Literary peaks of the Pennine pioneers

Review Spirit and Emotion: Forty Years of the Pennine Poets , Mabel Ferrett, Edited by Pauline Kirk, Fighting Cocks Press, £12.50 Ian McMillan

This is the story of a remarkable group of people who've been meeting and writing and publishing for four decades, nourishing the map of poetry in West Yorkshire and beyond in ways that are difficult to calculate.

The book describes the birth and development of the Pennine poets from their beginnings in Elland library in 1966 to the present day. What we have to remember, from the vantage point of 2006, is that the poetry "scene", if indeed it was anything like a scene, was very different then. Nowadays poetry is trendy; poets can study creative writing degrees and there are plenty of publishers who are keen to put their poetry out once they've written it. The sensitive singer-songwriter and the cutting edge hip-hopper have made the manipulation of words into a thing that everyone wants to do. And I happen to think that's a good thing.

Of course, it wasn't always like this; although the 1960s was a decade of artistic and political turmoil, you get the feeling there wasn't a lot of turmoil in Elland. Poetry was something practised quietly in a room, not spouted out loud in front of a baying crowd.

So the Pennine Poets began, in that gentle, industrious time: a group of fine poets gathered round a West Riding County Library table. Joan Lee, the founder of the group; Cal Clothier, a good poet and novelist who died far too young; Gwen Wade, vice-president of the Yorkshire Dialect Society, who drove from Ripon for meetings; Dr SL Henderson-Smith, an eclectic iconoclast, the prolific Rev John Waddington-Feather (it may or may not be true that entry to the Pennine Poets is restricted to people with unusual, indeed poetic, names) and Mabel Ferrett herself, a dynamic powerhouse of a woman and an evangelist for poetry.

Let's get this straight: this isn't the Bloomsbury Group, or the Beat Generation, or The Lake Poets. There are no fights, no drunken squabbles (none recorded anyway) no epic hitchhiked coast-to-coast (Hull to Blackpool) journeys and no opium-induced trances on the high moors. What this is is a sober account of a group of people for whom the creation and distribution of poetry is a hobby and a calling, a vocation and a major plank of their lives.

The book celebrates poets who otherwise might have been forgotten, like Dorothy Stringer, who didn't publish a great deal in her lifetime but who left us with some memorable lines about what life taught her: "…minutes can be lived/ One at a time; that grief has end;/That vacuum fills again." Or like Joan Mary Firth from Cleckheaton, who left the group because, as Mabel Ferrett puts it, "our poetry didn't measure up to her standards.

"Why, she asked, were our poems so prosaic? Where were the tunes that had formed the basis of the work of our older poets: Shelley, Tennyson, Keats?"

Firth's work is certainly musical: "The dawn breaks gay with winged light/The candles of the moon are old./Ah brave delight – the apple trees!/The apple trees!/The singing, and the gold!" Reading about these lost poets makes me want to rediscover all the poets whose work I read years ago and who I've lost touch with, like the great Mexborough poet, and exact contemporary of Ted Hughes, Harold Massingham, and the unsung Cliff Ashby, Dewsbury's finest writer. The book also makes me wish that I hadn't been so headstrong all those years ago when, as a young man running writing workshops all over South Yorkshire, I'd try to get the older members of the groups to stop writing in rhyme and dialect. As everybody always says: I wish I'd known then what I know now!

At least we have this book to remind us of writing that doesn't follow fashion but simply believes that there is something called Poetry and that it is the poet's job to get as close to the heart of it as possible.

To be honest, Spirit and Emotion is a bit of a mishmash, a scrapbook, a list, a letter from an old friend, but it's no less vital and gripping for that.

Once the story is told, the last 60-odd pages is just poem after splendid poem by members old and new. As well as the cast-list already mentioned, we get the fine observations of Anna Adams, the beautifully precise language of Clare Chapman, the gorgeous rhymes and rhythms of Nicholas Bielby, and many more.

It'll make you want to start reading and writing poems and setting up your own poetry group and your own magazines and, as I said somewhere else in this article, I happen to think that's a good thing!

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