The Poem as Shared Emotional Experience

Photo by Susan Wilkinson on

Four weeks since we lost dad and how much the world has changed. I’ve taken the cards down from the windowsill, the flowers have died and been thrown away, the season is turning. He was diagnosed in winter, we drove to the chemo appointments in spring, he died in summer and now it is autumn and we are being carried away on the turn of the world. The place where he was begins to fill and there is a realisation that time is going to pass, that we are already changed, will continue to change. Yesterday I visited mum. While I was there I picked some potatoes up, she’s never going to eat them all, there are sacks and sacks of potatoes. They’re kept in the garage that is really a barn. When I went in there to get them, there was his presence again, next to the camper van where he had been working on something underneath it: a can of WD40, an old oily towel, his tools and the empty space in the middle where he had been kneeling. It was suddenly surprising because in the house, in the garden, his things are being moved, his presence is something we need to maintain in photographs and keepsakes and stories. It’s only been four weeks and yet we have a king now, instead of a queen and a new prime minister and he will know none of this, will not have an opinion on any of this.

We buried him a week last Thursday, in his field, as he’d wanted. We laid him on a bed of fresh mown hay which came from the farm I’d had a chance to go over with my metal detector; where I found my lucky gold sovereign. I specifically wanted to get the hay from there because I know that the land owner cares so much for the place. He’s a person who is very in tune with his land, could show me where the hares left their leverets, where the swallows and swifts nested, where the best place for gathering sloes was. Dad would have appreciated that. The funeral was full of people who had been in my dad’s life. More than a hundred people came. We’d all worked so hard to make it just right. The burial itself was beautiful. The chickens came to the fence of their enclosure to watch the wicker coffin lowered into the ground. The leaves were swaying in the breeze. The oak trees were heavy with acorns. It was so peaceful. It really did feel like we’d brought him home.

Someone on twitter said that this period of time between the death and the funeral was a ‘sacred’ time and that’s how it has felt, a place in which the family’s grief was closed off, private, a place where we kindled his memory back. On the day of the funeral we opened it up to everyone else. From a personal point of view, this grief is very different to losing my daughter. When we lost Matilda I became an animal called grief and that animal was insatiable in its need to be near her. A lot of it was the terrible instincts, the beautiful instincts, that exist in parenthood. I could not find my way through it, not for a long time. The loss of my dad is so sad, a great well of sad that runs right down inside me. But it is a slow pain. I do not feel eviscerated by this grief. There is an inevitability to losing a parent, a terrible knowledge that at some point, and you never know when, you will be without them, a knowledge hat a door will close and you will never be able to reopen it, that you will lose a person that you love, and there really is no getting away from it. The older I get, the more grief there is. What a terrible, wonderful thing is the human animal, that we are so aware of ourselves and so aware of the loss of a person we love. That we must live that.

In this slow, deep grief for my dad I have found myself reaching for poems, or rather the poems feel like they have been reaching for me. Seamus Heaney’s ‘Digging‘ is one that I have come back and back to. The image of the father in the garden beneath the window:

Under my window, a clean rasping sound   
When the spade sinks into gravelly ground:   
My father, digging. I look down

Reminds me so much of when we first moved to my dad’s dream house: the small holding he’d always wanted. I can see him now, from the bedroom window, in the veg patch, in his old coat and his little blue hat, throwing the spade into the ground.

By God, the old man could handle a spade.   
Just like his old man.

Poetry is more than just words on a page, it is a vibration that you pick up. The poem becomes the place where the emotional experience is created and carried, a place where the emotional shared experience is relevant, where that great ache of grief is met, and I feel that in this poem. I relate to it, but of course cannot relate to it. I relate to the emotions. I feel that insecurity around purpose, the vulnerability of doing something different to what was expected, to move away from a path that a parent expected of you and that perceived disappointment, that way of trying to make them proud. I don’t really know what my dad wanted for me, but while we always had books in the house, I do know that my parents never saw being a writer as a way of making a living (to be fair, I am barely scratching a living from it so perhaps they were right).

I have dreamed my dad alive a few times since the funeral. Mostly the dreams are around the changes that are happening. I find myself talking to him, but can’t understand what he is saying. Sometimes he is further away. This last week I found myself moving towards the work of Jonathan Davidson. I’ve worked with Jonathan before and in fact he is our next four week course facilitator at the Spelt School. He is one of the most generous poets I know, in terms of how he facilitates and how he engages with poets and poetry. He’s also a very decent, thoughtful person. There are people that you come across in your career who have a hand in shaping how you feel and think about your own work and where you fit into the wider conversation, and Jonathan is one of them. he won’t know it, but the manner in which he approaches poetry as something that isn’t owned, but is shared has had a profound effect on me. And of course, he is a very talented poet. His poems about his own grief around his father now make me cry in a way that they didn’t before. This one, which I have his permission to share, in particular:


I walked with my invisible father
out into the fields on the edge
of town. But they are gone now:
new roads, new names, new people.

Dad, stay here for a while, I said,
and I’ll go and find out what
has happened to our lives. He sat
on the newly installed bench.

And when I returned, furnished
with stories of change, I found him
utterly dead, his cold eyes
on the cold world closed. So

many years he had lived here
and then this: his roads re-named,
his fields built over, his people
now coming into view as strangers.

By Jonathan Davidson, from A Commonplace (Smith|Doorstop, 2020)

Now the world is closing over my own dad, and the places he knew, the land that he loved will change, the world will change and this poem in particular has that shared place of emotional experience where I can come and lay my hands on it and say, yes, yes, this is it. Thank you to the poets who make themselves vulnerable, who work at their craft in the deep recess of pain and create the places where we can come and be. Incidentally, Jonathan’s Spelt course is going to be wonderful. He is the sort of facilitator I aspire to be. You can sign up here: link to Jonathan’s course.

I went back to work ‘officially’ last Monday and aside from feeling worn down, I’m pleased to be back in my routine and back working. I have some big chunks of writing time ahead of me through autumn, and I’m looking forward to that place of peace and calm that the new season brings. Last week I ran an early morning facilitated writing space as part of the new Spelt School of Writing. I got such a lot out of it. I’d taken some feedback on the new collection the week before so used that hour in the morning to go through the feedback and see what worked. Reader, I removed six whole poems and the collection is suddenly tight, clean, just right. I took a sestina that had a poem that wasn’t a sestina fighting to get out of it and re wrote it and I re ordered the whole thing and I think it’s done. Mind you, I do keep saying it’s done and then going and doing more work on it. At some point I’ll have to relinquish it and let it go out into the world. That space to write before the world has crushed the confidence out of you is important. If you want to come to the next Dawn Chorus writing group, by the way, here’s the link to sign up: link to Dawn Chorus

Until next time


4 thoughts on “The Poem as Shared Emotional Experience

  1. sueatsiilkley

    Thankyou – that seems an egotistical thing to say to a person who has written so movingly about their grief. I think of you with kindness – I don’t know what else I can do. I would if I could. You talk of the ‘vibration’ of writing – this writing has such resonance for me I am sitting here weeping for the slow loss of my living mother. I think this grief for the living is little acknowledged and it feels right to release it, live with it, let it be part of me. I shall reach for ways to write about it in the days to come – for myself at least.

    See you tomorrow night. Such a pleasure for your clients that you feel able to take up your work again




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