This month has seen a lament and a celebration in the world of poetry. Two women writers who have accompanied me on my reading and writing journey through life.
A few days ago I heard of the death of Helen Dunmore, the poet and novelist. She was a consummate reader of her own work - her soft, clear, compelling voice communicated directly with her listeners. A few years ago she judged the Mirehouse poetry competition and at the winners' event she took time to explain the judging process and to comment with care on all the shortlisted poems and the winning poem.
On Wednesday BBC Radio 4's "Front Row" broadcast the last poem she wrote, "Hold out your arms", completed shortly before her death. It was an almost unbearable few minutes. She wrote from the frontier between life and death, welcoming death as a mother who would comfort her and end her suffering.
On Friday I was driving home from a concert in Carlisle and switched on Radio 3's "The Verb". I discovered that the whole programme was devoted to a recorded interview with Helen Dunmore. It was an overview of her work, both poetry and prose (including her writing for children). She spoke of her dislike of the idea of fulfilment in writing - she was not one to say "That's it, I've done what I wanted, I can sit back now". No, rather, she was always pressing on, always wanting to write more, explore more. She emphasised the importance of physical details, avoiding the abstract, seeing the transcendent in the everyday.
In the course of the interview she read several poems and extracts from her novels. One poem particularly caught my attention: "Nightfall in the IKEA kitchen". an exploration of design, life, consumerism all inspired by one of those Swedish rooms where there is a place for everything and a seductive suggestion that if only we get the storage right our lives will be all right too.
But there was celebration this week too. Thursday was Gillian Clarke's 80th birthday. Long may she continue to write, encourage and proclaim as she has done for so long. Having spent a week with Gillian on a Ty Newydd course I doubt that she has any intention of slowing down. I received an email from Literature Wales which reprinted the poem, "Y Fflam", the poem with which she began and ended her role as National Poet of Wales.
And it was election week. The last verse of "Y Fflam" reads:
we meet to
"burn off the fog of politics
with poetry's flame
the mind's manuscript."
Gillian Clarke and Helen Dunmore: their work keeps the flame of poetry burning.
"Hold out your arms" can be found on the Guardian website (google the title and Dunmore)
"Y Fflam" can be found at www.sheerpoetry.co.uk under the title "A Laureate's Life"