Esther Morgan: 21st October 2021
‘It’s a rare treat to have a poet,’ said Keith Jones, our Chair, as he began the evening’s conversation with Esther Morgan, and it certainly was.
Starting with the quote ‘without hope and without despair’ from Raymond Carver via Isak Dinesen, the poet led the audience on a fascinating exploration of the processes which lead to her finished poems. Diving beneath the surface of her creativity she explored her roots as a writer: from childhood, via A Levels to her undergraduate degree in English literature. She described thinking that poets were born and not made until she started volunteering at Dove Cottage, where ‘at the crucible of Romantic poetry’ she saw ‘many messy drafts, amendments and substitutions’.
Esther quoted the Scottish poet Don Patterson as saying, ‘I don’t want people to see how much work goes into a poem,’ and then proceeded to describe how her poems were the result of a process whereby she worked hard to overcome clumsy first drafts in order to ‘improve or ruin.’ She described first drafts as ‘baggy creatures with the spine of a poem,’ but that there was also ‘peril in proficiency,’ quoting Samuel Johnson as saying, ‘Read over your composition, strike out the fine stuff,’ and added that she tried to create ‘a balance between freshness of vision and control.’
The poet gave Charles Causley’s ‘Eden Rock’ as a good example of a ‘shared touchstone’ poem involving spontaneity and discipline in its exploration of life after death. She also looked at Tennyson’s ‘Crossing the Bar’ where the speaker confronts the reality of imminent death and described the final line ‘When I have crossed the bar’ as always fresh and surprising but the result of much work by the poet.
Esther then took the audience on a journey through the sequence of poems in her latest collection The Wound Register identifying the difficulty of saying something fresh about WW1, something she had been attempting to do throughout her writing career. An initial rejection by Bloodaxe Books, her present publishers, led to several abandoned attempts until she successfully wrote The Wound Register during the centenary of the conflict. She showed how many of the poems apply the concept of such a register or Casualty Book to her own family history and particularly that of her great grandfather. She described how she explored folklore in certain poems, with ‘living memory tipping over into legend.’
Questions from an enthusiastic audience resulted in the announcement that her next collection of poems will be a sequence based on the alphabet and written to her daughter*. She also announced that she was involved in an anthology of poems linked to the Norfolk painter John Crome. Another questioner asked ‘How do you know when you’ve finished a poem?’ Esther’s answer was straightforward – ‘sometimes when I’ve said exactly what I wanted to say, otherwise it’s when it’s as good as it can get.’
Keith Jones rounded off the evening by describing it as a ‘delightful experience’ with the theme of ‘the imagining of things, scattered, diffused and unconnected brought together … a wonderful excavation of things below the surface.’
* Editorial note: In advance of the publication of this book, Esther generously allowed us to reproduce one of her poems, ‘U is for Unicorn’, in the previous edition of BookTalk #177