Shortlisted for poetry’s most prestigious award, Peter Bennet’s latest collection invokes a world of mysteries, spirits and alchmey. Tamzin Lewis met the Northumberland poet.
FOR Peter Bennet, the landscape of the Wild Hills o’Wanney “seem to require poetry”. This is not solely due to the outstanding beauty of the Northumbrian landscape, but also because of the strange natural acoustics of the hills.
His remote cottage is similarly immersed in poetry, as it was once inhabited by James Armstrong, author of the Northumbrian ballad The Wild Hills o’Wannys written around 1870.
Formerly an art teacher, it was a move to this derelict place with no electricity or water near Kirkwhelpington which inspired a change in direction.
Peter left his position at Newcastle’s Longbenton High School in 1978 to pursue his first love, painting. But instead, poetry pursued him, and in the same year that he moved to Northumberland he took a job teaching poetry to steelworkers Peter, 66, says: “I originally wanted to be a painter but when I left teaching I discovered that it wasn’t really what I should be doing. I painted myself out.
“So I got a job providing basic education to retrain redundant steelworkers from the Consett Iron Works. The more they were in need of education, the longer they could stay on the course, so the very bright men pretended to be thicker than they really were!
“We rapidly got fed up with doing basic English and Maths. A lot of these men were very bright indeed so we started doing drawing classes, creative writing and literature. I found poetry which I could discuss with them and it had to be good as they were critical and very responsive.” He adds: “At the same time, I moved to a cottage in Northumberland. There are four crags at the Wilds of Wanney and the space between them has peculiar acoustical qualities. You can be a quarter of a mile away and hear what climbers on Great Wanney Crag are saying.”
After the temporary job in Consett, Peter started work as a tutor-organiser for the Workers’ Educational Association and began to win prizes for poems submitted to competitions and journals.
His first poetry pamphlet was published in 1983 and since then has written five books, including his most recent, The Glass Swarm, published by Flambard Press.
This is one of 10 collections shortlisted for the 2008 T S Eliot Award, chaired by the Poet Laureate Andrew Motion. The winner of the £15,000 prize is announced on January 12 at an event in London.
The Glass Swarm is a work of imagination, rooted in Northumberland but less inspired by the Wanneys than previous collections. Newcastle-based poet Sean O’Brien writes of the book: “Mysteries occupy strangely familiar landscapes, where folktale and proverb intersect with the contemporary, and where nothing is as secure or simple as it seems.”
Rather than writing autobiographical poetry, Peter uses a variety of voices in his story-telling. He writes of several generations of the fictional Pringle family at Blaxter Hall, a “home of lost romance”, somewhere in Northumberland. There are also spooky poems about abandonment, ghosts, and past crimes, touched by folklore, history and legends.
“Many people expect confessional poetry,” Peter says. “But you could go bananas if all you ever wrote about was your perception of the stuff which happens to you. No one’s life is that interesting, certainly mine isn’t. Everyone has to write at least one poem about their grandad but you don’t want to keep on doing it.”
He adds: “If there is an I in my poetry, it is usually an alias rather than being me. It is a great freedom not to have to pretend that it all happened to me.”
At the heart of the book is Folly Wood, inspired by 15th Century English alchemist George Ripley. It is a 13-part fantastical comedy of transformation.
Peter, who has two children, three step-children and five grandchildren, says: “I’m very interested in alchemy and the images of the alchemical process are wonderful, all sorts of strange things happening in jars.
“I am interested in the idea of transformation. Alchemists were interested in psychological transformation as much as actually manufacturing gold.”
He adds: “I like to think that the world is a mystery and full of surprises and patterns. There are enduring patterns in nature and history and the recurrences of things in peoples’ lives… how things make sense in the end.”
The Glass Swarm demands dedication and concentration, and on the odd occasion a dictionary, but it is incredibly rewarding.
Peter says: “The beauty of poetry is that you don’t have to show the whole picture. It’s like showing things in half a mirror, they are suggestions. The poems require re-reading. I don’t stuff poems with references which make them difficult for the sake of it. On re-reading poems do become clear.
“If you only use language spoken in the supermarket it limits what you can say. The language I use is not clever for its own sake, although I do relish a long word, I like simple language too.”
Growing up in Cheshire, Peter read John Keats, Walter de la Mare and traditional Victorian poets. He was later influenced by Scottish poets W S Graham and Douglas Dunn and also by Kathleen Raine, who was also inspired by the Northumbrian landscape.
Peter says: “I like the ghost stories of M R James and the sense of potentiality of things which have the capacity to turn around and bite you.
“I would like to be somewhere in the tradition of M R James and Walter de la Mare, while having one foot firmly in the contemporary.”
So how important is poetry in today’s world?
“It’s essential,” says Peter. “Language is in the keeping of poets and they must maintain it. If language is not used as completely and fully as it possibly can be, then the poet is falling down on the job.”
:: The Glass Swarm by Peter Bennet is published by Flambard Press at £7.50. www.flambardpress.co.uk