Wise sisters [1]. Greta Stoddart

[a slightly adapted version of the post I did for Write out Loud. I shall keep doing this for some time, for followers of the Cobweb who aren’t tuned in to the other webpage.. Why “wise sisters”? I dedicated my first collection to’my three wise sisters: Kim Moore, Hilary Elfick and Gaia Holmes’ . I just want to keep saying thank you to all the others. There will be two more in the next three weeks, and doubtless more in the coming months.]

I came back to Ted Hughes’ Season songstoday, as I do on a day like this, with

“the earth invalid, dropsied, bruised,wheeled

out into the sun,

after the frightful operation


leans back, eyes closed, exhausted, smiling

into the sun. Perhaps dozing a little.

While we sit,and smile, and wait, and know

she is not going to die”

[March morning unlike others]

One of those days when you feel the buzz under everything, the buzz at the tip of every stem, the spurts of daffodils, a day when:

“with arms swinging, a tremendous skater

on the flimsy ice of space,

the earth leans into its curve”

One of those days when you come awake and bestirred. How things suddenly shift, like an old log in a river bed that twists into a release and a rush. Two days ago I wrote a poem to take to a Poetry Business Writing Day; a poem I’ve been trying to write for two years or more, an old log of a poem, and everything pent up behind.

I put it down to how the company of other poets matters, how listening to them tells you ‘it can be done’. There may be writers who can make poetry out of solitude but I can’t imagine how it is to be like that. I love the urging and weight of stuff. And deadlines, pressure. When the company and the pressure come together I can feel blessed and released.

I guess this starts last Monday when I went to reading at The Square Chapel in Halifax; a wonderful space stitched into the fabric of the renovated Piece Hall, an amazing North Italian piazza that seems to have landed from space in a steep-sided gritstone valley. You can hear the footfall of 18thC Russian cloth merchants. It is astonishing. 

The were three readers: D A Prince, a Happenstance poet who I hadn’t known, and who read from a collection that is inpired by the bookmarks she collects or finds in second-hand books. She tells the story of them, these tickets, programmes, bits of card. And you think: Wow! why did no one think of that before? There was Yvonne Reddick (see the review of her book in earlier posts on Feb 19 and 25) who reads with an articulate conviction..memorable poems about her father, a man who died in a mountaineering accident; an oil industry worker across the world..in Kuwait, on the Norh Sea rigs. She read poems that bring stormblown birds into a world of glistening steel; poems about the enormous fragility of the world. Passionate and political poems that make you say yes: poems matter; writing matters. And then there was the prodigiously accomplished David Constantine who appears to be able to do absolutely anything with language and make it appear simple and inevitable. I came away buzzing, having been given permission to believe I can go on writing.  Some writers can do that.

Which brings me neatly to today’s guest poet (which was the reason I started writing a poetry blog in the first place..to share my enthusiasm for poets that you probably knew already, but who I’d just discovered). I met Greta Stoddart in December where she was a tutor on a Writing Residential weekend. You never know what to expect from writers’ workshops, but hers was everything I like. Structured, focussed, purposed. It was about the work of the line and of line endings. It was full of the variety of the things a line break can be persuaded to do. It taught me more in two hours than four years of puzzling over Dana Giaio had done, and it offered me one trick with a two stanza poem that might just solve an apparently intractable problem. So this post is by way of a thankyou.

Greta was born in 1966 in Oxfordshire. She spent her childhood in Oxford and Belgium. She studied mime in Paris and worked as a performer before becoming a full-time poet. She now teaches at the Poetry School in Exeter and Bridport. 

Stoddart’s first collection of poetry, At Home in the Dark was published in 2001, was shortlisted for the Forward Prize for Best First Collection and won the 2002 Geoffrey Faber Memorial Prize.

Her second collection, Salvation Jane was published in 2009 and shortlisted for the 2008 Costa Book Award.

Her third collection, Alive Alive O, was published in 2015 which focuses on life, death and mortality, was shortlisted for the Roehampton Poetry Prize 2016.

Her latest work, a radio poem called ‘Who’s there?’ broadcast on BBC Radio 4 was shortlisted for the 2017 Ted Hughes Award.

She lives in Devon and teaches for the Poetry School and the Arvon Foundation. 

It was the business of mortality (which I wrote about in last week’s post) that made a couple of the poems in her own webpage [http://www.gretastoddart.co.uk] jump off the page, and I’m delighted that she’s let me share them with you. I love their combination of precision and passionate engagement. 

The Curtain

Perhaps you know that story where people step 

out of this world and into another 

through a split in the air – they feel for it 

as you would your way across a stage curtain 

after your one act, plucking at the pleats,  

trying for the folded-in opening through which 

you shiver and shoulder yourself 

without so much as a glance up

to the gods, so keen are you to get back

to where you were before your entrance:

those dim familiar wings, you invisible,

bumping into things you half-remember

blinded as you’d been out there

in the onslaught of lights, yes, blinded

but wholly attended to in your blindness.

Imagine our dying being like that,

a kind of humble, eager, sorrowless return

to a place we’d long, and not till now, known.

No tears then. Just one of us to hold 

aside the curtain – here we are, there you go –

before letting it slump majestically back 

to that oddly satisfying inch above the boards

in which we glimpse a shadowy shuffling dark.

And when the lights come on and we turn to each other

who’s to say they won’t already be

in their dressing room, peeling off the layers,

wiping away that face we have loved,

unbecoming themselves to step out 

into the pull and stream of the night crowds.

It’s one of those poems, full of momemts that pull you in, full of lines that seem to be memorising themselves as you say them, as you hear them: 

plucking at the pleats,  

trying for the folded-in opening


Imagine our dying being like that,

a kind of humble, eager, sorrowless return

and, this remarkable phrase that sees the dead as actors, already

unbecoming themselves

It’s full of the accurate truth that I’d been striving for when I was writing about this particular subject, and falling short . I love the way the conceit of the theatrical exit which ought to feel like a cliche, and doesn’t, is so beautifully sustained. I love the way it begins with an apparently tentative ‘perhaps’, its tact, and the way it’s followed by the sense that there’s no ‘perhaps’ about it. This is the way it is. Ben Wilkinson put it better than I can when he wrote about the economy and deceptive simplicity of her writing, and a cool-headed emotional restraint. Yes.

I met the next two poems for the first time in a Poetry Business writing day; I can’t remember what the exercise was that they illuminated, but the poems stuck. Metaphorically and literally, since they’re pasted into my workshop notebook.

The Street Lamp

Maybe it’s this orange light 

that has me up 

in the middle of the night 

when sleep ought to have 

taken hold and placed us 

god knows where

with whom and how and why 

or was that the baby’s cry 

turning into something else 

and rising that has me rising 

not to him but to look 

down at the street and see 

in a pool of light – what is that – 

a stain, his small coat?

Body seems to know 

but mind, sleep-filled 

and slow with notions, 

ups and follows

(whatever it is it has that 

self-possessed and desolate look 

of a thing left behind);

and heart that knows 

starts to knock and will not 

take comfort from the street lamp 

who stands over our house 

like a guardian angel, 

head inclined but with no arms 

or wings to gather whosoever in.

I came back to this poem after last December’s workshop, now noticing as I should have done, the work that’s done by the way the first two stanzas are a single unpunctuated sentence, and the way the next two are more reflective and ‘rational’, even if they’re interrupted by that parenthesis. Lovely. And I like that slightly startling use of the not-quite-abstract body, mind, heart. It’s something I’ve started to notice in Kim Moore’s poems, too. I need to think about it.

One more poem. This speaks straight to my other enthusiasm, for physical craft and craftsmanship…the precision and neatness I can never manage whatever tools I invest in. Just relish the way that first line abosolutely nails what lies at the core of the poem.

The Engraver

It has to be a dying art,

this man leaning in with hammer and chisel,

intent on the angle, cut and concision;

all morning on a single word, a name.

His commissioners – each time the same

exacting band of passionate mourners –

want only the best; for this one stone page

to stand for less and more than all their tears.

And as the dates sharpen, the prayer clears

so it all blurs for him; in the end he leaves 

what it means to those who already know

just as he leaves the heart of the stone alone

knowing there’s nothing there, that deep down

his work is with the surface of things;

the opposite of archaeology

where nothing’s found and all is to be made.

It’s a poem that has to be read aloud, so you taste the consonants, and feel the the point where the poem pivots on that moment when  it all blurs for him. A beautifully crafted piece of work about art and transience. There’s that buzz under everything today. Thank you, Greta Stoddart for making it sing.

2 thoughts on “Wise sisters [1]. Greta Stoddart

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