A guest post by Fleur Adcock on obsession, independence, influences. Part of Ruth Chalkley’s project “A Dialogic Exploration of Gluten Ataxia“.
Ruth invited the poet Fleur Adcock to muse about the art of writing and poetry across a life time. They first met when Ruth was at College and Fleur was Writer in Residence.
The thing is to have an obsession. In my case and my sister’s it was books and writing. She was two years younger than me, and was asleep when, at the age of five, I lay in bed listening to my mother reading poetry to me, but eventually she too developed the addiction. We moved around a good deal in our childhood; I went to 13 different schools, mostly in England but with one in New Zealand at the beginning and another at the end after we returned. It took a while to make new human friends in these establishments, but there were always books to keep me company.
For a while both Marilyn and I wrote prose and poetry fairly indiscriminately – little stories, little verses, an occasional little play – but by the time we were grown-up she had settled for fiction and I was passionate about poetry. I read my way through the bookshelves at home and those in the library at my final school, Wellington Girls’ College, and published poems in the school magazine: the usual pattern for someone getting started. Then there was university, and contacts with some real life writers, one of whom I married (rather briefly) at the age of 18.
I shan’t go into the complicated history of my life from then onwards, except to mention that I arrived in London in 1963 and have been based here ever since. Throughout most of that time, poetry had to be fitted into the spaces between earning a living. Fortunately poems, unlike novels, are short. If you wake up in the middle of the night with some lines in your head it’s not too impossible to write them down, so that you have enough of a foundation to continue with at odd moments during the day – on the train going to work, walking around the park in a lunch break, scribbling down the odd phrase under the desk if you have an inspiration. When I was working on my poem ‘The Ex-Queen among the Astronomers’ I happened to be in charge of the enquiry desk at the Foreign and Commonwealth Office Library, directly opposite a full set of the Encyclopaedia Britannica, which came in very useful for astronomical terminology.
Walking was also absolutely crucial. I do a lot of concentrated work on my poems on the hoof, trying to get each line right, saying it over and over again in my head to check whether the rhythm works, and examining the vocabulary of each sentence to see if a more interesting word pops into my head to replace a pedestrian or mediocre expression that I’ve put down without thinking. Travelling is also fruitful: gazing out of the windows on a long train journey can send you into the slight trance that sets the imagination purring, and arriving somewhere unfamiliar, whether to live or on a short visit, can be transforming. I’m eternally grateful for my year in the Lake District when I had a writing fellowship at Charlotte Mason College in Ambleside, with time to read, a set of interesting people to talk about literature with, and that inimitable landscape to roam in.
It was at the interview that I first met Ruth, the student presence on the appointment committee: a bright, good-looking young woman with enthusiasm shining out of her eyes. We became good friends, to such an extent that she entrusted me with her tadpoles when she went away at the end of term. (No doubt she will have her own account of that interview and the lunch that followed).
That job was the first to which I was appointed as a professional writer (after 20 years of being a librarian or an academic). It was exciting and also daunting to be in the position of giving criticism and advice to other writers, new or aspiring, ranging in age from young students to retired people who came to our workshop sessions. I’m not at all sure that you can teach anyone to write; all you can do is read what they have already written and point out amendments they might make or directions they might move in. I should be most reluctant to do this as a regular thing, but it was a valuable experience. One of the most rewarding aspects of it was seeing people work together in groups, buzzing with enthusiasm; also I made a number of excellent friends.
I’ve had other fellowships since Charlotte Mason (two years in Newcastle and Durham, a term in Norwich at UEA, a term at the University of Adelaide), but mostly since resigning from my civil service position in 1979 I’ve survived as a freelance writer, doing all the odd bits and pieces that entails. For some years this involved a lot of reviewing; I’ve also written libretti for an opera and shorter musical compositions, selected and edited anthologies, compiled and presented radio programmes, judged competitions, translated poetry from medieval Latin and later from Romanian, and taken part in large numbers of poetry readings, festivals, Arvon courses, and conferences. The key to this is variety. It was a bit of a struggle to make ends meet, but rather than settle for a “proper” job again I wanted to be free to follow my own obsessions, as in the case of the translations and the opera about Eleanor of Aquitaine. These involved large amounts of research, which I love. Over the past 15 or 20 years I’ve been inspired by the discoveries I’ve made in the course of tracing the multifarious branches of my own family history.
My latest collection of poems arose in this way; here is the blurb:
‘A land ballot was the means by which Fleur Adcock’s grandparents, immigrants from Manchester during World War I, were able to bid for a piece of native bush on the slopes of Mount Pirongia in the North Island of New Zealand. Their task was to turn this unpromising acreage into a dairy farm. When things didn’t work out as they had hoped much of the responsibility for running the farm and engineering their eventual escape fell on their teenage son, Adcock’s father. This sequence of poems follows the course of their efforts and builds up a portrait of a small, isolated community.’
Standing back, I can see that my obsessive personality and the determination that goes along with that must be inherited. I think of my father, growing up on that dairy farm, reading at every spare moment he could find, milking a herd of cows before and after he rode his horse to school, spending the weekends making fences or chopping firewood for his mother, but determined to get a university education even if it was by correspondence, at long distance, and finally managing to get to England in 1939 to study for his Ph.D.; then working on his thesis at night or early in the mornings when he was on duty as superintendent of a first aid and rescue station during the Blitz.
And then I think of my mother as a girl in rural New Zealand, taking piano lessons from her older cousin, and being absolutely determined to qualify as a music teacher, practising constantly and taking exams until she achieved the highest qualifications available in that country. She didn’t remain a music teacher all her life; when a problem with her back made the piano too difficult she took up writing, and later, when she developed carpal tunnel syndrome from using a typewriter (in those pre-computer days) she turned to painting, which uses more fluid movements of the hand and wrist. She studied at art classes, made a whole lot of new friends, and exhibited a number of paintings at exhibitions in her 80s.
The hymn I chose for her funeral (even though it was in New Zealand and I wasn’t able to get there) was John Bunyan’s pilgrim hymn; it includes the lines:
There’s no discouragement
shall make him once relent
his first avowed intent
to be a pilgrim.
This seemed appropriate for her personality (she had a very determined chin, my mother!) To me the word ‘pilgrim’ in this poem has a far wider application than a religious one, Christian or otherwise. I see it as applying to any kind of endeavour, in any field. Now that I think of it, I’m surrounded by pilgrims.
Read part 2: ‘Why Writing, Why Poetry?’