The Journey from Prose to Poetry in the Autumn of Life


Guest Writer: Ellie Rees

At the relatively late age of sixty-something my inner world was altered.  At first the change was subtle; I had retired and this necessitated a move of house so any stirrings in my imagination were understandable. I didn’t move far; about one mile away from the campus of Atlantic College where I had lived and worked for the previous twenty years. From my new home I had exactly the same view of the Bristol Channel and Exmoor as before and yet my walks there, through the fields and footpaths now felt different. I was beginning to feel proprietorial.

When I walked through the woods and along the cliff path and the beach at Atlantic College, my mind was not on the landscape. Rather I would be mulling over my next class, maybe on Keats or maybe Robert Frost. My mind was always busy as I walked but busy with someone else’s poetry, not mine.  I could count on the fingers of one hand the number of poems I had ever written, however I had always kept a diary. The pompous child who wrote of the terrible winter of 1963 in the above diary is obviously related to Adrian Mole but she must have felt that her insights were important and that she was writing for an audience. She might not have realised that her audience would be herself. At the time I felt that I wanted to freeze time, capture in words joyous moments, happy times, preserve the details of the every-day. I now have a shelf of leather-bound books full of unlined parchment and careful handwriting but it never occurred to me to write poetry, until I was forced to.

Retirement, getting used to a new house and exploring a new neighbourhood prompted other opportunities so I went back to University and gained an MA in Creative Writing. It was there that I realised poetry was far more efficient, more piercing and condensed than the prose I had written in my notebooks. The sheer economy of the first few lines of a poem by Ted Hughes dazzled me, (though I must admit I would have left out most of the third line).

‘October is marigold and yet
A glass half full of wine left out
To the dark heaven all night, by dawn
Has dreamed a premonition
Of ice across its eye…’

For someone who lives in the northern hemisphere and has seen marigold flowers, the first three words of Ted Hughes’ poem immediately conjure the quality of the light from the low sun. The implied simile is moved to metaphor and the ear and eye is pleased by the three ‘o’s. The wine glass is obviously left over from a party and then the last two lines see the rim of the glass become an eye, an eye that is closed in sleep and which has dreamed; dreamed a premonition. The two ‘ee’ vowels here slide off the tongue, followed by the ice across its eye.

 From then on prose seemed too laborious, too long-winded and unable to carry the density of imagery I needed. A pheasant might explode from the long grass of the meadow; there were sky larks in the opposite field; a curlew crept across my lawn; a tawny owl made its nest in my yew tree and every year the swallows returned to their nesting place in a shed in my garden. Without realising it I was becoming an observer and fulfilling the instructions of the 18th century naturalist Gilbert White. In The Natural History of Selborne he wrote:

‘Men that undertake only one district are much more likely to advance natural knowledge than those that grasp at more than they can possibly be acquainted with: every kingdom, every province, should have its own monographer.’

Critics like to categorise poetry and terms such as new nature writing, ecopoetry and the poetry of place have been used to describe my work. My favourite definition so far comes from Alan Parry:

‘Rees herself becomes a kind of collector, gathering moments and fragments of life to present to the reader. Her poems are an offering, a sharing of the beauty she has found in the world. In this sense the poet becomes a guide, encouraging us to see the world with fresh Eyes.’ 

However the beauty of the cover of Modest Raptures as well as the celebratory tone of the majority of the poems disguise the underlying melancholy, a sense of the mutability of this world, both natural and man made.

The larks are still singing, still surviving but the farmer keeps spraying ‘this clapped-out field’. (A Walk in Winter) ‘Nothing has died when it really should have / not even a frost to cauterise. (Bare Ruined Choirs) ‘Someone has cancelled their tomorrows’ (The Cliff Edge) and the player has ‘with rare compassion’ altered the tune to a major key. The killing of a pigeon is perhaps the most bleak but parts of the sizzling energy of Razzle Dazzle have just jumped off the page and bitten me:

‘How to catch and how record
this joy of living, knowing only
may my time be done?…
This rhythm is wrong. I’m out of time.’  

But I was wrong, I wasn’t out of time; those lines were written several years ago and I still find that raptures, modest or otherwise can occur. The poem below, Dust Angel, was written just last week. For some strange reason I feel the need to copy this by hand, into my note book even though now, I compose on screen.

Dust Angel

It came from nowhere, the creature at my feet
skittering around my ankles in the wind.
A wren or a mouse but weirdly transparent,
a fallen leaf now turned to lace.
It stopped, though its body still moved, changing shape
so alive – yet made of dust.
A clot of spider web, wisps of hair, seed heads –
something spiritual.
A ghost of a creature that doesn’t exist,
the wind had given it life.
This must be how new worlds are created.

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