Continuing with a sequence of posts about AQA GCSE English Literature and the new Love and Relationships anthology, this week I’m taking a closer look at Letters From Yorkshire by Maura Dooley. It’s a poem in which she captures a relationship in a moment and all the connections we make even though we are far apart.
Unlike other poems in the anthology the relationship between the poet and the man she is writing about is not exactly clear, but I don’t think that’s very important in most ways.
At first glance, it’s a poem that compares well with Follower or with Walking Away, especially in terms of its format. There is a regularity to it and a sort of ordinariness, a mundane, real-world format, solid and consistent; there’s no particular pattern to these lines, and although they are split up into groups of three across five stanzas and in four of the five stanzas, the ideas carry forward into the next stanza, so in stanza one, the idea of “his knuckles singing” carries into “as they reddened in the warmth” and this does the same in stanza two into stanza three, with the “seasons turning”. Stanza three is end-stopped with the question about life, stanza four begins afresh and runs into stanza five. It does beg the question about why it has been organised in groups of three lines, since there doesn’t really seem to be a purpose for that. For me, I think the form is simply a vehicle for the ideas and the language. It’s black backing paper, a frame to mount it on. That’s my take on it. I think it’s something you have to justify to yourself and consider for yourself, thinking about why she has used this three-line stanza format and if it is significant in any way.
The use of enjambment makes ideas run from line to line, stanza to stanza. The ideas are not contained in separate stanzas, particularly. We have a couple of caesuras, leaving bits of lines dangling on one line and carrying on into the next, which adds a pensive pause to those dangling phrases or perhaps fragments them from the rest of the idea, but this is something better explored when we look at language. I like the way the ideas and sentences don’t have particularly clear boundaries: to me, it mimics the way the letters take ideas from one place and carry them across into another world. It literally is letters (albeit alphabet letters and not the kind you post) that take ideas from one place to another, with no clear boundaries. The enjambment connects the lines and stanzas just as the letters connect the subject of the poem and the author.
The title of the poem is descriptive and neutral. “Letters from Yorkshire” is exactly what the poem is about, and yet it is about so much more than that. We don’t live in an age of letters any more and that’s sad. I’ve still got all the postcards from my mum and grandparents, letters we passed between friends in History class, letters from my best friends when I moved away, as well as all the letters my various boyfriends wrote me in my youth. Those letters do things that emails never will do in the same way. I have one box of letters that really do still smell of one boyfriend – I open that box and it transports me back twenty-five years. When I was clearing out my cupboards the other day, I read a letter from a friend that reminded me of a night out we once had. It made me laugh out loud to remember events that had been forgotten for fifteen or twenty years. People took time over letters in ways they don’t over emails. Getting letters from home was a joyful experience for me and one that many people don’t have any more – including me! This is why I treasure those letters, which do so much more than words on a screen ever can. They’re much more a part of you, with your own handwriting. Sure, they can be trivial and humorous, but there’s a baring of the soul in letters that we don’t see so much in emails or texts. I don’t know whether the letters are those from the past, though parts of the poem are written in present tense, and the poem is narrating events from the past, or whether it’s a modern poem and they still write letters – people still do! The very thought of letters dates it though – and although it may only be 20 years since my last letters stopped arriving as people moved to email, it feels very much like a bygone age.
In the first line, we get a sense of time to go with our sense of place: “In February,” which reminds me of Owen Sheers’ bleak and cold winter swans. Winter is such a symbolic time, a time of lifelessness and coldness. You catch a lot of the poets using weather and seasons in this way. But February is that time just before spring, and we’re given an immediate sense of growth and life with the “planting potatoes” and the lapwings returning. It’s the germination of something positive and optimistic, like the rain giving way to sunshine in Sheers’ poem. The first stanza gives us a really rural atmosphere, similar to Follower and this continues the sense of “Yorkshire” that we get in the title. The writer starts by calling the person “he”, which is interesting, because later we have “you”. I feel very strongly that “he” and “you” are the same person, so she starts writing in the first person about a third person and then turns and addresses the poem directly to this new audience. Instead of the poem being about him, it is to him. This change is curious and purposeful. She starts off with one audience – us – and changes to another – you – before finishing in a way that is addressed at once to both and to neither in stanza five. This is definitely something we have to think about and consider. Why does she start with “he saw the first lapwings… came indoors to write to me” and move to “You out there”? I’m not sure I have an answer, but the general effect is that it moves from the impersonal and objective to the personal and subjective. “He” becomes “you” when the letter arrives.
In the first stanza, there’s also a sense of the closeness between the poet and the man. When he first sees the lapwings, his instinct is to reach out to the poet and tell her, “to write to me”. The way she finishes with the image of “his knuckles singing” is quite delightful: they aren’t just words on a page, but a “song”. We get a sense of the immense joy he feels at seeing the returning birds, this symbol of the arrival of spring, and he reaches out to her to share that feeling. It’s musical and conveys his enthusiasm. It reminds me a little of the philosophical question about a tree falling in the woods and if anyone hears it: if spring starts and the man has no-one to share it with, what is it worth?
In stanza two, we have something of a mystery: “it’s not romance.” What’s not romance? This seems to be a reference to something earlier. So what is ‘not’ romance? The return of the lapwings? The coming indoors to write to her? The way he writes? It seems to refer to something previously stated, and yet it’s also quite vague. To me, it’s a reference to their relationship: this letter-writing. If that’s what ‘it’ is. It’s really up to you to decide what ‘it’ might be to you. And whatever ‘it’ is, it’s ‘not’ romance. She says. If she means this communication, the letter-writing, the reaching out to communicate his joy, there’s a tenderness in it even if she says ‘it’s not romance’. But there are other meanings of the word ‘romance’ as well, which could fit. It doesn’t have to be used in a romantic way. It could mean that it is not ‘Romance’ with a capital R, meaning the kind of ‘Romance’ Shelley and Wordsworth wrote about… emotions, sentiments, and not much to do with love as to do with adventure or passion. Despite the alternative meanings, I still think she means ‘romance’ as in to do with love, and this in itself provides with two mysteries: who is the man who writes her letters, and what is their relationship?
There are lots of times we have to justify a relationship… we’d never have to explain that a family relationship “is not romance” so it sounds as if they are friends. It’s just curious to introduce an idea and say it is “not” that. Despite her saying this, it does seem that they have a real connection. It reminds me of films like 84 Charing Cross Road which is about two people from very different worlds who communicate in a series of letters, their friendship developing only through those letters as they never meet in person. For that reason, along with the “it’s not romance”, I’d like to say this poem is about a warm friendship between the poet and this unnamed man. I like the mystery of who he is and what his relationship is to her, whether they have ever met, whether they are friends who live far from each other. And as much as I like the mystery, it almost doesn’t matter: we can only suppose about their friendship what we can determine from the details in the poem. We have to take thing as they are, just as she does when she says it’s “simply how things are”.
We can also take the idea that the things he describes in his letters are the daily run-of-the-mill hum-drum routine. There’s no romance, for instance, in planting potatoes. She could just mean that “it’s” describes the letter itself, or the general content of the letters.
What we do learn about the friendship is what we read at the end of stanza two and the beginning of stanza three. If stanza one is about “his” world, and him coming in to tell her about what is happening in his life, stanza two gives us a little information about their relationship and ends with her description of his life, turning to second-person address and becoming more personal: “you out there, in the cold, seeing the seasons/turning.”
The poet also poses a question for us to consider in the enjambed stanza and line between stanza two and stanza three. Why put the break between these two lines, the space? Why split up “seasons turning” across not only a line break but a stanza break too? It leaves the word “turning” dangling at the beginning of stanza three, which is curious. It’s even more curious because the rest of that first line of stanza three is about her world, and it’d be arguably more evident if the description of his life was in stanza two, then a line and stanza break, then the description of her life, like this:
You out there, in the cold, seeing the seasons turning,
me with my heartful of headlines
You can see how that break would emphasise the distance between them, leave them distinct and separate. So why move “turning” into the next line and stanza with her? For me, there are a couple of possibilities. One is that by putting that “turning” where she did, it makes us think more about the distance between them (because normally I don’t particularly discuss why ideas are in one stanza and other ideas are in another stanza). Another reason could be that it makes us think about that word “turning” as this is what the stanza does, turns from his world to hers. Perhaps a further possibility might be that the letters bring her a small bit of his life just as the word “turning” comes very much into the bit about her life in the poem. For me, it is definitely something to think about and discuss, because it is unusual and interesting. The enjambment forms a link between his life and her life.
Where her writing about him had been very factual and not particularly poetic or ornate, except for the “singing” knuckles, when she writes about herself, her diction seems a little more poetic and crafted, with the alliteration of a “heartful of headlines”. It’s an unusual turn of phrase, too. “Heartful” is both “heart full” (like ‘my heart is full of headlines’) and instead using the adjective “heartful”, meaning ‘full of heart’ or ‘full of emotion’, or even ‘earnest and sincere’. Technically you can’t say ‘my heartful of headlines’. If I replace it with another adjective, you’ll see what I mean grammatically. It’s like saying ‘my happy of headlines’. ‘My’ is usually followed by a noun. So you can say ‘my heart’ and you can say ‘my heart full of headlines’ but ‘my heartful of headlines’ is not grammatically correct – so what’s she doing here? It’s funny… to me it seems almost like a collective noun. You know, like a pack of wolves, a herd of cows. Some of them are unusual and interesting: a murder of crows is pretty well known to describe a group of crows, but a clowder or clutter of cats and a kindle of kittens. A heartful of headlines sounds like a made-up collective noun for headlines. After all, they are often full of emotion. It means BOTH a heart FULL of headlines (rather than a HEAD full of headlines which would be a bit crass in terms of repetition and imply that her writing was more cerebral and thoughtful than heart-felt) and a HEARTFUL writing of headlines. Does it mean she’s writing headlines? That she is thinking about the headlines? Her heart is full of the things in the newspapers?
She makes her own activities sound mundane in comparison with those of the man who has written to her, “feeding words onto a blank screen” – and she even asks the question, “Is your life more real because you dig and sow?”
The way that this line finishes the stanza and is the only stanza to be end-stopped within the poem (excepting the last verse, of course) makes the question even more powerful. She really makes us stop and think about the real-ness of his life with its more practical, useful and earthy results. It compares well at this point with another Heaney poem not in the anthology, Digging, where he talks about the physicality of his father planting potatoes and seems to go through a poetic crisis over the practicality of his poetry-writing, before coming to a conclusion that poetry-writing can bear fruit too, and that it is a skill of its own. The question is directed towards the penpal, her friend, and she speculates his answer would be “no”. Even so, she finds more of life in his letters which bring her “air” and “light” – making it seem as if she lives an airless, darkened existence. The letters take on a metaphorical quality: they bring her more than just news about lapwings or planting potatoes. They are a metaphorical ‘breath of fresh air’ and although they make her question how ‘real’ and ‘enjoyable’ her own life is, “feeding words onto a blank screen” whilst he is experiencing the world and its “turning”, she doesn’t feel any resentment about that – just only finding pleasure in what the letters bring her.
Stanza five is also interesting in the way that final sentence starts. It reads, without breaks, “So that at night, watching the same news in different houses, our souls tap out messages across the icy miles”. It’s the “So that” which is curious, preceded by a caesura which makes it even more noticeable. It’s strange. We’d take “so that” to mean “in order that” or “because of this”. I’m not sure what the reason is for the “so that” – it feels strange and unusual, unfinished even.
The poem finishes with a closeness. They are no longer writing to each other but their “souls” communicate – expressing thoughts and feelings to each other, bringing them together “across the icy miles”. We finish with the same image of winter, the icy weather, that is woven through the whole poem, from his knuckles red from the cold, being “out there, in the cold”, “breaking ice on a waterbutt,/ clearing a path through snow.” The life and warmth they clearly get from each other is very touching. It is his first instinct to come inside and write to her to say that he has seen the first lapwings and his letters bring her “air and light”. They end the poem connected despite the distance.
To me, it’s a very touching poem that reveals a tenderness in friendship, a closeness and a connected relationship. The word play in there is subtle but we see how much enjoyment and pleasure the poet gets from words and letters, despite her statement that she is “feeding words onto a blank screen” – she suggests her work demanding, thankless and uninspiring, unreal almost yet her words make her a liar: she clearly enjoys word play and the beauty of words. What brings her the greatest pleasure are the shared moments of a friend, even though she is living vicariously.
If you are interested in a one-to-one lesson with me to find out more about the AQA GCSE English Literature Anthology, please send me an email and get in touch. Skype sessions start from £15 for one hour. You can have as many sessions as you feel like you need.