Wordsmiths and Wordsworth

It’s a fortnight now since my weekend up in the Lakes, with the other 13 poets from the Writing School who I have been working with over the last 18 months: Kim, Pam, Jennifer, Jane, Lydia, River, Fokkina, Gina, Liz, David, Noel, Jim and Alan, as well as Ann and Peter, our brilliant tutors. All the writers have really distinctive voices and are accomplished poets, most of them with pamphlets and books to their name. Together we have generated an incredible amount of new work through our every-other-month writing days in Sheffield and the intensive correspondence and critique given in trios in the periods in-between.

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Rydal Hall, at the top of Lake Windermere, just north of Ambleside, has stunning views over Ullswater, as well as beautiful gardens and woods to explore, plus the famous waterfall that Wordsworth wrote about – a water fall that is best seen through the window of the grot, a waterfall that is so strangely beautiful that it seems hyperreal, almost fake, as if some small artificial corner of a Disney theme park.

From  Wikipedia: “The Grot” at Rydal Falls is described in William Wordsworth’s early poem, ‘An Evening Walk’, published in 1793. The poet moved to Rydal Mount, near Rydal Hall, in 1813 and it remained his home to his death in 1850. Towards the end of the poet’s life his nephew Christopher Wordsworth went with him to “The Grot”. The following is a description of their walk together from Rydal Mount.

“He accompanied me to the gate and then said if I had a few minutes longer to spare he would like to show me the waterfall which was close by – the lower fall of Rydal. I gladly assented and he led the way across the grounds of Lady Fleming (Rydal Hall) which were opposite to his own to a small summer-house. The moment we opened the door the waterfall was before us. The summer house being so placed as to occupy the exact spot from which it was to be seen. The rocks and shrubbery around closing it in on every side. The effect was magical. The view from the rustic house, the rocky basin into which the water fell and the deep shade in which the whole was enveloped, made it a lovely scene. Wordsworth seemed to have much pleasure in exhibiting this beautiful retreat.”

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Each day we wrote, the group concentration occasionally interrupted by the sight of a red squirrel out the window, or somebody running off for another slice of millionaire’s shortbread, or else to buy socks: the hotel shop sold surreal holy socks with images from the bible embroidered into them, such as fish and loaves, the burning of the bushes, the potter’s wheel, the guiding star, etc (The hotel catered for local groups of Methodists). One day, holey holy socks.

Each night we took our turn be a ‘festival’ poet, and some people truly incarnated their chosen poet, mine being Tony Hoagland, who I tried to impersonate with a Texan drawl (he works there but doesn’t actually speak like that). We had everybody there, from John Burnside to Gerry Cambridge and Czesław Miłosz. Noel even read as Selima Hill and mentioned a great and talented poet called Noel (!) who she had met and written a letter to thanking him for being one of the first people to truly understand her work (in a review he wrote). And Noel was actually launching his first collection that weekend too (Out of Breath, Cinnamon Press). Later, we commandeered a generous number of bottles of wine and relaxed in the library, with Fokkina showing us some of her elaborate fencing moves.

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On the Sunday, the weekend culminated with a public reading at The Wordsworth Trust. We managed to fit in a quick tour of Dove Cottage to see the rooms where the poet lived and worked with his wife and sister and dog called Ginger or Mustard or Pepper. Did you know that William’s original line was ‘I wandered lonely as a cow’? (seriously, but Dorothy said ‘You can’t put that!’). And do you know where the expression burning the candle at both ends comes from? (horizontal reeds dried and dipped in sheep’s wax).

There were a few poets in the audience that afternoon: Andrew Forster, Mike Barlow and Jane Routh. As well as Zaff Kunial, the current poet-in-residence, who later took me and Pam on a trip to Grasmere, to the famous gingerbread shop and then to Tweedies, the bar hidden at the back of a hotel, where the successive poets-in-residence seem to spend quite a bit of time writing, perhaps trying to find what is real, away from the tourists. A great, but slightly sad, end to the Writing School but I am sure we’ll keep meeting up as a group in Sheffield for many more writing days to come.

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