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Helena Nelson’s Holiday Poetry Reads


Last year, it was Frances Cornford’s Collected Poems. Of course, she’s famous for “To a Fat Lady Seen from the Train”, which has been attacked in recent years by those who put the (wrong) emphasis on the lady’s fatness, instead of the fact that she’s wearing gloves. I love “Childhood”, which begins:

I used to think that grown-up people chose
To have stiff backs and wrinkles round their nose

It starts, yes, like a children’s rhyme, but it ends heart-breakingly.

These Collected Poems, published in 1953 (the year I was born) include, says Cornford in the brief preface, “all the poems I wish to preserve from my previously published work”. How very restrained of her! It’s a slim book. It includes wonderful aphoristic pieces to be read aloud to all and sundry, especially sundry:

The winds are out in the abysm of night;
The blown trees stoop.
But man invented fire and candle-light,
And man invented soup.

And this year’s holiday? Another Collected. This time it is Dylan Thomas. He is much tougher than Frances Cornford but I want something I can nibble at at bit by bit. I’m taking Thomas not just for “Fern Hill”, “And Death shall have no Dominion” and “In my Craft or Sullen Art” but for the ones I like but don’t understand. I mean to start with “Especially when the October wind “, which ends: “By the sea’s side hear the dark-vowelled birds”.

Dylan Thomas is word music. I am going to march along beside sea-cliffs and chant him aloud.

Helena Nelson was born in Cheshire, and now lives in Fife. She is founder editor of HappenStance Press which specialises in poetry pamphlets. Her first collection, Starlight on Water (Rialto Press, 2003) was a joint winner of the Jerwood Aldeburgh Prize. Her second book, Plot and Counter-Plot was published by Shoestring Press in 2010.

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