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The Poetry of Wolf Hall: an Interview with Ellen Cranitch

Unless you’ve been living under a rock for the last 10 years (not the strangest thing a poet has ever done) you’ll be aware of Wolf Hall, the literary phenomenon by Hilary Mantel, which was recently adapted into one of the most critically acclaimed TV serials in British television history.

As we eagerly wait for the final instalment of the trilogy, this Autumn we’re buttoning up our doublets and re-immersing ourselves in the richly imagined universe of Wulfall and unpacking the many poetic techniques hidden in Mantel’s prose, particularly her use of metaphor, personification and symbolism.

We spoke to tutor, Ellen Cranitch, to find out more.

Hi Ellen! How’s your summer shaping up?

Ellen: Really good. Just got back from Ireland – lots of swimming in huge waves on the west coast just across from the Blasket Islands then a spell in Dublin where I popped into Trinity to look at the Beckett manuscripts. I learned two things – that Beckett doodled a lot on his drafts – and that the French title for his prose-poem, ‘Lessness’ – performed recently as a play at the Beckett festival at the Barbican – is ‘Sans’. For some reason, I find that really illuminating…

Can you tell us a little more about your workshop and what you have planned? What are you most excited about?

Ellen: I was struck reading Wolf Hall by the techniques Mantel uses to create so immersive, so vivid and immediate a world. Part of this is to do with her innovative use of narrative point of view whereby we feel deep within Thomas Cromwell’s consciousness. But the part I’m interested in, the area that can help us as poets, is her use of rhetorical tropes to conjure sensory experience. Again and again, reading the book, I thought – these are the techniques of poetry, these are age-old techniques. For all that great writing cannot be reduced, must own some element of mystery, there is a craft evident here which we can unpack, which can help us with our own poetry writing.

I’m most excited about Mark Pybus, producer of TV Wolf Hall, coming along, to give us his perspective. I’ve known Mark a long time. I remember how much he was moving about from castle to castle during filming. Wolf Hall was filmed in a huge number of locations including Penshurst Place in Kent and Berkeley Castle, Gloucestershire.

What made you decide to explore Wolf Hall in particular?

Ellen: I was struck by how people talked about the book, not just passionately but possessively, as theirs; people can often do this with poetry, feel passionate and possessive about a poem because it speaks so purely to them. It has become part of them at the deepest level. You know that feeling – we’ve all had it – when you don’t want to share a poem or book with someone because it means so much to you, feels yours? Writing like Mantel’s in Wolf Hall draws forth this powerful reader response through the way it uses language. It’s not enough for the language to be infused with multiple connotations and sonic associations, as it is; the writing must also fashion a linguistic universe which compels the reader to creatively engage, spurring them on to co-create its meaning. The best writing elicits this kind of profoundly creative reader response. A successful poem is distinguished by this. We all aim for this as poets.

Does prose often inspire your own poetry? What about other mediums like film or theatre?

Ellen: I’m inspired whenever I see language taking flight. That can be poetry or prose. I feel inspired by different prose writers for different reasons, David Foster Wallace, for example, for his wit, his fascination with the esoteric, the rare word, and for the way he pushes a thought, an analysis, through pushing language. I love Joyce for his allusiveness and his passion for words, he’s drunk on words. I’m keen on the neologisms especially; just today, in Ulysses, with reference to the waves, I read the word ‘brightwindbridled’. And I adore Marilynne Robinson for the cadence of her prose, the rhythm of those sentences that unfurl with such elegance down the page. She’s profoundly influenced by biblical cadences of course like Whitman.

I think free verse poetry can learn a lot from sculpted prose cadences like Robinson’s; it can learn how to create an in-built rhythm, a poetic shape, in the absence of overt meter and rhyme.

Dance as a medium is always a source of inspiration for me too, more than film or theatre. I find the best sources of inspirations are art-forms or genres which aren’t too close to poetry, which allow thoughts and ideas to emerge and spin off freely and unconfined.

I started out as a dance critic and I also find dance criticism inspiring. Dance writing is like poetry, it relies on metaphor and analogy to conjure an experience which, uniquely in the case of dance, is ephemeral; there’s no script, no text. The language has to work very hard to vividly conjure the performance experience.

How do you think Wolf Hall translated into television? Did you notice adaptions being made?

Ellen: I thought the production was excellent, that it worked really well. But of course it’s a different experience to reading the book. Television is a visual medium. I felt to be able to actually see the relationships between Cromwell and the women and children in his household, in particular, really brought out the tenderness and sadness in those scenes; seeing Grace, the child he loved, for example, wearing her wings…

I thought Peter Straughan’s script was fantastic, really contemporary. It took freedoms with Mantel’s prose, wasn’t in awe of it.

And the casting was strong. Mark Rylance was about as close as you could get to Thomas Cromwell, inscrutable, his face gave so little away.

How was your PhD? Can you tell us something about that?

Ellen: Completed, thank God! My supervisor was Don Paterson and my examiners John Burnside and Michael Symmons Roberts. Two things fuelled my thesis; I’ve always been fascinated by metaphor – I believe it’s perhaps the most fundamental poetic trope; that, and Seamus Heaney’s comment about why poetry matters so absolutely – that poetry assuages – “offers a clarification, a fleeting glimpse of a potential order of things ‘beyond confusion’…”

In my PhD thesis I was able to bring these two together, to argue that it is metaphor, through the way it facilitates expression of poetic theme and poetic self, that is responsible for offering this assuagement to the poet and the reader.

I had to look at the latest metaphor theory, based on cognitive neuroscience, alongside older models. I traced metaphor theory through from Aristotle to I.A. Richards, George Lakoff to Stephen Pinker. But the bulk of my thesis was case studies of four poets – one dead, George Herbert; three living, -Alice Oswald, Andrew Motion and Glyn Maxwell – each of whom I interviewed about their composition process.

As it was a Creative Writing PhD, I also submitted fifty new poems.

What are you reading at the minute?

Ellen: Virginia Woolf, James Joyce and Anne Carson. I’d never read Woolf but then I went to see ‘Woolf Works’ in May at Covent Garden, a collaboration between composer Max Richter and the in-house dancers and it blew me away. Dance – an abstract and allusive artform which articulates itself in a spatial dimension – is like poetry in so many ways. It works really well for Woolf. The piece caught something essential and inspired me to read the novels.

I’m having a go at Ulysses because of being in Dublin . And I’m back re-reading Carson, whom I love, ‘Autobiography of Red’ and ‘Red Doc > ’ . I always find something new in Carson’s writing. Plus I’m going to her version of the Bakkhai next week featuring Ben Whishaw.

What are you working on at the moment?

Ellen: A collaboration with the painter Dolores Lyne for the Ranelagh Arts Festival in Dublin in September called ‘Placing the Word,’ about the landscape of County Kerry. She is doing the painting, I, and four fellow poets, are writing the poetry.

You were a poet in residence on the Poetry School ‘Mixed Borders’ course last term – could you talk a little about your experience and how if at all it has affected you and your writing?

Ellen: I was Poet in Residence at Christchurch Greyfriars situated between Smithfield and St Paul’s, a wild and prolific garden set against two ruined Wren walls. The residency spurred me on to create new work tailored to this unique space. For example, I wrote a sequence of five meditations which I enlarged and laminated and positioned in the five arches of the old Wren church. And, having researched the history of the site at the London Metropolitan Archives, I wrote a piece about the people who’ve worked there past and present from Franciscans to Merrill Lynch bankers. This I positioned on the boundary of the garden and the bank. I planted several poems about specific flowers in the earth. And I wrote one poem for children which I hid deep under the roses. Because the garden is not enclosed and much celebrated when in full flower there was a constant flow of visitors. I spent much of the day talking to the public about their interests in gardens and poetry and about how the poetry made them see the garden in a new way. The residency definitely took my work forward. I found I extended my range and made use of new forms. I had hoped that a residency like this where I had to produce original, site-specific work to a deadline would pull fresh poems out of me, and fortunately, it proved to be so. The garden as metaphor goes back, way back, beyond Milton’s Adam and Eve. This particular residency offered a very rich experience.

Who would you rather have a drink with Henry VIII, Anne Boleyn or Thomas Cromwell?

Ellen: Well that really spoils me for choice! Cromwell I think, when a young man, setting out from his home in Putney…Any older and he – alongside Henry and Anne – if you put a foot wrong in the conversation – would be likely to behead you.

To immerse yourself in the poetics of Hilary Mantel’s literary phenomenon on Ellen’s one day workshop, visit the course page or contact us on [email protected] / 0207 582 1679.

To find out more about Ellen, visit

Ellen Cranitch is a poet, journalist and teacher. Her prize-winning poetry is published by Carcanet in the Oxford Poets series and in many periodicals and magazines. She has taught at the University of St Andrews, City University and University College London. She lives in London where she’s a regular reviewer and interviewer for Poetry London and POEM International Magazines. Photograph by Rod Morris.

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Image: ‘Portrait of Thomas Cromwell’, Hans Holbein the Younger