Welcome to our Forward Prizes 2023 ‘How I Did It’ series. This year we asked the poets shortlisted for the Forward Prize for Best Collection to write about the inspiration behind some of their poems from the chosen collection. Here’s Jane Clarke on what inspired her to write A Change in the Air.
On a sunny June morning in 2019 I went to visit a former miner in his home on a small farm in Co. Wicklow. John Byrne told me about working in the mines as a young man in the early 1950s. There was little employment at the time: the only options were farming, forestry, mining, or to make the decision to emigrate. Though working in the mines was risky, it also paid the most. He worked underground in Glendasan for a few years but dreaded the tunnels and was relieved to be given the chance to care for the ponies instead. He was called the ‘pony man’. As we talked he took faded pay packets from his top pocket – “four shillings a week, that’s what I got for minding the ponies. I loved that job, got me out in the air, out of the tunnels.” He said he’d talk to the ponies when they were tired but that they didn’t seem to mind the dark.
I listened to the language he used. Britches, hames and traces, familiar to me from childhood on a farm, created a music of their own. He also used language specific to mining – tunnels, hoppers, wagons, adits, hammer, shovels, drills, rail track, pit props, carbide lamps. I listened to the emotion as well, expressed and intimated – respect and regard for the ponies, fear of the tunnels, anger about poor safety precautions and the lack of protective clothing, nostalgia for the camaraderie with fellow miners. I was working on a sequence of poems inspired by the lead mining heritage in three Wicklow valleys, Glendasan, Glendalough and Glenmalure. John’s account evoked the steady, skilled work of the ponies in difficult conditions which mirrored the steady, skilled work of the miners in the same conditions.
Looking back over drafts of the poem, I see that I had the title from the very beginning. I liked the sound and shape of it and how it put the focus on the ponies. I did some reading about the history of pit ponies in Ireland, England, Scotland and Wales. In my first draft I had a piebald, a chestnut, a roan and a dappled grey that came from small farms on Shetland, Cornwall and Dartmoor. I attributed different characteristics to each of them; the piebald was brave as a ship’s captain, the chestnut pushed himself too hard, the roan was timid, the dapple grey was flighty. Even though I left out these details in subsequent drafts it was worthwhile getting to know the ponies early on. John had mentioned how deftly they could turn in a small space; after a few drafts ‘turn when asked’ became ‘turn on a thruppence’.
In an early version I had written ‘they were hitched every day in britchen, /hames and traces to the eight-hour shift’. This sounded prosaic. When I changed it to ‘Hitched to an eight-hour shift /in britchen, hames and traces’the lines came alive for me. There is much more energy in the trochaic rhythm and it highlighted the percussive rhyme of hitched, shift and britchen. I liked putting the emphasis on ‘[h]itched’ from the very beginning. Now I had the key to the rhythm, rhyme and form of the poem. I did try the poem in tercets but the opening two lines need space on their own as do the final two lines. I envisaged the poem on the page reflecting the passage into the mines. Of the eighteen lines only three are end-stopped. The run-on lines allow the verbs to convey the movement and rhythm of physical labour through the poem. The couplets enhanced the theme of relationship between pony and miner better than three six-line stanzas or six tercets.
Finding the internal rhymes of ‘follow’, ‘halt’, ‘hopper’, ‘collar’, ‘cob’, ‘fall’, ‘haul’, ‘windfall’, ‘toil’, ‘locked’ created a sound pattern through the poem. I didn’t set out with the explicit intention of doing this. One word found another as I wrote and rewrote, reading it aloud again and again. In earlier drafts I see words and phrases I had to let go; ‘heavy in body and limb’, ‘iron-shod and ready for work’, ‘drove the crushing machines and powered the saw that cut cross-beams and uprights for pit props’, ‘braced’, ‘stock still’. In revising I paid particular attention to the words with which I ended and began lines in order to develop the sound and meaning.
As I wrote I imagined the miners greeting the ponies with a pat or a heartening word. The simple act of giving a pony a treat from your pocket might relieve the relentlessness of a hard day’s labour. I remembered the pleasure of feeding a pony, the softness of their muzzle brushing against my palm. In an early draft I had written ‘they stopped to feed them a handful of oats’. Later I changed that to ‘feed them windfall apples’. I liked the sound of ‘windfall apples’ as well as the image of the miners stooping to gather a few apples into their pockets in the morning for the ponies. The bruised apples helped me convey the miners’ sense of identification with the ponies – working together in an alien, threatening environment, bound to an eight hour shift. I imagined the bonds created through their common experience and interdependence. This led to final image of the ponies protecting the miners. John spoke about the ponies’ sensitivity to potential danger. Though they were inured to the blasts of gelignite they would balk at the sound of running water.
Reflecting on the process of writing this poem revealed another inspiration to me, a horse on the farm where I grew up. When I was a child he was already old and his only job was carting hay to the fields on winter mornings. He would pause while my father pulled down a bale, cut the string with his penknife and tossed out hay for the cattle. With a “walk on” from my father the horse would move again. Steady, slow-moving, trustworthy, he was my father’s helpmate and companion.
I worked on drafts of the poem from the day I met John through the summer of 2019 into the winter months, with the poem finally completed in January 2020. Within weeks of its completion I heard the sad news that John Byrne had died. The poem was broadcast later that year as part of the sequence of mining poems in the BBC Radio 4 programme, The Miners’ Way.
When A Change in the Air was published in May 2023 there was a launch party in Glenmalure Lodge, an inn at the heart of our local community. John Byrne’s widow attended and was visibly moved as I introduced and read the poem inspired by her husband. Later, Mary told me they had their wedding reception over sixty years ago in the very room where we held the launch.
Pit Ponies of Glendasan
Hitched to an eight-hour shift
in britchens, hames and traces,
they follow the miners’ carbide lights,
halt under hoppers, turn
on a thruppence and lean into their collars
to pull the five-wagon train.
Low-set cobs from the Curragh,
a piebald and two greys, their hooves
fall heavy as hammers on granite.
They haul lengths of larch for pit props,
pneumatic drills, boxes of gelignite,
and, from time to time, deliver
injured men back to daylight.
The miners pat their necks in passing
and feed them windfall apples –
comrades in toil and first to stall,
legs locked at a sudden rumbling, a change
in the air or the rush of running water.
Find out more and purchase A Change in the Air here.
Jane Clarke’s third collection is far-reaching and yet precisely rooted in time and place. In luminous language her poems explore how people, landscape and culture shape us. Voices of the past and present reverberate with courage and resilience in the face of poverty, prejudice, war and exile and the everyday losses of living. Across six sequences these intimate poems of unembellished imagery accrue power and resonance in what is essentially a book of love poems to our beautiful, fragile world. A Change in the Air follows Jane Clarke’s widely praised previous collections The River (2015) and When the Tree Falls (2019). A Change in the Air was shortlisted for the Forward Prize for Best Collection 2023 and longlisted for The Laurel Prize 2023.