How frost can melt hearts: no skating on thin ice for Gillian Clarke’s sure-fire poetic pleaser

Wales’ National Poet, Gillian Clarke, talks to Sophie Baggott about Ice’s versification of the elements.

With its piquantly seasonal title, Ice is the 2012 poetry collection of Gillian Clarke – the five-year reigning National Poet of Wales. Britain’s Big Freeze of ’09-10 seemingly commissioned these eclogues but, far from a weather forecast frozen in time, the book progresses through these snowy winters into spring, summer, autumn before circling back to The Year’s Midnight. Shortlisted for the T S Eliot Prize for Poetry, this work shimmers with her love of Nature’s temperament.

The collection opens with the poem Polar, evoking a scene of quiet solitude as the Gillian of yesteryears naps on a polar bear rug. At a 2013 BBC Radio 4 Bookclub talk, she laughingly describes her former habit of feeding this rusks, but naïve serenity slips away at the poem’s halfway-point, where she seems to morph into her adult self lamenting the bear’s demise: “I want him fierce / with belly and breath and growl and beating heart”. The concept of death is rarely absent for long, and Gillian explains this to the audience by comparing a rose with a plastic flower, observing that we love the former for its fragility. The idea of love strengthened by transience perhaps sheds light on her passion for seasonal swings: “I want March winds, April showers, long summer nights in June, I want cold, I want snowy winters”, she tells Bookclub listeners.

Her poetry’s origins seem almost beyond her control; “energy, creative fire, ‘duende’, is the force”. An audience member questions how she “decides” on a poem, but Gillian responds by conjuring up an image of a poem prowling just over her shoulder and captured only if she turns quickly. The answer? There is no decision: excitement seems to be at the helm. And there is much, much excitability in Gillian Clarke’s psyche; the snow excited her, so she wrote: “I don’t know for whom I write. I love the process, and it is obsessional.”

But it’s certainly not all frostbite in Ice; a sunset, “august and auburn”, is gloriously, warmly evoked in Harvest Moon as the poet runs out into the lane to catch the sun’s ephemeral tumble off the horizon. Even so, the sudden scorch of heat at the very end tilts the book’s closure at an unexpected angle: “The burning bush. The rainbow. Promises. Promises.”  Are these promises, promises to culminate in good or evil? The melting ice and rising seas of the preceding lines murmur to me of global warming but, as ever, poetry’s ambiguity is sovereign.

Thus far, my review might mislead into the false impression that this collection spotlights only the natural world at the brazen expense of ‘the human’. Gillian’s answer as to whether she prefers writing about nature or people swerves the question by shattering the implicit dichotomy: “Aren’t people ‘nature’? We are animals, surely.” Regarding Ice, she has spoken of her desire to write “a love song to the planet”, but surprisingly the human sphere is by no means shoved aside. Moving instances are her poems Six Bells and Gleision, which cast back to mining accidents of 1960 and 2011 respectively – a jostling between ‘then’ and ‘now’ as reflected in the opening poem’s nostalgic gaze back to childhood. Saluting how many layers of her self are behind the pen, she muses that “every single one of ourselves is still alive”, and proclaims her biggest influence in two words: “being alive”. 

The black bleakness of these mining poems discredit this collection as a contender for cosy Christmas card covers; nor does Gillian’s depiction of the Big Freeze beautify its drawbacks: “Motorways muffled in silence, lorries stranded / like dead birds, airports closed, trains trackless”. Occasional writing has been a Welsh tradition from time immemorial. Late in picking up Welsh, Gillian had been forbidden to learn the language as a child by her socially-aspirant mother, but dubs it the “background word-music” of her younger years.

Oddly, the osprey who flits in towards the end of Ice was the one to strike a chord with me. Having soared from Lapland, the osprey pauses for a three-week interlude in Wales. “You could tell it was happy / by the way it splintered the sun / with its snowbird wings. / But its mind was on Africa, / the glittering oceans, the latitudes / sliding beneath its heart.” This plucky winged Odysseus endeared himself, and left me wondering where might Gillian Clarke’s Africa be. In any case, Ice was a splendid stopover in her illustrious marathon of a poetry career.