Sunday, July 22, 2007

In France there's a series of poetry books for kids - Gallimard Jeunesse - featuring major poets and they're incredibly good value - 3 euros. I bought a selection of Eugene Guillevic's work for my daughter, who, I'm delighted to say, has absorbed my love of the language. I'm drawn to his work especially at the moment because a novel I'm trying to write is set in a tiny village in Brittany where I worked one summer. Guillevic was born in Carnac, close by, and near where I stayed another couple of summers.

What sets a great poet apart is the simplicity of his or her language. Guillevic, in my mind, is in the same category as Neruda, Lorca, Holub, Plath - because he's paring language down in order to make the reading of his work an experience as natural as walking. Like a plate of cherries, a bowl of freshly picked raspberries, Guillevic's language has integrity, it relies only on its natural self, not on tricks and illusions. When a poet takes that decision - simplicity, the image, the placing of words - the reader can feel its emotional truth.

Guillevic writes this about poetry:

"When a poem arrives,
you don't know where from, or why,

it's as if a bird
came to rest on your hand......"

One of the last poems he wrote in 1997 was about a bird singing his songs back to him.

It wasn't many years before I first went to Carnac and the menhirs, that the little cul de sac where my family lived was flooded.

News on the radio yesterday and today reminded me of that flood - the army called out from Aldershot with sandbags, us wading down the road in wellies, the water nearly up to our knees. We were lucky, the water only lapped at our doors but houses further down the road, lower lying, had a couple of feet of water inside. It was such a tiny stream, but it needed a flood plain and it was obvious to anyone that the land on the opposite bank, below steep woods, wasn't enough for the stream to expand into.

I still remember the shock of seeing how the stream had become a fast dirty brown river almost without warning. This was the stream that most of the summer was dry, the stream we walked along towards pine woods, ducking through tunnels of willow and cow parsley. We sat in an enormous drainage pipe it was channelled into under the bridge, and gossiped.

Another winter the boy next door slipped on an old railway sleeper his parents had laid across the stream from their garden. He was young, small and the stream was full. He went under but fortunately his father was just behind him, raced along the bank and jumped in, dragging him out of the current.

A song is being sung back to us at the moment that we must do something about.