Looking at the dilapidated stone wall between my garden and the field and wondering what to do about it has set me thinking about walls.
One of the most popular sessions in my many years of chairing at Words by the Water in Keswick was a talk on the art and craft of dry-stone walling by professional Cumbrian waller, Robert Drake. Not only was it a sell-out event in the studio at Theatre by the Lake, but almost everyone who had bought a ticket queued up to buy the book (A Solitary Trade) and filled the foyer book signing area.
One of the most well-known wall poems is Robert Frost's 'Mending Wall' in which the poet and his neighbour do their annual repair of the boundary wall between their land. The poet reflects
'Before I built a wall I'd ask to know
What I was walling in or walling out'.
When I lived in Cumbria I sometimes used to go for a walk near 'the Wall' as we called Hadrian's Wall. I could never quite fathom the motives for the Romans building this vast piece of civil engineering in a far-flung part of their empire. The wall is important physically and metaphorically in Two Countries by Northumbrian poet, Katrina Porteous. In 'Wall' she writes in the voice of the wall:
'I, the Wall,
Defend this place
I am the edge
This is where the world ends.'
Norman Nicholson's 'Wall' poem opens 'The Wall walks the fell'. Immediately I picture those long snaking boundary walls of the remote Cumbrian fells, following 'each give of the ground, /Each creak of the rock's ribs'. Robert Drake says that a ton of stone is needed for every yard of wall.
'They built a wall slowly,
A day a week;
Built it to stand,
But not stand still,
They built a wall to walk'.
I looked for more poems by women about walls without much success, though in 'Post-box in wall at Rosbrin' by Moya Cannon a freshly-pastered wall, / now blurred with yellow lichen' does put in an appearance only to be upstaged in the poem by the disused post-box and the ivy-leaved toadflax which has colonised it.
My own poem, 'Wall', was published in Out of Time to accompany Horatio Lawson's dramatic photograph - a wild highland landscape with a dry-stone wall leading the eye into the picture.
What do you see
as you lean against the stones?
The light running at full tilt
turning the rushes gold,
jostling for peak position
and the mountain's darkening veil.
You are not folled
by the wall that takes us in.
your home, your town,
the familiar greetings
in the street,
as a tea pavillion
in the wilderness.
© Mary Robinson 2015
Robert Drake A Solitary Trade: the art and craft of dry stone walling (Bookcase 2008)
Robert Frost 'Mending Wall' https://www.poetryfoundation.org/poems/44266/mending-wall
Norman Nicholson 'Wall' https://poetryarchive.org/poem/wall/