It’s a reminder of how poetry becomes art becomes poetry.
Polley won the T.S. Eliot Prize for poetry in 2016, for his collection Jackself. It’s an unusual collection, mostly about childhood and utilizing many of the “Jacks” of childhood as the subjects for poems—Jack Frost, Jack Sprat, Jack O’Lantern, and the house that Jack built. While writing an article on the collection for Tweetspeak Poetry, I came across a reference to a poem Polley had written for a published collection of paintings and drawings by an artist named Donald Wilkinson.
Wilkinson, like Polley, is from the north of England, the area known as Cumbria and that we often refer to as the Lake Country. (Norman Nicholson is another poet from the area, one who wrote extensively on the landscape and the environment.) Wilkinson, born in 1937, trained in Carlisle and London but is directly associated with “Wordsworth country.”
Born in Keswick in Cumbria, Wilkinson studied at the Carlisle College of Art and the Royal College of Art. His work has focused primarily on the landscape of the Lake District, and he’s known for “light effects achieved in the atmospheric landscapes,” according to the British Council on Visual Arts.
In 2002, Wilkinson was commissioned by the Wordsworth Trust to produce a series of paintings and drawings. It was no surprise—many of Wilkinson’s paintings had been inspired directly by the poems of Wordsworth. The result was an exhibition and a book, A Wider Landscape, which included the poem by Polley (entitled “The Boast”). The work also includes a foreword by poet Kathleen Raine; an introduction by Dr. Robert Woof, director of the Wordsworth Trust; and an essay by art critic and poet Jamie McKendrick.
The works for A Wider Landscape are pastels—sometimes pastel and acrylic, or pastel and monoprint. Wilkinson generally works en plein air, and his art has that look and feel of the landscape experienced firsthand. In this instance, the landscape is the Lake District’s mountains and hills—like Saddleback (also known as Blencathra) and Lonscale Fell. This is Wordsworth country; the poet lived here for years and wrote a significant portion of The Prelude at Dove Cottage in Grasmere.
It’s a small volume—41 pages, including the plates for the artworks. Small, but significant. It’s the kind of volume that you open and study while you’re sitting in an overstuffed chair next to a window. You look at these drawings and pastels of mountains, landscape, and approaching storms, you read the words, and then you look up and through the glass. It’s as if you’re walking with Wordsworth, his sister Dorothy, and his friend Samuel Taylor Coleridge across the stones and hills near Grasmere.
And you’re walking landscape and talking poetry and you suddenly discover that they have become the same thing. The landscape has become a poem and the poetry has become landscape.
It’s no surprise that the Wordsworth Trust sought out Wilkinson for the project. Even 15 years after the exhibition and publication of the book, Wilkinson’s paintings—approaching storms and their aftermath, winter skies, a snowstorm, a rain storm—still evoke a poetic response.
How to Read a Poem uses images like the mouse, the hive, the switch (from the Billy Collins poem)—to guide readers into new ways of understanding poems. Anthology included.
“I require all our incoming poetry students—in the MFA I direct—to buy and read this book.”
—Jeanetta Calhoun Mish