The phrase has come back to me because I’m packing.
I’m flying to the States tomorrow, the furthest I have ever been, to participate in a poetry conference and in particular to confer about Ruth Pitter. The event is at the West Chester Poetry Center, at West Chester University in Pennsylvania, on Friday 8th, in company with Molly Peacock and Tim Liardet, chaired by Marcia Menter.
US New Formalists know all about this auspicious annual gathering, of course, and it has touched my life in various ways, but from a distance. So much from us in the world is cosily remote, and then suddenly it’s not remote, and never really was. But I must not get side-tracked.
Ruth Pitter, that most English of poets, has accomplished unexpected connections with the United States, despite the fact she never went there. Born in 1897, she wrote poems from about five years old onwards. Like many poets, she moved in and out of the lime-light. She had early success and a steady set of books, but as modernism seized the century, she began to look increasingly old-fashioned. She wasn’t confessional either – not in the least bit.
In the 1960s, her poetic output had dwindled practically to nothing. Then out of the blue, a letter arrived from the US poet Carolyn Kizer, editor of Poetry Northwest. Having been introduced to Pitter’s poetry through Theodore Roethke, who “worshipped her work”, she wanted to devote an issue of the magazine to the British poet. Had she any new work?
The request set Ruth writing again. She sent seven poems, which were duly printed in the magazine with tributes from Stanley Kunitz, Thom Gunn and John Holmes. In 1966, this group of poems would form the backbone of the collection Still by Choice which – although it numbered no more than 26 poems in all – was recommended by the Poetry Book Society. There was evidence in the later work of a change, something rather different happening.
But that wasn’t the last of the American interaction. In her early seventies, Pitter published a collected volume, and it appeared in the States as well. She had a small army of loyal readers. She grew older and began to be forgotten as a poet, but not by everybody. Author/illustrator Thomas McKean, for example, had come across A Mad Lady’s Garland in a secondhand bookshop in New York and had then acquired more books. When he visited the UK in 1983, he tracked her down at home, and had the first of three remarkable conversations. In 1985 and 1987, he brought a tape recorder with him. (From those visits, the HappenStance publication A Conversation with Ruth Pitter is drawn.)
After McKean's visit to Ruth's home, he became a faithful correspondent. He busily encouraged her to make her late poems known, and his industry paid off. In 1987, he edited a slender volume to honour her ninetieth birthday. A Heaven to Find was published by Enitharmon Press in an edition of 200 numbered copies, the first volume of Pitter since 1975.
America was a long way away, though, and Pitter was living an increasingly reclusive existence. She was befriended by newcomers to the village of Long Crendon, which was her home. Muriel Dickinson, together with her son Peter, the composer and musician, also began to support interest in Ruth Pitter. In 1987, the same year as A Heaven to Find, she was interviewed on BBC radio, and in 1990 Enitharmon brought out a collected volume introduced by Elizabeth Jennings.
There is a splendid photograph of her on her ninetieth birthday in the Enitharmon Collected, reprinted in 1996.
Ruth Pitter died in 1992. But even then, the USA continued to play a role. Don W King of Montreat College, North Carolina, was making the work of C S Lewis his professional focus. Through C S Lewis, he came across a key correspondent and friend of the great man – Ruth Pitter. In 2008, he published Hunting the Unicorn, a critical biography of the English poet, Ruth Pitter.
So America continues to play its part! In June of 2012, there is a panel out there in Pennsylvania discussing her. I was going to say more about her here, but I am running out of time and I need to pack.
The heading, when I began, was ‘Parlez moi d’amour’. That’s because Ruth Pitter knew the tune well. When she first met Horace’s Ode to Faunus, at school in the early part of the twentieth century, she also met Sapphics, “easy”, she said, “for ignorance to scan; what is more, it can be sung to the tune of ‘Parlez-moi d’amour’, which it fits to perfection.” And so it can. Here is the tune: you can sing it and see.
For Ruth, the rhythm and lilt of those Sapphics ran through her life. They emerge unexpectedly in all sorts of poems, sometimes as a half line, sometimes as the form of the whole poem. In such ways do rhythms connect not only continents but millennia.
I’ll finish with ‘Of Silence and the Air’, not one of her famous pieces, but you can sing it, and the last two stanzas are terrific. It comes from A Trophy of Arms, 1936.
Here where the cold pure air is filled with darkness
graced but by Hesper and a comet streaming,
censed by the clean smoke from a herdsman’s hearthstone
.....I stand with silence:
void of desire, but full of contemplation
both of these herds and of the gods above them:
mindful of these, and offering submission
.....to those immortal.
Older than they, the frosty air about me
speaks to the flocks like careful age, like winter,
saying, Seek shelter: to the gods, I know ye:
.....and to me nothing
save but that silence is the truth: the silent
stars affirm nothing, and the lovely comet
silent impending, like a nymph translated
.....abides in heaven.
Shall I not also stand and worship silence
till the cold enter, and the heart, the housewife,
spin no more, but sit down silent in the presence
.....of the eternal?