Thursday, May 24, 2007

Poetry Thursday: Writing About the Past

Since my poetry group are beginning to talk seriously about our next book, I decided to go through my files and print out all the poems that I might potentially include, with a view to editing them and arranging them in an appropriate order. It's interesting to see what topics and themes tend to recur in my writing. I'm thinking that one way of organzing most of my poems would be chronological - not the order in which I wrote them, but the order of the subject matter.

There are poems that stem from my interest in genealogy, and which are either about my ancestors, or about imaginary ancestors. There are others that arise from incidents in my childhood, or from my own children, either when they were very small, or when they were older. Then there are more immediate poems, often about places I have been orienteering, or the hills close to home that I explore on foot. And some are harder to classify, being a mix of recent observations, the beauty of certain words, all sorts of trivia floating around in my head, and a dose of imagination.

Early on in my poetry writing career, I submitted several poems to a certain literary magazine. The rejection letter that came back told me, among other things, that beginning poets often write poems based on nostalgia, but "I prefer the here and now". This set me wondering about the here and now. What is it? If I walk in the hills, and think about what I've seen, and then write about it that evening or the next day, it's not "here and now" any more. It may be the recent past, but it's past. If I sit in a coffee shop, and write about what is in front of me, by the time the words are on paper it is past - even if it's only five seconds. So, everything is about the past. And at the same time, everything is about the here and now - what is here and now in my brain. Any poem is the world filtered through the mind of the writer, and the mind contains it all in the here and now, though it has been gathered up in the past.

Even the words we use were learnt in the past. One of the poems that was rejected was apparently "nostalgic" because it bore the title "What my Science Teacher Told Me". Well, it included a bit of scientific information I had learnt in high school, but it was actually about my thoughts on relationships as I was experiencing them at that time. Our brains like to mix everything up!

This poem, for instance - is it about the past or not? My greatgrandfather is clearly in the past, but the poem is about the experience of looking for the spot where he was buried, which was very recent when I wrote it.

Looking for Samuel

Samuel Arthur Wiltshire 1861 – 1905

I count down rows, across plots
to the number in the cemetery book,
a missing tooth in a jaw full
of crooked gravestones.
What did I think I would find?
I tried to tie an anchor around your neck.
Forgive me. There is nothing to keep you here
No concrete slab to roof you over, keep the rain
from you. No yew tree sending down its roots
to prise your femur from your pelvis,
nor flesh-nourished rosemary
carrying its aroma across town
on the nor-wester. May your bones rest.
Your hollow sockets gaze at nothing
but earth and sky. The rain has long since
dissolved your flesh, trickled rich and brown
through aquifers to creeks and streams.
Old sailor, you mingle with rivers
and return on the ebbing tide
to the sea,
to the sea

Samuel's unmarked burial plot in the Addington cemetery, Christchurch.

Posted for Poetry Thursday


Crafty Green Poet said...

Interesting post, Catherine! I like your way of organising your poetry in chronological order in terms of how things happened. I enjoyed your poem - the sense of the sailor returning to the sea.

paris parfait said...

This is a brilliant poem. I admire the reference of the sailor returning to the sea. And I agree with you that every poem we write is infused with the past, our experiences, our ideas, our influences, our present perspective.

liz elayne lamoreux said...

okay so i am having one of those moments where i just want to say this: i love this poem.

calling his the sailor...that brought tears to my eyes.

thank you for sharing this...and for sharing your words and thoughts about perspectives and writing about the past...

Lisa Cohen said...

"a missing tooth in a jaw full
of crooked gravestones."

A wonderful images in a wonderful poem. This is a lovely piece of writing.

Thank you for sharing it.

There's a local cemetery that I love to visit. I have no direct connection to any who are buried there, but it is a serene place and I find something intensely vibrant about our connection to those we've lost.

Anonymous said...

Catherine..such a loving tribute to your Grandfather, i loved your imagery..thanks for the visit..madd

chicklegirl said...

This blew me away. I've quite a bit of genealogy and creating those tenuous ties with the past is such a great theme. I most loved "What did I think I would find?/I tried to tie an anchor around your neck./Forgive me." So cool!

Anonymous said...


Tammy Brierly said...

"a missing tooth in a jaw full
of crooked gravestones" was an amazing line! This was really good poetry and captured my full attention. :)

Jim Brock said...


Yes, I think poetry necessitates that one foot in the past, whether one second ago or unimaginable eons ago, because it is also of the present. You get at it so well in your preliminary comments to the poem, and I want to think more about it as well.

And then your tremendous, image rich poem. For me, it takes off hugely, most imaginatively (because it insists on that connection with the dead), with the line of "There is nothing to keep you here." Yes.

Anonymous said...

Beautiful poem! I loved the undertone of inquiry and melancholy. There are some powerful images in here.

Clare said...

My heart was so full of feeling when reading this poem -- such beauty and love in your words. Even his body breaking down was described with such connection to nature.

Carmen said...

Hey Catherine,

thanks for visiting my blog! You must be a friend of Chief Biscuit's??

Bernie said...

Such a lovely blog...
I will drop by again...
Michele sent me today!

Deb said...

I was taken by your images of (our) body intertwined with the earth. Great language and story.

I appreciated reading your intro, too.

Kay Cooke said...

This is a wonderful poem Catherine.