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Garfitt, Roger

GARFITT, Roger


Nationality: British. Born: Melksham, Wiltshire, 12 April 1944. Education: Tiffin School, Kingston upon Thames, Surrey, 1955–62; Merton College, Oxford, 1963–68, B.A. (honors) 1968. Family: Married 1) Sylvia Jerden-Cooke (divorced 1971); 2) Priscilla Eckhard (divorced 1979); 3) the poet Frances Horovitz (died 1983); 4) Margaret Hawke. Career: Secretary, Oxford Community Workshop, 1969–70; English teacher, Ousedale School, Newport Pagnell, Buckinghamshire, 1970–71, and Bicester School, Oxfordshire, 1971–72; Arts Council Creative Writing Fellow, University College of North Wales, Bangor, 1975–77; writer-in-residence, Sunderland Polytechnic, Tyne and Wear, 1978–80; Northern Arts writer, Durham County Library, 1980; Welsh Arts Council poet-in-residence, Ebbw Vale, 1984; poet-in-residence, Monmouth Comprehensive School, 1986, and Pilgrim College, Boston, 1986–87; writer-in-residence, Blyth Valley Disabled Forum, 1992. Commissioned to write a poem on glass for new County Records and Research Centre, Shrewsbury, 1994; commissioned to write a long poem for the Web site of the Poetry Society, 1999; Arts Council commission for a poetry and jazz collaboration work with composer Nikki Iles, 1999. Member, Arts Council Literature Panel, 1986–90. Poetry critic, London Magazine, 1973–76; editor, Poetry Review, London, 1978–81. Awards: Guinness award, 1973; Eric Gregory award, 1974; Arts Council bursary, 1983, Agent: Jane Turnbull, 13 Wendell Road, London W12 9RS. Address: c/o Carcanet Press, 4th Floor, Conavon Court, 12–16 Blackfriars Street, Manchester M3 5BQ, England.

Publications

Poetry

Caught on Blue. Oxford, Carcanet, 1970.

West of Elm. Cheadle, Cheshire, Carcanet, 1974.

Wall, with others, edited by Noel Connor. Brampton, Cumbria, LYC Press, 1981.

Rowlstone Haiku, with Frances Horovitz and Alan Halsey. Madley, Herefordshire, Five Seasons Press, 1982.

The Broken Road. Newcastle upon Tyne, Northern House, 1982.

Given Ground. Manchester, Carcanet, 1989.

Border Songs. Stoke Prior, Herefordshire, Five Seasons Press, 1996.

Along the Line. Bishop's Castle, England, Community College, 1996.

Leaves at the World's Edge. Bishop's Castle, England, Community College, 1997.

The Path from the Year's Height. Bishop's Castle, England, Border Poets, 1999.

Selected Poems. Manchester, Carcanet, 2000.

Other

Travelling on Sunshine. Newcastle upon Tyne, Artists' Agency, 1996.

Editor, Collected Poems, by Frances Horovitz. Newcastle upon Tyne, Bloodaxe, 1985.

*

Roger Garfitt comments:

My early poems began as a direct response to landscape and especially to the play of light on a landscape. I tried to re-create in language the quality and intensity of that light. Recently I have become more interested in the landscapes as a register of the lives lived there and in particular the unacknowledged lives of the majority of us. History, as it has generally been written, is the business of kings and ministers, of manufacturers and merchants. If we look instead at the unwritten histories, at the lives of the working people, our perspective is completely changed. To write those unwritten histories is to unwrite the official histories.

*  *  *

It would be too easy to slip Roger Garfitt's poetry into place somewhere in the long tradition of English pastoral poetry and leave it at that. He can certainly write skillfully and feelingly of the countryside, of the world of cattle in "Spring Grazing"—"The bullocks back and churn in a mill by the gate / Their breath hangs in snarls in the unravelling mist. / They balk at the open field"—and he has a fine eye for the landscape of agriculture—"The harvest field shelved away, a bare shelf / set with a trap: white-rimmed stumps, pebbles and cracked soil" ("Out of a Clear Blue Sky")—or for the dunes and the sea—"Sand gathers grass. Mud grows samphire. / The seven silences of water / turn to the one silence of earth" ("Titchwell").

But the urban poems "Equinox," "Born 1940," and "The Hitch-Hiker" and the group of poems written for Shelter are all equally as well observed and as sensitively written. Can these two aspects of Garfitt's works be reconciled? Is there a common factor besides that of authorship? Indeed there is, and it is that most English of preoccupations, the seasons, the aspect of external nature that affects the lives of country and town dweller alike. The shorter poem written for Shelter titled "Spring Greens" illustrates this clearly when the climate is related to the keenest of urban images:

   Whiskers on the moss. Rust
   burns beneath the overflow. In the tenements
   the damp is changing seasons.
   And all the tins in Tesco's sharpen their colours

Here the movement of the seasons is as essential to the town dweller as to the cattle in "Spring Grazing." There is winter in the city—"Dropping over the roofs a husk of twilight / caught neatly up by magnesium fans / into circle and black"—or summer at Bablock Hyth—"Out of hours, the road is warm stone / a basking place beside the stream." The titles too reveal this essential pivot on which the world of Garfitt's poetry turns: "Winter Economy," "September Morning," and "Trees in City Winter" as well as the others already mentioned. It is the element in which we are all caught and involved, the climatic environment that shapes our lives, our moods, and our outlook.

Garfitt's poetry is quietly voiced. It eschews verbal fireworks but is the more effective for that, working gently as it does toward atmosphere and significance.

In his collection Given Ground a stronger expression of feeling can be detected. "Homage to James K. Baxter" is a case in point, as are all the poems that celebrate those living in what he calls "the underside of History"—that majority of us who lead unchronicled and certainly uncelebrated lives yet who make the very fabric of society. Examples of such poems are the young soldier in "In Transit" and the "anonymous" man in "Freebooter." In "Blue" Garfitt expresses that delicate and peculiar sadness that accompanies happy memories: "Memory on a peg / behind the door …" "Blue" is one of those poems that are complete in themselves, one that a person would want on a desert island and that makes other practitioners envious.

Garfitt's poetry can be seen gaining in strength while still retaining its verbal felicities. "Culvert," which catches sharply a spirit of place, ends with the lines "Here is a Roman thread, / A forethought of stone." Another superb example is to be found in "Lower Lumb Mill," in which one of those perfect coincidences of time and place and mood is caught in the brilliantly visual: "Sunlight mullioned through branches."

John Cotton

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