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Poetry and Art: Sue Leigh writes about the influence of Winifred Nicholson

Poetry is often inspired by art, and poems inspire art in turn. This series of posts celebrates this special connection in the words of artists and poets who have been published by Two Rivers Press.

Small and expansive: writing about the paintings of Winifred Nicholson

The life and work of Winifred Nicholson, the British twentieth-century artist, has always been significant to me. Inspired particularly by colour, light, flowers, landscapes and seascapes, her pictures have a freshness and immediacy (she painted quickly), a lyrical intensity. Her work is joyous. The paintings – often of pots or jugs of flowers on windowsills with a view of mountains, snow or sea beyond – bring together near and far, the small and expansive. It is as if by looking with attention at those flowers we might begin to understand what she calls ‘the secret of the cosmos’.

There is often a visionary quality to her work as in ‘Flower Table’ (1928–9) which she painted at Bankshead, the Cumberland farmhouse where she lived for most of her life. The pots of flowers in this painting sit on a heavy work table which itself sits on a rag rug (Winifred Nicholson designed rag rugs and was also interested in other crafts). I love the radiance of this painting, its silvery light. It is both domestic and homely but also otherworldly.

Why write about a painting? I am always questioning how we might respond creatively to the world and experience. Winifred Nicholson uses colour and form to express her vision. I try to articulate my own, not with paint but with language. Writing about painting helps me think again about the act of making, to consider the possibilities and limitations of different mediums. I live in language but sometimes I would like to be a painter just to see what happens, beyond the words.

Sue Leigh, March 2022

 

‘Flower Table’, Winifred Nicholson (1928–9)

 

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Flower table poem by Sue Leigh from Her Orchards

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Sue Leigh read English at London University and completed her doctorate at the University of Aberystwyth. She worked for Faber & Faber for a number of years before leaving London and settling in rural Oxfordshire. She now works as a freelance writer and poet, and as a part-time tutor at Rewley House, Oxford University’s Department for Continuing Education. The poem ‘Flower Table’ appears in her latest collection Her Orchards, published in 2021.

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Poet of the Week – 11: Sue Leigh

TWO RIVERS PRESS POET OF THE WEEK—11: SUE LEIGH

Sue Leigh lives in the Windrush valley in Oxfordshire. She teaches at Rewley House, Oxford University’s Department for Continuing Education, and reviews regularly for PN Review. Her first collection of poems, Chosen Hill, was published by Two Rivers Press in 2018. It was described in the TLS as ‘an intelligent and considered collection that pays homage to the act of paying attention’. She has a letterpress pamphlet called Chalk forthcoming from Evergreen Press, which will include the uncollected poem ‘Flora’.

Sue Leigh writes:

I don’t know how poems happen. I love the mystery that surrounds their making. I learn continually about patience and listening, they seem to be at the heart of it.

There are fallow periods which are as important as writing itself. It has taken me a while to understand this.

And there is solitude, this is necessary. Interruption would break the line of thought, craft, feeling – it would be like waking the dreamer from the dream.

I am fortunate to live in a quiet place surrounded by fields. I feel silence all around me – broken at this time of year by the singing of birds.

I spend much time walking. This is often where poems begin. (It has something to do with rhythm, I think.) Outside, there is a sense of lightness, the mind quietens, you can listen. You look at the sky, you inhabit weather. You move through the living world – a world of plants, creatures. You feel part of it.

I write in a notebook every day. I started this practice some years ago and I can’t imagine ever not doing this. Sometimes the notes may be the beginnings of a poem.

I find myself trying, trying again to lay hold of experience, to catch something of that original brightness. But in the dance with language something new emerges and it often catches me unawares. A poem becomes an act of discovery, a small research project into one’s relationship with the world.

I was thinking the other day about why poetry matters, and it seems to me that in these times we are more in need of poetry than ever. Poetry connects us with our deepest selves, but it also connects us with each other. Rather like looking at a painting, reading a poem may enable us to see the world through someone else’s eyes. We understand a little more about our humanity. And that must be a good thing.

NAN SHEPHERD IN THE CAIRNGORMS

To be with the mountain
as if to know one place
might be enough
for a lifetime
to be with it
without intention

then to set it down
to name juniper, heather, deer
precise too about uncertainty
the mind cannot hold it all –
the water in the loch
feels cold, clear

[from Chosen Hill]

FLORA

I cannot make anything
more lovely than these names

eyebright
also called bird’s eye, rock rue

meadow cranesbill
blue buttons, gipsy, grace of God

salad burnet

travellers’ joy

lady’s slipper or Virgin’s shoe
(might there be one left)

Venus’s looking glass

early purple orchid
known too as Gethsemane

pasque flower

and the purple rampion,
does it grow still on Silbury Hill

[first published in Oxford Magazine]

Chosen Hill book cover

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Poetry readings in Ludlow this July…

Sue Leigh will be reading from her collection, ‘Chosen Hill’, with Roger Garfitt

All are very welcome…

7 pm for 7.30 pm, Thursday 2 July, 2019

Poetry Lounge

The Blue Boar, 52 Mill Street, Ludlow, SY8 1BB

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Sue Leigh and her approach to poetry

Sue Leigh is a poet and writer who lives and works in the valley of the River Windrush in Oxfordshire. Her collection Chosen Hill is published by Two Rivers Press. Sue reflects here on what poetry means for her.

Chosen Hill book cover

How and why did you become a poet?

I loved poetry as a child, I knew somehow it was important.  It was the sound of it I liked, its strangeness.  I started writing as a teenager – just a few poems.  It didn’t occur to me at the time that they might be for anyone else.   Writing felt private, real and liberating.

I continued to read poetry as I raised a family and worked in publishing – it sustained me at some deep level.  But I wrote nothing during those years.  Later, a space opened up and I found I had the solitude and quiet I needed to write.  Since then poetry has become the touchstone of my life.

What are your interests?

I write about the deep past – what we might learn from it, what of ourselves we leave behind.  I want to look at the past in today’s light.  From my window I can see a small Norman church (built on the site of a Roman villa) and what is left of a deserted medieval village, and beyond, the river that flows on.  The past is so close.

I find myself returning to questions of how we might live, how we might respond creatively to being alive.  I am interested in the lives and work of other artists – how they express the subtleties and complexities of experience. 

I write about the natural world from a place of reverence but also concern.  

I cannot say where poems come from except from noticing, paying attention, a kind of intense listening.  It is difficult to talk about process.  In the end there are the poems and they must speak for themselves.  And it is of course all provisional.  There are times of writing, there are fallow periods.   

Which writers have influenced you?

I have been inspired by many writers but John Clare and Edward Thomas have been important – poets whose vision is often connected to an English landscape with a sense of the local and particular. 

I also read what might be called ‘nature writing’ (although I am not entirely happy with the term) by writers such as Nan Shepherd and Annie Dillard.

What is the future of poetry?  Does poetry matter?

Poetry won’t stop the worst things happening but poetry can help, by naming things and by focusing on the particular.  Language can so easily become debased but poetry uses words charged with their utmost meaning.  Poetry is inherently truthful.

Poetry also renews and deepens the imagination and that is as essential to public life as it is to private life.  Imagination is close to compassion and that surely is the greatest virtue of all.

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Sue Leigh’s Chosen Hill reviewed in the TLS!

Chosen Hill book cover

‘BRIEF… AND EXPANSIVE’

We were delighted to see Sue Leigh’s Chosen Hill reviewed in the TLS in December, by Suzannah Evans.

‘Sue Leigh’s intelligent and considered collection is a homage to the act of paying attention: to objects, to the past, and to our surroundings… Leigh’s poems are brief, and employ minimal punctuation; the questions they consider, on the other hand, are expansive. Many of them read as meditations on how to exist in the world, and how we might accept the chance happenings of life.’