Grevel Lindop

Poet, biographer, critic, essayist and writer on just about everything

Tom Rawling: A Lake Poet Rediscovered

For me, the most exciting poetic event of 2010 was the rediscovery of the superb Ennerdale poet, Tom Rawling (1916-1996).

Ennerdale Water - part of Tom Rawling's home territory

Rawling, who spent most of his life as a teacher and died in Oxford, came from a family that had farmed in the Ennerdale valley, Cumbria, for centuries. He was the son of the village schoolmaster.

He left the valley early but kept contact with his native region and his extended family, and returned often for fishing trips. He was an expert salmon fisherman, and worked with the naturalist and fishing-writer Hugh Falkus studying not merely the catching of sea-trout but their mysterious life-cycle.

Rawling only began writing poetry when he retired from teaching, but what poured out then was a rich and powerful flood of poems about his Ennerdale childhood, his memories of the farm and the village, and about fishing. The poems are vivid, sharp and close to the earth – and they bring to life a whole world, social and agricultural, much of which has vanished from the Lakes.

He had success with two books (Ghosts at my Back, 1982 and The Names of the Sea Trout, 1984) and got to know many of the leading poets of his time – Ted Hughes was a frequent fishing companion, Anne Stevenson encouraged his work, Seamus Heaney wrote friendly notes and comments on draft poems – but then somehow his work was forgotten.

Rawling's poems and memories: A vital part of Lakeland culture rediscovered

But late last year, thanks to pioneering work by Cumbrian writer Michael Baron, the Lamplugh and District Heritage Society (not usually a major poetry publisher) issued How Hall: Poems and Memories – A Passion for Ennerdale (£7.50), together with a superb CD (£5.00) of Rawling’s passionate, hypnotic voice reading his own poems.

Anyone who loves poetry por Lakeland needs to know these poems. As Chris McCully and I wrote in the magazine Trout and Salmon (my first venture into a fishing magazine – I haven’t held a rod in 50 years! – )

“Rawling’s grip on the texture of rural Cumberland life was both sensory and philosophical. Writing of ‘Clipping Day’ he remembers

the ewe’s flesh flinching

as shears neared the throat

for the first cut into the rise

where new wool pushes off its past

in order to repeat it.

Often the recollections have a richness that rises to celebration, the glimpse of a good world charged with benevolent power that hints at the Biblical:

A good summer

was a full barn. Carts came, turned back empty,

came again, ironshod hooves struck cobbles,

a mare snorted as she charged the rising causeway,

winged shelvings swayed with the load,

wheels rattled. Then thunder, the barn floor

booming under fetlock-feathered Clydesdale feet.

A confirmed atheist, Rawling would have repudiated any religious overtones here but the sensory precision of his work (that ‘fetlock-feathered’ Clydesdale) would have earned respect from possibly the greatest nature-poet ever to have written in English, Gerard Manley Hopkins. And always there’s the accuracy. Architecture-buffs reading the last excerpt would recognise that ‘causeway’ as the stone ramp up to a raised Lakeland granary…

“[And Rawling’s fishing experience] bore fruit in poems like ‘Night Fisherman’, where sight is extinguished and the world slips all the more sharply into relief:

Now touch is master, blindman fingering

of reel and rod, the hook’s keen point.

Feet shuffle-feel the ground,

delicately crunch gravel;

body poised ready to reach

beneath the mirror of the pool…”

Here’s one more poem, in full:

Sloe Gin

for Seamus Heaney

Let the first hard frost
expose the spiny twigs
reveal the bare-black fruit.
Reach through jutting thorns
for the blue-hazed sloes,
ignore the blood on your wrist.
Needle-prick to the hard stone,
watch their transfusion seep
through the gin. Each day
an agitation of the jar,
and after many days of alchemy,
decant this ruby in your glass
to taste silk-sliding fire
of frost and thorns
and bitter fruit.

From The Names of the Sea-Trout (Littlewood Arc, 1993)

Besides the new collection, How Hall and the excellent CD (both available from [email protected] or [email protected]) several of Rawling’s original books and pamphlets are still just about available, new or second-hand, so I’ll add the links here. If you want to catch up with possibly the finest 20th century Cumbrian poet (and yes, he stands at least equal to Norman Nicholson) then you need to read them. For me, they helped to make 2010 a memorable year for English poetry.

And now, here’s to creativity – yours, mine, everyone’s – in 2011! Happy New Year.

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