Collected poems of Jean Whitfield
Published Bakery Press 1985 paperback
Note on back cover, as handwritten by Jean Whitfield:
“There are many things to say; many things and people to record. The question is where to begin? Is it to be a mixture of story, speech making, poems and even characters in a play? Will it be self-indulgent, over emotional, sentimental, full of feeling both wasted and enjoyed? The answer is bound to be yes because that is one of the reasons for it: perhaps after all it isn’t too heretical…….
……….. getting all the images wrong, muddling the tenses but using the spaces in between the words to search for one’s own identity. “
These words are on the back cover of a what appears to be a one-off book from Bakery Press. A forward gives more information on the author of the collected poems of Jean Whitfield. She died in 1984 of leukaemia at the age of 43, this collection published posthumously. Only four of these poems had appeared in magazines prior to this book which contains 118 poems. I like to think her words appearing as a forward give an insight into her personality as compasssionate, an active socialist politically and passionate about poetry, especially in its role to provoke change. When writing this, up to the early 1980s, England was in great internal turmoil. She saw the need for socialists, socialist poets especially, to speak out: “I want poets to be in the vanguard of change – not just influenced by it – …….For poetry in England to be effective it will have to become dangerous …………… because our socialism is poorer without it.” There have been several in the spotlight over the years as there have been comedians of similar conviction. Politics is integral to living and the latest to carry this banner is Kate Tempest.
Living in a small village her poetry, her reflections were by no means limited. She covered many themes close to her, of family, locale and ‘moments’ that touched her. Her poetics might be considered of her day, much blank verse, often short lines, many without punctuation where the reader has to find their own way into the poem. Those lines quite short are pleasingly re-readable to find their own pauses and breathing spaces. Others, fewer, with more punctuation and occasional rhyme. Whether the rhymes are designed or just natural I couldn’t know. I like to believe they are deliberate, as crafted as the moment of construction allowed. As many a poet she dipped her pen into the descriptive world of ‘Nature’ leaving some finely drawn examples, several of which would sit well in anthologies. She frequently wrote with an edge that pulled you into an understanding that was not pure imagery but allowed the sound and feel of words to underline the jagged side of the world. Jagged lines that might jump across images and make you falter where the meaning you followed suddenly changes course. Deliberate? Maybe not, but the words pull you through, like watching a bird suddenly take fright and plunge away before settling on it’s course.
The collection is divided into themes: girdled with hope, And now for joy, Full-steam-ahead-house, into the eye of the month, theses special ones, through many gates, no end to my river. I should also note the selection of fine drawings, as a full page or little inclusions to top or tail a poem. Plus b&w photos around the area. A fine collaboration in all its content and production.
There are many poems here I would dearly love to introduce to you from this (complete) collection by Jean Whitfield. Many from the themed sections would benefit by being read in a sequence, such as the poems in ‘the special ones‘. Others memorable being: Last Summer and Pulse and the final poem on her thoughts on anticipated death: Voice. I would select even more from earlier in the book but offer one from near the end:
Ah! You poets poor things
how you struggle with words
like a farmer
with his dog
rounding the sheep
-there is always a stray one
and the farmer calls his dog
it turns, hesitates
water sparkles and sprays
where he races
and the farmer shades his eyes
and sees the drops of water
spinning under the shining, shifting sky.
Whether the countryside, scenes from her windows, her life, weather or wildlife around her; on the natures of man, or rather women, and god and of course life and death; thoroughout is an acceptance of the beauty and harshness of nature but less so humanity, except for love. For me she is the voice and eye of a poet who deserves to be remembered. I trust the Poetry Library has a copy of this book so Jean Whitfield will be re-discovered when her time comes round again.