Dorothy Cowlin's verse, from the 1990s.

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Suddenly
comes up a familiar spire:
sister to Salisbury
for grace and height....

Too fast to read the name
the station passes.
This place where once for me
all journeys ended and began
is Inter-City now.

From Grantham.( 1993 )


Comments.

In this period, Dorothy Cowlin wrote nearly 100 poems, more than all the poems she had written up to her late seventies. Of these, about 10 per cent are practically perfect. This need not mean that they satisfy some standard form, new or old. Rather, they read fluently.
Typically, Dorothy's better poems have the quiet assurance of a master craftsman.

The more recent poems have not all had the time to reach finished form, as Dorothy was well aware. About a dozen need re-thinking. Dorothy rarely writes badly. Now and then, she uses an idea too weak to sustain a good poem.

Only the odd one of these feebler works has been published, and not the worst at that. Revision has much to do with the art of poetry and these few poems may well be transformed or scrapped.

A few of Cowlin's poems on time sometimes work less well. She hasnt gone beyond the common sense notions.

You wouldnt guess from her poems that she is well-informed by popular science reports, in The Guardian. When I have talked to her about some new development, from a book for the general reader, she has been able to characterise the subject - to my surprise.

Now and again, she does use contemporary scientific ideas. To frame her typical sleep memories, one good poem gives the gist of Christopher Evans' computer theory of dreams, described in the book, Landscapes of the Night.
I may have missed other allusions, thru ignorance.

Ive met a few women, her age, who could have been good scientists. One of Dorothy's brothers was a mathematics teacher, the other a physicist. There has been a lack of balance in the education system. Obviously, women's intelligence has not been fully enough used. Also, specialisation has tipped one either onto a science or an art side of things.

Dorothy Cowlin is not a 'metaphysical' poet, who plays much with the theories or inventions of her times, tho she has read and understood them. This doesnt matter. Much more important is her keen observation, with a warm sympathy.


Of birds and other creatures.

If I could catch
in words
an equal vehemence
proportionate to my size
I could astonish the world

from Wren.

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Birds have always been there in Dorothy's nature poetry, as they are always in the back-ground of nature walks. Cowlin's eight novels all have country hikes. Many years of experience taught her the avian sights and sounds. After our walks, she would consult books. No doubt, that came of long habit. She identified spring flowers, especially, and native or migrant birds for me.
It's sad that the young dont always appreciate this gift of naming.

More recently, a nightingale and a wren asserted themselves for special attention, in her poems. Since 1989, these have been followed by quite an aviary of poems: about an owl, In the Cave of Pan; cuckoos, By the river Duddon; a robin, Pocohontas in the Snow; sanderlings, on the Sea Shore; Nightjar; Lapwings; Winter Rooks; Waxwings; goldfinches, on a Morning Visit...

Dorothy's verse can be as 'sleek' and 'delicate' as the goldfinches. Or, while remaining clear as the sky, her lines can convey the ponderous beat of rooks:

WINTER ROOKS

The chilly rose of a December sunset
spans the horizon
from nearly south to nearly north.
Commuting rooks go to their roost
in some tree-dormitory
north of where I sleep.
Time for my tea;
for them an early bed.

Knowing the way too well to argue,
yet exchanging an occasional
rook-platitude for company's sake,
they take their slow-winged time;
unnumbered and unregimented,
orderly, yet free.

Their passage lifts me
into their calmer, broader hemisphere,
clear of the fret
of questioning, and words.


No wonder there are so many bird-watchers: urban man has little contact with animals to exercise his sympathy for their predicament. Moreover, Dorothy is not a 'dog-person', as she would put it. She prefers cats. Like them, she is independent to a fault, but in an unselfish rather than a selfish way. She would go out of her way to do chores that you could have done easily for her.
In contrast, others would put-on you, without gratitude.

Cowlin is not sentimental about cats or anything else. One of a couple of poems about them, Cat's Love observes a cat turn on its mate still reeking of dental anasthetic.
Dorothy complained that Ted Hughes was always pointing out the cruelty of animal life. But her own poem Throwbacks is about the inhuman treatment of sheep.

Cowlin's rare encounters with animals, as with the birds, have produced some of her most charming poems: Mice tells how her sick seven-year old self fed a mouse at her bed-side; Bats, a 'little miracle' to see and touch; Applause sought by a chimpanzee.

About people, the former novelist has only written the odd poem. Tho, Aunt Adelaide ( 1999 ) is an effortless nostalgia of sensuous memories.
Barbara Hepworth is about a mock longing to get fingers on the Dame's sculptures. Neither are nature poems but both are priceless!

The poet did come to terms with losing her husband. That and a few reminiscences are the nearest to a relationship threading thru the poetry. Close family and a few old friends complete the human face of Cowlin's verse. But, as personalities, even they are practically absent.
We learn her spouse was colour-blind ( partly ) - as is fairly common among men. Another concise poem, neatly summed-up, comes of it. We learn little if anything about the man.


Her deafness and aging.

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Of the poet herself, we hear of age's infirmities, notably her deafness, an under-rated affliction. This gradually forced Dorothy to give up her pleasure in the auditory arts, whether listening to music at home or going to theatre, concert and cinema. Nor can the hard-of-hearing make out meetings when people mumble, slur their speech or talk over each other.

Deafness is the more frustrating because people are not sensitive to it as a handicap. It is easier to make fun of looking and feeling old, as Dorothy does in Timely Reminder. Or remembering when she asked her husband, did he think she was pretty? ( Question. )

The following poem does not propagandise for deafness. Yet admirers have asked to hear it again. And I was told I had to include it here:


THE SOUND OF RAIN.

I have almost forgotten
the sound of rain.

Eyes must now calculate
by size and quantity
of drops on spattered panes
whether the rain
falls delicate as finger nails
or coarse as gravel.

From the geometry
of spreading rings
within the birdbath
eyes must report
whether the music plays
pianissimo or forte.

I smell the rain
mixed with the summer's dust,
and on my hand can catch
the coolness of a shower.

But for my ears
the rainy season's over.


The Sound of Rain is perhaps less about deafness or the poet than about nature.

Windows reinforces the point that Cowlin is an out-going poet. The first sentence is:

Penned in this double glaze
mind has to manage
with one sense alone.

While the envoi reads:

Bring me a stone,
that I may let life in
and the mind out!

Cowlin makes the link between Windows and The Sound of Rain, in a third poem, Deafness. This compares the deaf woman to a 'Princess / in a glass coffin'. Despite her decline, she is at heart a princess,

but knows
it is too late for princes
and their kisses.

The poem Old Age ( 1989 ) describes herself as 'an inveterate traveller' at the wheel of a jalopy. This image is as 'clapped-out' as the jalopy. Still, we get the picture of one with

pulse light as a girl's
in the delight
of going places

More even than a nature poet, Cowlin is an out-going poet. Her main pursuits are nature and the arts. The art of architecture is most easily assimilated to a poetry of the great outdoors.

Old Age finds her 'unperturbed / if death should overtake.' This is a play on words. The jalopy of her aging body is what death steadily over-takes. Cowlin is a skeptic of life after death. Yet she is well prepared. To break out of windows is to discard the body's shell. To get outside is to get outside oneself, by paying attention to the great outdoors, rather than one's little body.
Having shed one's body, not every-one may wish to inhabit another one.

Studies of near-death experiences, for what they are worth, suggest 'life after life' is a liberation from our bodily limitations. This may be less true, it is claimed, the more the dying person clings to the deadly sins.


The nature of Cowlin's poetry

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I can only find the odd urban poem out of some 200 Ive seen or heard. The Mersey Way reads like a foot-note to Cowlin's novel Winter Solstice. I doubt even that little poem of river pollution would have been written but that it was a memory of walks with her brother.

The exception that proves the rule is her poem about hell, which concludes hell on earth is already here. And that hell is largely one of urban noise and congestion.
That was a sequel to her idea of heaven, Tailor-made. Lapwings clown over cloud-swept barley, mountains beck, the wild flowers, hedged and heathed. There is warmth and humor from male company. But:

Heaven would provide a door
to close at will.

These things are at the heart of Cowlin's inspiration. It is good traditional nature poetry, written in free verse.
G K Chesterton said these are the subjects we want to come back to, not, for instance, some poem about a new cult.
This may be true. But Cowlin's work impressed me as having more to it than a good typical work, like Tailor-made.

Until pensioner age, Cowlin had written only 30 poems. They show her to be a nature poet, pure and simple.
The rest of the poems, in her first folder, the red folder, number about 50. About 30 of these are nature poems. Eight others are about man-made places, like churches. They mostly belong to her holiday poems, tho these are mainly in wild settings.

Cowlin's second folder, the blue folder of poems from 1989 to 1996 contains some 94 poems. ( Four more poems from this period are published but not in the blue folder. )
Some of the blue folder poems are drafts. Eight of the weakest are not nature poems. This is largely why I reckon the ratio of Cowlin's nature poems to other poems remains at about three to two, in this later period.

Naturally, there are more poems on age and its infirmities: deafness and memory loss; and about time and death.
A few more poems mourn or celebrate people. Half of these concern her husband, followed by family and friends.

There wouldnt even be three poems about tourist sights. But the pensioner won one of her holidays as a poetry prize. Add, to these, the odd poems about home towns.
A few verse are comments on life or the arts.
I guess some 40 poems out of this output would be material for publication.

But numbers are deceiving. Growing older; a few kith and kin are inescapable conditions of living. They are a sort of tax, whether or not willingly paid, on one's calling. Cowlin's calling is the great outdoors - with more than a nod to the great indoors of art galleries, museums, theatres and concert halls. But the latter must be marginal to her poetry, an art in its own right.

That is not to say one is just one's calling. Dorothy Cowlin the poet does not give a proper idea of Dorothy the person. My comments hinted at much broader interests. Tho she is as quiet as the country-side, her sunny disposition can enjoy a wide range of company. Family and friends mean as much to her as to the next person.




Dorothy Cowlin's poems by appearance in British poetry magazines, prizes etc.

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Dorothy Cowlin appeared on the Yorkshire television magazine programme Calendar, when she won their "poet laureate of the North" award, for her poem Pennine Tunnel. The prize was a trip to Paris with her daughter.

In 1999, Dorothy won her region's poetry prize, sponsored by Faber, in conjunction with national poetry day.

On 7 november 2004, BBC Radio 4 programme "Poetry Please" broadcast The Sound of Rain.
On 28 january 2005, this poem was also broadcast on the programme, "The Sounds I'm Losing".
Both broadcasts were repeated.

In summer 2005, Dorothy's poem Cloughton Bay was the winner ( in the over-16 category ) in a National Trust competition of poetry on the Yorkshire coast, to commemorate the bi-centenary of the Battle of Trafalgar.


The dates given ( where known ) are the year the poems appeared in print.


Aireings

The Fens - from a train ( 1992? ); Bats ( 1995 ) Foreigners Are Odd ( 1998 ); Gardening ( 1998 ).

Counter point

The Wilful Rose ( 1979 ); Water ( 1979 ); Windows ( 1980 ).

Cumbria

Farndale ( 1997 ); By the River Duddon ( 1997 ); A Long Winter ( feb. 1999 ); Ideograph ( march 1999 ); A Day in March ( march 2000 ); Snow ( dec. 2000 ).

The Dalesman

A Long Winter (1998 ); May Day ( 1998 ); Lapwings ( 1998 ); Autumn Day ( October Woods, 1998 ); Leaf-fall ( 1998 ); Cabbage White ( oct. 1999 ); Scene Shift ( aug. 1999 ); A New Beginning ( feb. 2000 ); April Fool ( april 2000 ); Vapour Trail ( july 2000 ); Bilberry Pie ( sept. 2000 ); Wren ( aug. 2000 ); Gathering Holly ( dec. 2000 ); Snow ( dec. 2001 ); January Blues ( jan. 2001 ); April Pilgrimage ( april 2001? ); Ingratitude ( feb. 2002 );
A Bat; White Egret; Robin in the Snow.
( Dates uncertain for these last three. )

Envoi

Flint ( 1980? ); An October Day ( 1981? ); Amputation ( 1982? ).

Hybrid

The Sound Of Rain ( 1990 ); Leaf Fall ( 1992 ).

Iota

Ideograph ( 1992 ).

Moonstone

A Glimpse ( 1982 ); Sand Ripples ( 1983 ); Malvern Hills ( 1992 ); A Day In March ( 1993 ); The Buddleia ( 1993 ); Bilberry Pie ( 1994 ); Parachutes ( 1994 ); A Fancy ( 1994 ); Hare ( 1995 ); Woods In Rain ( 1995 ); Early Snow ( 1995 ); Intruder ( 1996 ); End Of Summer ( 1996 ); Warning ( 1996 ); The Green Isle ( 1996 ); Undressing ( 1997 ); Winter Rooks ( 1997 ); First Footing ( 1997 ); My Himalayas ( 1997 ); The Art Of Dying ( 1997 ); Time ( 1998 ); Water ( 1998 ); Summer ( 1998 ); October ( 1998 ); Ingratitude ( 1999 ); Lapwings ( 1999 ); Valentine's Day ( 1999 ); Stonehenge In The Rain ( 1999 ); Solitude ( 1999 ).

New Hope International

Helicopter To The Scilly Isles ( 1991 ); Bells ( 1992 ); Calendar ( 1995 ).

Nutshell

Pennine Tunnel ( 1989 ); Power ( 1990 ).

Pennine Ink

Gravestones - Recycled ( 1992 ); Pennine Tunnel ( abridged, 1992 ); Deafness ( 1994 ); Channel Tunnel ( 1995 ); Botanical Love ( 1997 ); Colour Blind ( 1998 ).

Pennine Platform

Jet Lag ( 1990 ); Mobile ( 1991 ); Moving House ( 1992 ); The Cat ( 1992 ); Quaker Meeting House ( 1992 ); November ( 1992 ); Morning After Snow ( 1993 ); Evening Pool ( 1994 ); Windows ( 1995 ); The Lovers ( 1996 ); No Season For Rhyme ( 1996 ); Waxwings ( 1997 ); Gardening ( 1998/9 ); Fashions In Ruins ( 1999/2000 ).

The People's Poetry

Tailor Made ( 1995 )

Poetry Now ( editor's choice )

Tinnitis ( 1993 ).

Psychopoetica

After A Concert ( 1988 ); Illusion ( 1991? ); Danger! ( 1993? ); Applause ( 1994? ); Battlefield Of Love ( 1995 ); Phobias ( 1996? ); The Sound Of Rain ( 1998 ); Short-Term Loss ( 1998? ); The Lock ( 1998 ); Hallucinations ( 1999 ).

Ramsey Chronicle ( Isle Of Man )

For Kathleen Killip ( 1996 ).

The Rialto

Canterbury Pilgrims; The Sound Of Rain.

Success Poetry

Orkney ( Draft version, 1988 ).

Tell-Tale

Early January ( 1982 ); Sand Ripples ( 1983 ).

Weyfarers

Throwbacks? ( 1990 ); Orkney ( 1990 ); Water ( 1992 ); Kingdom Of Elmet ( 1997 ); Protest ( 1998 ).




End of second part of Richard Lung's review of Dorothy Cowlin's poetry.
1999; 2005.

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