Notes, Grasmere


Gushing torrents down the short, steep hills; water spouting through stone walls into the road.

Wordsworth’s suitcase and luggage checklist: day shirt, shirt for evening, notebooks and writing equipment, socks.

Coleridge’s fondness for the Aeolian harp.

Pink, and yellow, yellow and yellow and pink – at the end of a path, clusters of plastic ponchos, hoods up.

Pay-and-display, charges applicable even 5-9pm. Got our bearings, and went to the local for a beer and something to eat. The bar serving hard-crack laughter and grammar – anyone asking ‘Can I have….’ was told ‘May I please have…’ Heavy rain walking to St Oswald’s. Quick look at the Wordsworths’ graves – William’s bare, Dorothy’s marked with a soft burst of cream-white roses – before heading in to the church for a reading by Tom Pow and Ruth Padel, part of a programme of poetry events organised by the Wordsworth Trust.

Pow was launching his selected, In the Becoming, including work from Dear Alice (last year’s collection relating to the Crichton asylum in Dumfries); his reading of ‘The Last Vision of Angus McKay’ was one of the highlights of the night. He also read from a work in progress, a ‘speculative biography’, in poems, of Thomas Watling, a Dumfries artist in the late eighteenth century. Watling was convicted of forgery and transported to Botany Bay, where he was put to work creating images to illustrate publications for a British market avid for a glimpse of the Antipodes. (Reassuringly, for those of us with slow-burning poetry projects, Pow first began to be interested in Watling in the late 1980s…) After a brief drinks break, Padel read from her book-length biography-in-verse of Charles Darwin, her great-great-grandfather, which had been produced to mark his bicentenary (Darwin: A Life in Poems, Chatto & Windus, 2009); she started with the first poem in the book and ended with the last, so the reading spanned his life. Both provided deft contextualisation of the extracts in terms of the broader narrative they were drawn from.

The Q&A after the reading was brief, but touched on the question of narrative, and the tension between needing to tell a story and needing to allow the poem to do what it wants. Padel noted her use of marginalia alongside the poems to convey information – she sees it as a way of allowing the poems to sit in the life. (Seeing this in the book later, it seemed to me ingenious, but also distracting. Having the notes in the margins is arguably less disruptive to the flow of the poems than footnotes or endnotes – but it’s also hard to ignore them…) Pow felt he didn’t have the same constraints on him: so little is known about Watling that he doesn’t have to cover the range of touchstones that Padel did – he can just go to the ‘hot spots’ that interest him.

There was also discussion about the use of quoted material in the poems. Padel chose to use quotation marks as the effect was less messy than italics; she never invented words for the two main characters, though occasionally left things out or changed the word order slightly to serve the poem. Pow sometimes used quotes from doctors’ notes at the Crichton – he said they were almost anthropological, and rooted in the idea of observing behaviour to understand the illness – but in doing so he wanted to look behind the words.

(28 July 2009)


Tom Pow has just released his book on Watling, A Wild Adventure (Birlinn, 2014), which I’m looking forward to reading. Information on the excellent Dear Alice is available at Salt Publishing; a short film about the project, which includes readings of three other poems from the collection, is at Pow’s website.