Why gardeners should read (and write) poetry

It was Cicero who said that if you have a garden and a library you want for nothing, and I’m proud to have an essay in the RHS The Garden magazine about why gardeners should read poetry.

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It was a joy to share lines of some of my favourite poems in the essay, and if you have come here from the magazine wanting to read more, here are links to find more:

The Trees, Philip Larkin

Alice Oswald, Mother of Thousands, from Weeds and Wild Flowers

Marge Piercy, Attack of the Squash People

Louis MacNeice, The Sunlight on the Garden

Esther Morgan, The Long Holidays 

John Updike, September

writing

If this encourages to write your own poem, here’s a creative writing exercise for you, I’d love to see any results if you wanted to post them here…

Take your notebook and pen into the garden and set your timer for ten minutes. Record all you can see, hear, taste, feel, smell during this time. However tempted, don’t turn this into a ‘to-do’ list of jobs you notice, but let yourself stay aware of all your senses. Do this as often as you want to, but even f you make sure you do this at least four times a year – spring, summer, autumn, winter – you are engaging with your garden in a new way. When we are not being so deliberately mindful, too often we privilege our sight so I guarantee you will find something in your notes, both as you write them and when you look back after, that surprises you.

And in the article, I mention the wonderful Lost Words book by Jackie Morris and Robert Macfarlane. I’d also like to direct you to my recent TEDx talk which concentrates on the everyday words we use.

 

 

 

 

 

 

The News From the Garden

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is earthshattering,
a blackbird’s made its nest
in the hawthorn tree,

and breaking as I write,
seedlings planted a month ago
are bursting forth, teasing

us with their rainbow hints,
but if you rub 
a leaf
between finger and thumb

you can smell summer
already; a baby is kicking 
its legs
in response at the clouds

rolling over her like a news tape
filled with sun-bites,
while over by the swings,

a camellia 
leads an uprising
of blood red against the privet,
tulips and bluebells form a late coalition,

and even the grass strengthens its position
near where this morning, at five past eleven
dizzy with dandelion flowers

the cat let a pigeon fly free.
Only the plane tree, obedient
to the season follows the prompts

while propped up against the wall
already warming itself for glory,
the first rosebud waits for her cue.

Snowdrops rising like lanterns

 

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Winter Garden
by Sarah Salway

Like the pilgrim divests himself of worldly goods,
the garden’s stripped back to a skeleton,

only the vertebrae of paths holds its truest form
and even as trees hold blossom close, buds aching,

it’s still the cutting back that matters most,
while through it all the river’s artery rolls,

a trust in what lies beneath, snowdrops
rising like lanterns to show the way.

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Poor Susan and the sounds of the city

This week I was lucky enough to go on a guided walk around the city of London with Rosie from Dotmaker Tours. She was concentrating particularly on the sounds of the city – we walked without talking, just listening (almost too intense, was the verdict), we talked how the city would sound in the future and how it sounded in the past. I wrote a poem for Rosie after, you can find it here.

The walk was wonderful, and one thing that stood out for me is the little park Rosie took us too, between Cheapside and Wood Street. It’s just a park with a tree you’d just pass by normally. I wasn’t even sure why we’d stopped there to be honest, although it was interesting to find out that it had been the site of the church, St Peter Cheap, which was burnt down during the Great Fire of London, (interesting to find out that Cheap was the medieval word for market). And also to see these benches. I’d never heard of the Metropolitan Public Gardens Association, and looking at their website after I see loads of useful information about London’s green spaces.

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So it was particularly lovely to find out from Rosie that it was this very plane tree (below) in the park that had inspired William Wordsworth to write his Reverie of Poor Susan. And here it is – proof that even in the city, nature can be the real time-traveller. To the past, as well as the future. Amazing to think of Wordsworth walking down these streets, looking up at the tree and him, in turn, thinking of poor Susan walking the same steps… and so on!

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The Reverie of Poor Susan
by WILLIAM WORDSWORTH

At the corner of Wood Street, when daylight appears,
Hangs a Thrush that sings loud, it has sung for three years:
Poor Susan has passed by the spot, and has heard
In the silence of morning the song of the Bird.

‘Tis a note of enchantment; what ails her? She sees
A mountain ascending, a vision of trees;
Bright volumes of vapour through Lothbury glide,
And a river flows on through the vale of Cheapside.

Green pastures she views in the midst of the dale,
Down which she so often has tripped with her pail;
And a single small cottage, a nest like a dove’s,
The one only dwelling on earth that she loves.

She looks, and her heart is in heaven: but they fade,
The mist and the river, the hill and the shade:
The stream will not flow, and the hill will not rise,
And the colours have all passed away from her eyes!

Nine bean-rows, friends and a poetry exchange

I am lucky enough to be involved with the Poetry Exchange, an organisation which pops up in interesting places and asks people to nominate what poems they consider as friends.

It’s a fascinating question – not your favourite poem, or even a poem that you love – but what kind of friend is this poem to you? The conversations are fascinating too – and of course I always prick up my ears a little more when they turn to gardens. Recently John and I discussed Ithica with a perfumier who considered it an adventurous friend – partly inspired by it, he was sure, he’d created a perfume based on a garden at Pompeii.

Luckily, some of the conversations are podcasts now so we can all listen in. Here’s one I took part of which made me look at Yeat’s beautiful poem, The Lake Isle of Innisfree, again, and inspired its ‘friend’ Martin to think about creating a special garden. Here’s the podcast: (I’m hoping this embedded link works like magic, but it’s looking a bit gobbledygook to me so if not, click here, it’s episode 8!)

You can subscribe to the Poetry Exchange podcasts here, and here’s the poem Martin discussed. I’d also love to know what poem you’d consider a friend, and why!

The Lake Isle of Innisfree
I will arise and go now, and go to Innisfree,
And a small cabin build there, of clay and wattles made;
Nine bean-rows will I have there, a hive for the honey-bee,
And live alone in the bee-loud glade.
And I shall have some peace there, for peace comes dropping slow,
Dropping from the veils of the morning to where the cricket sings;
There midnight’s all a glimmer, and noon a purple glow,
And evening full of the linnet’s wings.
I will arise and go now, for always night and day
I hear lake water lapping with low sounds by the shore;
While I stand on the roadway, or on the pavements grey,
I hear it in the deep heart’s core.

We wrote a poem on a leaf…

I’m just back from a glorious weekend teaching creative writing with Anna Robertshaw from Freestyle Yoga Project, who was teaching the yoga. Yoga and writing proved a perfect combination, or maybe that was the group who came. Or even the venue, glorious Tilton House, just up the road from the Bloomsbury set’s famous Charleston Farmhouse on the South Downs.

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There’s a beautiful garden at Tilton, which Shaun and Polly, the owners, are gradually clearing in parts to show off more of the views. And best of all, a fairy light lit walk through the words to the yurt – we shared our sessions between the yurt and the library belonging to Tilton’s previous owner, John Maynard Keynes. I know, it’s a hard life! Here’s Anna, at the door of the our yurt.

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I’d intended to do a writing exercise using the garden but it was raining that day, so instead, we collected leaves on the walk back from the yurt to the library, choosing them like children – precious treasure we might otherwise have walked over. Then in front of the log fire, we wrote haiku – not counting syllables though (sorry haiku writers) but working to combine image and emotion to catch a moment, a passing moment. We’d been talking about the concept of wabi sabi earlier – how time changed things into a different kind of beauty.

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Then we wrote our poems with sharpies on leaves, pinning them over the fireplace like autumn decorations, or writing them on the logs to feed into the fire.

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The joy was how each leaf dried in a different way over the next days – curling round our words like they were keeping a secret.

This was the original poem we used as inspiration, it is by the Russian Poet,  Yevgeny Yevtushenko. I love this poem, and somehow it seemed appropriate in the current news cycle (series of disasters).

I Hung a Poem on a Branch

I hung a poem
on a branch.
Thrashing,
it resists the wind.
“Take it down,
don’t joke,”
you urge.
People pass.
Stare in surprise.
Here’s a tree
waving
a poem.
Don’t argue now.
We have to go on.
“You don’t know it by heart!”…
That’s true,
but I’ll write a fresh poem for you tomorrow.
It is not worth being upset by such trifles!
A poem’s not too heavy for a branch.
I’ll write as many as you ask for,
as many poems
as there are trees!
How shall we get on in the future together?
Perhaps, we shall soon forget this?
No,
if we have trouble on the way,
we’ll remember
that somewhere
bathed in light
a tree
is waving
a poem,
and smiling we’ll say
‘We have to go on.’ …

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And of course, the next day, the sun shone… but we decided to let our poems gently disintegrate and took a silent walk up to the South Downs instead. Magic.

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Come and write with me…

Come and indulge your senses with a Herbal Infused Poetry Workshop at the beautiful Physic Garden at Westgate Gardens, Canterbury

Saturday 24th September – 11-1pm

Costs £4 (including tea and cake)

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How could such sweet and wholesome hours be reckoned, but in herbs and flowers?

Andrew Marvell

I’m running a workshop in Canterbury designed around herbs – their history, their myths and all the remedies – sensible and gloriously silly – associated with them. Enjoy a morning writing and reading poetry with me, inspired by the Physic Garden. We’ll look at myths, make up new remedies, explore the senses and have fun through a series of practical exercises – all you will need to bring is a pen and paper. This workshop is suitable for all levels of writers, and is a chance to play on the page in the beautiful surroundings of Canterbury’s historic Westgate Gardens.

Sarah Salway is a novelist and poet, and author of Digging Up Paradise: Potatoes, People and Poetry in the Garden of England. Find out more at www.sarahsalway.co.uk

Because numbers are limited, booking is strongly advised, please visit http://www.westgateparks.co.uk/events/ or telephone the Canterbury Ticket shop on: 01227 787787. There may be some spaces available on the day.

Contact Sarah Salway, sarahsalway@gmail, for more information.

This event is funded through Canterbury City Council’s Westgate Parks ‘Parks for People’ HLF Project