Reflecting on the life and work of the ‘other’ Wordsworth

Marianne-BoruchMarianne Boruch is the author of eight poetry collections, recently Cadaver, Speak, and The Book of Hours, a Kingsley-Tufts Poetry Award winner. Her Eventually One Dreams the Real Thing is due out in 2016. Her work has appeared in The New Yorker, Poetry, LRB, American Poetry Review, The New York Review of Books, and elsewhere. Awards include fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts and the Guggenheim Foundation, artist residencies at the Rockefeller Foundation’s Bellagio Center, Yaddo, the American Academy in Rome, and at US national parks Denali and Isle Royale. She’s been a Fulbright Professor at the University of Edinburgh and is Professor of English at Purdue University.

In 2012, in Scotland as a Fulbright Professor at the University of Edinburgh and a fellow at IASH (wild dumb luck on both counts), I took the train down to Grasmere for the Wordsworth Trust’s Festival of Women’s Poetry, at first simply grateful for more rare luck: the chance to see Britain’s three laureates–Carol Ann Duffy, Liz Lochhead, and Gillian Clarke. That turned out to be rewarding enough. What I didn’t quite grasp—now I’m not sure why, given that the festival itself had been named for her–was that I’d sit in a room full of poets and hear of the hidden heroics of Dorothy Wordsworth.

A small, broach-at-the-collar older woman stood at the lectern. We all leaned forward like stray young birds waiting to be fed. I’m not young—and please forgive my clumsy ornithology–but there was something so immediately engaging about Pamela Woof. Her warmth, her meticulous good sense, her no-nonsense passion for the journals of Dorothy Wordsworth she had edited made us all: will you adopt me? Right now? On the spot? Or so I imagined. But surely she has her own daughters, I thought then, coming back to earth, back to reason. Still, that old expression–we hung on every word—is sometimes true.

What little I already knew about Dorothy Wordsworth is the backbone of my poem ‘Women’.

She’d lost her teeth fairly early so dodged any likeness to be made of her. She walked long miles in the Grasmere hills exactly as her famous brother did and against the knee-jerk disapproval of the day. (Oh women, such fragile creatures, not fully capable or trustworthy, and so on and on….) But she kept a garden of both domestic and wild flowers, a source of acceptable pleasure. And meanwhile there were the journals, which no doubt William read, and how many of his sister’s fine observations on the page or in the air as they talked did he lift whole cloth?

Those journals! Which were what Woof spoke of and into that hour at the Festival with such memorable grace, off no notes that I could see. Thus our lean forward, an instant connection with this village explainer of many remarkables concerning the life and work of the other Wordsworth. My memory fogs up but I do recall a thrill ran through that audience as Woof brilliantly explored the power of image in the journals, that writer’s ahead-of-her-time habit of looking closely at the concrete particulars of day or night.

I registered this originality as a kind of patience but now I think it’s impatience—with what?

Perhaps the distance and philosophical overlay assumed of most serious writing, its thousand-pound weight of abstraction, the press to move past the thing into whatever idea that suggests, not the is as much as the about. Impatience looms up, dangerous. Look! Get out of your head and look at the world, will you? is what we could call it, and defines her immediate painterly way with hardcore image in the journals, her trusting that to suffice and mean, an approach that wouldn’t come into poetry in earnest until early in the next century when a young willful Ezra Pound began his ranting and cruise-directing, coining his famous take on image as seen or heard first and fully—’an intellectual and emotional complex in an instant of time’ giving off ‘that sense of sudden liberation’.

Back to the Dove Cottage years, it was Coleridge who knew and valued what Dorothy Wordsworth was all about, I seem to remember Pamela Woof saying. (Coleridge, open and generous in other ways too, said to be the only poet of the time never to belittle William Blake, even seeking him out for a long afternoon walk once–or so I’ve read, and treasure the detail.)

I took notes during the talk: the way image also works slowly, how it haunts and continues, is so much of the time unconscious but comes from a lived life and often its privations in childhood, the notion of fire, for instance, its fevered wished-for solace recurring in those journals. Pamela Woof linked that to the early loss of the family’s mother, the girl sent away to live with others, never a hearth in her room. Does such cold ever leave us?  Once again she was speaking directly to poets! Because we were poets in that room listening so keenly to this scholar and critic, moved by what she said, then most of us, I suspect, curious unto worried, tracing back those images that keep coming up, bidden or not, from the dark of real experience and into our own work.

Danger means in danger. Out there, in here, staying put, going forward, being the many or the one abruptly stopped—and changed–before the wonders or endless griefs on the planet.

And to be dangerous? You say such things, or write them. In time. To step out of time. But first–

Shrug, says Dorothy Wordsworth. I keep hearing her: walk around.


Dorothy Wordsworth, toothless at 40.
After that I wouldn’t sit for a “miniature” either,
some vagabond artist huckstering
door-to-door with what passed for a camera.

All praise to my old-country grandmother too,
a girl who told no one, the first
menstrual blood running down her leg
between bean row and cabbage, smudged
into dirt with her bare foot.  Scared
turns to: will I die?

We all die, said the priest about my mother
but that’s in another life.

See? What you write, writes you back.  What I find
puts me in the flames of hell
all over again grateful
or in that first backyard of weeds and brave grass,
some ivy weaving a wall.

Dorothy. With or without her brother, miles
the nosy ones tisked—into hills beyond Grasmere
like all English poets packed their fame-to-be
next to lunch in a knapsack and went up.
At least she tended her home lilies too,
wood sorrel, violets, they untisked.
As for those wily daffodils
that “tossed & reeled & danced”
in a journal she kept, the ones her brother: mine
all mine! Great. Sure. The old story….

Back to my Busia, who finally told
her mother during the second bout, the next month
out in fields they’d never own.  It’s just
the bloody thing kept happening.

Pretty soon you get
a rag between your legs.  Pretty soon teeth tire of
the whole business, shattering and grinding
supper to bits that go
easier down.  But gums get like rock, the mouth
more secret.
Beauty then?  The big deal about beauty?

I don’t know, says Dorothy Wordsworth, walk around.

Text copyright Marianne Boruch.