wear their whippets –
But its actual face. Eyes reaching out
Trying to catch my eyes – so familiar!
The huge ears, the pinched, urchin expression –
The wild confronting stare, pushed through fear,
Between the jacket lapels.
’It’s a fox-cub!’
I heard my own surprise as I stopped.
He stopped. ‘Where did you get it? What
Are you going to do with it?’
On the hump of Chalk Farm Bridge!
‘You can have him for a pound.’ ‘But
Where did you find it? What will you do with it?’
‘Oh, somebody’ll buy him. Cheap enough
At a pound.’ And a grin.
What I was thinking
Was – what would you think? How would we fit it
Into our crate of space? With the baby?
What would you make of its old smell
And its mannerless energy?
And as it grew up and began to enjoy itself
What would we do with an unpredictable,
Powerful, bounding fox?
The long-mouthed, flashing temperament?
That necessary nightly twenty miles
And that vast hunger for everything beyond us?
How would we cope with its cosmic derangements
Whenever we moved?
The little fox peered past me at other folks,
At this one and at that one, then at me.
Good luck was all it needed.
Already past the kittenish
But the eyes still small,
Round, orphaned-looking, woebegone
As if with weeping. Bereft
Of the blue milk, the toys of feather and fur,
The den life’s happy dark. And the huge whisper
Of the constellations
Out of which Mother had always returned.
My thoughts felt like big, ignorant hounds
Circling and sniffing around him.
Then I walked on
As if out of my own life.
I let that fox-cub go. I tossed it back
Into the future
Of a fox-cub in London and I hurried
Straight on and dived as if escaping
Into the Underground. If I had paid,
If I had paid that pound and turned back
To you, with that armful of fox –
If I had grasped that whatever comes with a fox
Is what tests a marriage and proves it a marriage –
I would not have failed the test. Would you have failed it?
But I failed. Our marriage had failed.
I bought the book and read it. I bought Plath’s Collected Poems and read them. Then, three months later, I dreamt of dead Ted Hughes sitting on the steps of Filton swimming pool with his head in his hands. He was all grief, and physically too huge for me to comfort, and I knew immediately that he represented me, and that I needed to attend to this part of me that was dying before it was too late.
My confidence was so shattered I was no longer entirely sure what a poem was, but I started to write. Finding each word was agony; even worse was finishing a poem in the certainty I’d never write another. Then an abrupt and untimely death occurred in my extended family, and poetry felt too dangerous a place to go, so I wrote a novel, one day a week for seven years. But I kept reading poetry, and during the final year of my marriage, I started to write it again.
My ex-husband once claimed these poems broke up our marriage. At the time I blamed his rages and constant affairs, but ten years on, I find I agree with him. Faltering as they were, they represented something that was beyond his control … and beyond mine too. Within six months of our divorce, my first collection, Communion, was published, and I wonder now if all the setbacks and the chance encounters that could just as easily have not happened, had to occur for me to be here now.