New wave of writers bring warmth to winter in poetry and prose

FAMILIARITY with contemporary poetry writing in English eases one’s passage through this most enjoyable tome, and even a nodding acquaintance with Cal Lowell and his contemporaries, including Berryman and Elizabeth Bishop, or, closer to home, Ted Hughes and Seamus Heaney, helps distil the purity from the precis-like quality of the analysis. 

Commissioned to be selective and chose writers new and old for an anthology celebrating the season of winter in poetry and prose, Melissa Harrison didn’t take any short cuts by opting for the familiar — Ted Hughes, Seamus Heaney, JA Baker — but instead created her own rattle-bag of contributions, which makes this volume compelling reading for anyone who may feel they have read enough about winter.

What is original about this collection is not just the diversity of relatively unknown talent on show, but the quality of the work, even if the editor’s preference is for prose over poetry. There are familiar faces — Roger Deakin, John Fowles, Robert Macfarlane — though I was surprised by the omission of two contemporary chroniclers of what it means to live with and endure the split personality of winter on a day-to-day basis: James Rebanks, whose ‘The Shepherd’s Life’ is evocative of an existence, fast disappearing, on the periphery, and Philip Marsden’s ‘Rising Ground’, a chronology of Britain’s attitude to place.

This is just one of — naturally — four anthologies, so perhaps they surface elsewhere, but I was delighted to experience new voices, and not all of them of our time, even if they are timeless. Wilhelm Nero Pilate Barbellion wrote ‘The Diary of a Disappointed Man’, his reflections on nature and the brevity of life, and the brief excerpt here captures the illuminative features of his style: ‘An Elm lopped close showing white stumps which glistened liquidly in the sun.’ The Manchester-born Anita Sethi reflects on the segueing of the self and her garden by the drawn out and patient process of cultivation. ‘The sound bubbles up as if from deep within, deep within the core of the earth, as if this tunnelling through the earth was bringing out new depths in our own selves.’ Irish readers will have been weaned on the peerless final passage of ‘The Dead’, so memorably narrated by Dónal McCann in the John Houston film adaptation, but reading it again it is a wonder to behold James Joyce outdoing Yeats on his turf: ‘His soul swooned slowly as he heard the snow falling faintly through the universe and faintly falling, like the descent of their last end, upon all the living and the dead.’ Childhood and winter scenes of white landscapes seem handcuffed to our memory, and the magic and innocence and playfulness I experienced long ago in ‘A Child’s Christmas in Wales’ is omnipresent in Brian Carter’s passage from ‘Mountains of the Mind’, where ‘a coppery glow lit the sky just above the sea and the sound of heavy surf carried inland to magnify the sense of isolation.’ Perhaps of all the seasons, and writers in our neck of the woods are fortunate to have four, winter is the gift which keeps giving, and never more so among each new wave of poets, crystallised by the five stanza poem by Kristian Evans from Wales.

Winter: An anthology for the changing seasons

Melissa Harrison

Elliot & Thompson, £12.99


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