GILLIAN CLARKE AT 80 | IMTIAZ DHARKER

GILLIAN CLARKE AT 80 | IMTIAZ DHARKER

One morning I asked Gillian, “Did you sleep well?” And she answered, “I lay awake half the night worrying about the world”.

With Gillian you know that is the absolute truth, and this truth finds its way into her poems. She lives every poem she writes and breathes her life into each beautifully crafted line, every one as sharp and alive as the creatures that populate her world: the hare that stops and looks through the glass wall at her home, Blaen Cwrt, the pair of swans on the river in Cardiff. In Gillian’s world, finding a crushed fieldmouse becomes a meditation on community and conflict.

I am so delighted that Hay has used this occasion of her 80th birthday year to celebrate Gillian. As Peter Florence pointed out, she was involved with the festival from its very beginning 30 years ago.

Being around her is a daily inspiration. Conversations with her range over language, the roots of words, the music in the poems. After an evening with her I usually need to find a paper and pen and start writing. I know there are many other poets she has inspired in the same way, because she makes language new. She speaks of the beginning of language in her poem ‘Words’ (from Zoology):

 

‘A baby imagines a word’s shape
before trying to speak, watches it on the lip

of whoever leans over the cot, hears it maze
down the silk
of the ear, feels it settle in the tree of the brain,

tastes it in salts of skin, drinks it in milk,
spittle and tears, cries it in darkness and
dream,

before tongue taps d, t, and lips unfold
from la to vowel, turning word to world.’

 

No wonder then, that she inspires thousands of students at Poetry Live readings, where they listen to her in pin-drop silence; or on her website, where she fields questions and answers emails from Llandudno to Lahore.

She is tireless in the cause of poetry. I made a road trip with her once, from shore to shore, on a trip from Falmouth all the way up to St Andrews, and while everyone else fell in an exhausted heap in the bus at the end of each day, Gillian was still tapping at the laptop, answering questions from all over the world.

She is an unstoppable force. For years she has travelled from her beloved Ceredigion to readings across the country, and now across Europe, because her heart remains European.  I travel with her a lot, and Gillian is always the one who knows the train timetable by heart, and has all the connections worked out in advance.

So much of her life has been about making connections, and strengthening connections, between ideas, words, and people. As National Poet of Wales, she has been a great ambassador for Wales, flying the flag for its language, its poetry, its history, its future. She was awarded the Queen’s Gold medal for Poetry 2010 and the Wilfred Owen Award in 2012.

As if poetry were not enough, she is a brilliant writer of prose. Her ‘At the Source’ is a marvel.  She has written for radio and translated poetry and prose from Welsh.

Her collection, Icewas shortlisted for the TS Eliot Award 2012.

We went to Cambridge together for a project called ‘Thresholds’, as poets-in-residence to different museums, and Gillian wrote a series for the Museum of Zoology. It could not have been a better match. That set of poems has turned into a book where Gillian has been able to bring together all her living, wonderful creatures and the world we live in.

So I can’t help feeling that if Gillian is worrying about the world, if she lies awake at night, there is the hope that something good will come of it, especially if the morning brings another poem.

Imtiaz Dharker and Gillian Clarke were on stage together at Hay Festival Winter Weekend on Friday 24 November