Poetic art of Dorothy Cowlin: verse.

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Dorothy Cowlin's verse, up to 1988:

Dorothy Cowlin's verse up to 1988.

Early poems: 1933 - 1948.

Professional writing didnt give Cowlin much scope for verse. Her earlier poems, from 1933 to 1948, average about one a year ( 16 poems ). Her middle poems, from 1948 to 1975 ( 14 poems ), average about one every two years!
Her own next grouping is the poems from 1976 to 1988. She counts over 50 in number, including seven 'lighter poems'.

This section, then, reviews some 80 poems. Not included is one or two juvenilia, surviving from her Kesteven and Grantham girls' grammar school days. A triolet won a commendation.
A deliciously over-written description of a swamp, The Coal Forest, might well have provoked her uncle's response, to another piece in the school magazine: 'Blimey!'
Young Dorothy was mortified. But her extravagant love of words, or verbiage, augured well.

Her school-girl prose, by the way, had the impish humor, known to her friends, its comradely exuberance somewhat toned down by life's trials.

Dorothy Cowlin was only 24 when she wrote her first version of the following verse, revised in 1967:


Shoulder to shoulder drifting, the cloud-floes
tumble in white disorder down the sky.
Diminished stars
blow to their ruin on the sky's bleak scaurs.
Two trees, like wrecks to mark despair
shake broken rigging in the freezing air.
But the bold moon
quickening her silver,
solitary goes,
south - south - to seas uncharted,
cleaving black lanes of silence
through the silent floes.

Cowlin has caught 'the romantic agony' of hopeless longing for these remote sky voyagings.

Dorothy Cowlin's poems tend to be nature poems or poems with a point to make. One question will be: how well do they achieve either or both?

Dorothy Cowlin never went in for the traditional forms. Her earlier poems rhymed. But they are few. Short verse lines were favored from the start. Her poems have a lightness of touch that makes my own seem lumbering, in comparison.

Miroslav Holub, or someone, noted that long verse lines, on paper, were belied by the poets' recitals. Their pauses generally marked short verse lines. Free verse can ignore form to mark natural speech pauses with a new line. With the help of punctuation, this is largely true of Dorothy's above poem.

I believe the ancient art of astrology links poets in general to the moon's influence!

I pressed her on poets she had admired. When she won a Grantham school prize, for achieving a certain standard, she asked for the poems of T S Eliot. She had taken to The Waste Land, recently published. So little was this most influential of twentieth century poems yet in vogue, that Dorothy's teacher could not obtain it.

One wonders what effect a personal copy might have had on her. Cowlin's novel, Winter Solstice is a great urban prose poem. But her verse did not follow Eliot's Preludes.
Instead, her early poems are late romantic nature poetry. She did also like Walter de la Mare, more or less.

But her greatest influence is the seasons and the days, themselves, that is the inclined orbital spin of the planet about the sun.
One of these poems, The Glimpse, is of this cosmic back-ground.

They are not spoilt by unduly straining after the notion that nature is a rhapsody. Eliot's modernism was a reaction against such romantic escapism.

The early poems do display conventional sentiments. Most people would recognise these early poems as 'proper poetry' - if a bit on the clever side. They are lively with observation and an uncommon gift of expression. Their feminine charm has endured in Cowlin's verse.

Middle poems: 1948 - 1975.

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Only one of Cowlin's early poems is in ( quite ) free verse. The Mandarin ( 1939 ) makes up for this, by being gorgeously over-written - like his silk ceremonial costume. And as his garden is over-written, in chromatic bloomings and butterflies.
This effort is perhaps a fond throwback to that zestful young author of The Coal Forest.

A mere 13 poems belong to Cowlin's middle period. ( Dorothy's typescript adds the revised The Moon In Winter but it retains her early style. ) One or two drafts in the old typescript, I'm consulting here, have the odd weakness, for her, of long and abstract words, which she nearly always avoids.

In these few poems, romance or passion is giving way to the classic or contemplative manner.
A Fancy ( 1949 ) is yearnful in mood but relaxed in style. Practically her first free verse, I find it satisfying:


So we set off for home
the tree and I.
But as we went, I heard
the wind of our own going
sough through his needles
with a little mourning breath
at every step.

He was to make child's heaven
in a firelit room.
Crowned with an angel
he was to die in glory,
to scent the Christmas air
with his sweet dissolution.

But as I walked
I fancied that he sighed
for the cold resinous gloom
of his own hillside;
sighed for lost solitude,
for winter rain,
for the thin fingers of east wind,
for earth - for roots - for Life.

However, Cowlin's real throw-forward in style is Ideograph ( 1964 ). Tho they would be a while coming, among the best of her subsequent poems would share this new character. Classical spareness and authority mark this short poem out from the first line:


This day says much in a small compass.
Brief snow
hangs in the hedges,
a paper winter in a Chinese play.
But a lamb's cry
rings a cracked bell for April;
one slanting branch of hazel
harks back to February;
a handful of celandines
liquefy in a burst of sun,
buttering the year to May:
the whole ideograph
indicating - March.

Dorothy was charmed by the symbolic nature of Chinese theatre. For example, paper would be hung out to represent snow. Their choreography is like their calligraphy, a symbolic picture-language.
In the poem, each country event, she sees or hears, is typical of a different month. But, taken together, like the different brush strokes that compose a Chinese ideograph, these events, after and before their time, average out at March, supposing one had to guess what month it was.

In this tiny middle group, there are some other strong poems. Valentine's Day ( 1967 ) is a successful re-cap of her earliest manner, the winsome April Fool ( 1935 ).
Fashions In Ruins is a rare satire. It amused me to public admiration, before I knew its author.

But my tastes have changed. My favorite, here, is another anticipation of Cowlin's free verse: At Falling Foss. Power and High Force - Teesdale are also about falls. The latter is England's largest. She seems to be in her poetic element with water.

The poet's output only steps up with her retirement. One consolation is that there is no large body of apprentice work to get in the way of mature poems.

Poems: 1976 to 1988.

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Surely then, something may come
even yet
from this obdurate grief?

From Flint ( 1978 ).

Writing is supposed to be a therapy for some. And Dorothy Cowlin may have turned more to poetry for this purpose, when she lost her husband. In its emotional charge, poetry is to prose, as dreams are to day-time.
A stock complaint against post-war poetry is that it is so prosy.

In the little poem Song, Dorothy realises she is no Orpheus who could sing back her love from the under-world, where she feels she already is, herself.
In Lock, she tells of how she feverishly preserved a lock of her dead husband's hair, and how futile a momento this was.

Amputation ( 1982? ) counters the pat consolation: 'You have your memories.' A raw poem but accepted by an editor.

Perhaps, the two poems that only allude to, or dawn on, the widow's grief are more effective for allowing one to deduce the loss for oneself. Water ( 1978 ) and The Buddleia Tree ( 1979 ) both are fine poems but such a contrast in styles, classical and romantic, that one could not possibly serve to represent the other. For the same reason, one could not say one is better than the other.
As a review must be rationed on quotations, I simply choose the shorter poem:


Water fell from the hill
in a stony furrow,
jumping from grey lip
into grey lap;
its cool contralto voice,
clear as a brand-new conscience,
calling imperatively

But my hands
could never contain
water to drink.
You gave me yours -
cupped, brimming, ample,
and I drank
as I shall never drink again.

Water in its moods, water-falls, still pools, storm tides and sea-scapes, are one thread of her work. Another theme is the winter winds' shredding of the trees. Cowlin has a sure touch for Nature in contemplative mood. In this respect, An October Day ( 1981? ) takes a set of things most of us have sensed and transforms them into beautifully simple verse:


In the nut-brown woods
I sit by the water
hearing the far-off mutter
of wind in the tops of the trees.
On the brown water
a raft of brown leaves
revolves, with so little way
the gentlest reversal of air
suffices to turn it about.
A falling leaf
and its rising image meet
without audible impact.
Small unspecified birds
moving about their business
seem in a mood to listen
rather than utter.

I like it here by the water
in these brown woods.
The year is not dead - nor dying:
only a little sober,
turning things over
in its mind.

This is Dorothy's favorite season. At this time of her life, the responsive nature of a sunny disposition only comes thru, in the odd poem like Bilberry Pie, with its july associations of the moors, she loves.
She is 'sober with autumn', to quote from Coming Of Age ( 1987 ). As a child is expected to grow into an independent adult, so the author at last can feel, after eleven years of 'futile anger' at her partner's death, that she is 'content to be alone.'

Anger still prevents the poem from being presented with a convincing detachment. But a sea change is in the offing. The fact that Cowlin's third group of poems closes in 1988 suggests a new emotional climate, that may show in newer work.

Instead of falling back on her married past, she was determined to be out-going.
I particularly like Cowlin's holiday poems.
In Canterbury Pilgrims, giving a nod to Chaucer, Dorothy is one of the tourist bus of 'dandelion clocks' looking out for the cathedral.

The rural corners of the British Isles have usually produced their own famous poets. Dorothy was just a visitor. For example, she has written a poem Kingdom of Elmet. This was the last Celtic strong-hold in England. It is Ted Hughes' birth-place, celebrated in his collection Remains of Elmet ( 1979 ).
( Some of the titles are given in the magazine list of where her poems have been published. )

One of her strongest poems, and one of her last in rhyme ( 1976 ), Glen Dhoon - Isle Of Man, has been published only locally, to date, and I would rather it appear in a magazine.

Dorothy has sometimes said about my poems that she didnt think my rhymings added anything to them, because you never noticed them. ( Well, you werent meant to! ) But I would say that the fact there are rhymes in Glen Dhoon is incidental. This work is best grouped with those of her mature poems in free verse, that are, largely, the results of Celtic trips to the loneliest landscapes of Britain - often the outlying isles.

A favorite place, Dorothy Cowlin re-visited, is the following:


Sea and land have here
a shifting sovereignty.
Lifetimes could pass
before you learn their lineaments -
tell Sound from Inlet,
islet from promontary.
Red-footed oyster-catchers
and black-headed gulls
cry territories eyerywhere,
and build indifferently on field or shore.
Men cannot say for certain
if they fish or farm.
Sheep thrive on sea-wrack or on grass.

Salt-laden winds
Viking the cowering trees.
But dust from sea-milled shells
blows inland for the flowers.
So cliffs are sweet as heaven
with clover and with thyme;
low meadows sunk in buttercups,
and every inlet decked as for a Fair
with yellow flags.

This land of mildly flowing hills
a little greener than the sea
would be, you'd think
a place for dreamers, with grey eyes
wistful for the Past, and tongues
melodiously telling over tales
already told too often.

Not so.
Men here are dark and ruddy,
speak free and hearty as the wind,
will brook as little nonsense as the sea,
laugh loud and often,
give brisk welcome to a stranger,
dance vigorously, and sing
like seamen on perpetual leave.

End of first part of Richard Lung's review of Dorothy Cowlin's poetry.

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