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Poem Of The Week: 'Heptonstall Graveyard' By Wendy Pratt
Steve Whitaker, Literary Correspondent
Wendy Pratt
When Ted Hughes wrote Birthday Letters, his seminal emollient to the memory of Sylvia Plath - the received effect was of a stylistic departure from the austere, guttural darkness of much of his earlier work.

Written towards the end of his life, it may be that the unique edginess of his poems was now softened with the tempering of age.

What is certain is that the collection amounts to a late declaration of love, an apologia, a sincere desire to lay to rest the ghosts of conflict, infidelity, and abuse of memory.

The tone softens towards a sense of acceptance, however tardy and convenient his epiphany might have appeared to many commentators.

And there is some irony in the location of Plath's final resting place. Heptonstall and the steep-sided Calder Valley are as rough-hewn and stark an embodiment of Hughes' poetry as to make life and landscape seem symbiotic; and for a time Plath shared the narcosis of natural violence that informs the melting point of their poetries.

But, and as Wendy Pratt implies here, there is a stark contrast between the 'Gothic ruin' and tumbled stones of the old church, and the anodyne housing estate-bordered cemetery next door, where Plath resides.

Heptonstall Graveyard

God, the wind. It peeled the stones
from the skull of St Thomas' church,
left its mouth slacked to a yawn or a scream,
sounding vowels through the nave, through
the clock-eye, the altar stones, the flat-backed
flat-packed dead in their wedding gowns.

I couldn't have placed you here, in this wind.
You are not even in the Gothic ruin, where you might
have met your curse head on, but in the bleak
modern field where the new builds' bathrooms
back onto you, and children squeal on trampolines.

They have bitten a hole in the ground
for you, and mouthed you into the soil,
smaller than the giant I'd imagined,
with both your surnames finally intact.
You're sandblasted by the wind,
here where nothing grows
and the votives left to you cling
like limpets in your dark.


'Heptonstall Graveyard' is an astute articulation of the difference between the biographically-received impression of Sylvia Plath, and the relative ignominy of where she lies.

This, in places, stylised poem invests in a deliberate pastiche of early Ted Hughes - not so much the olive-branch wielding poet - though, of themselves, both processes amount to an oblation before Plath's memory - but rather the blunt and brilliantly metaphorical Hughes of Hawk in the Rain and Crow.

The drawing of a darkly austere and roofless church, and the brutal use of language to describe the screaming stones are all Hughes. As are the oxymoronic 'flat-backed / flat-packed dead in their wedding gowns', which is a precise, and acute, rendering of the consanantal vigour of Hughes' 'black-back gull bent like an iron bar slowly' in the poem 'Wind'.

Sylvia Plath's Grave, Heptonstall Graveyard. Photo by Pat Papertown
The annexed graveyard, as Pratt rightly notes, is not redolent of Sylvia Plath in either atmosphere or appearance. Or, at least, not of the intense, visceral figure we think we recognise. The 'new builds' bathrooms', and children squealing on trampolines act to undermine the anticipated setting almost as effectively as discovering an ice-cream van parked up the cobbled lane by the side of Haworth Parsonage. If not quite Larkin's condescended 'cut-price crowd', the humdrum racket of 'now' looks to intrude on the inverse idyll.

The economy of the final octet of 'Heptonstall Graveyard' is stark. A figure mentally tortured in life finds no relief in repose, as blind forces of rapacity bite rough lumps out of the ground and spit her into a nondescript plot, as ruthlessly as Goya's Saturn. The clinging 'votives' yield little more than a 'weak propitiatory' light, as the yoking of the artistically unique Plath to Hughes, on the gravestone's nomenclature, binds them in unwarranted perpetuity.

'Heptonstall Graveyard' is taken from Gifts the Mole Gave Me and is published by Valley Press.

Also by Steve Whitaker...
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Poem Of The Week: 'Going Without Saying' By Bernard O’Donoghue
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Poem Of The Week: 'Heptonstall Graveyard' By Wendy Pratt, 16th April 2018, 9:09 AM