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Chris Torrance’s Open Fields

GRAHAM HARTILL and PHIL MAILLARD assess the poet’s legacy and influential writing about the environment

Last summer saw the death of a major poet who made his home in Wales for fifty years and influenced more young and developing writers than will ever be counted. His writing, his teaching and, importantly, his way of being in the world, stood for many as a kind of model of a life lived for poetry and its source in our relationship with the natural world, set down on sheep farming land in the Upper Neath Valley without access to phones, TV or the internet.

Chris wrote all the time, leaving bags of journals and correspondence, all asking to be sorted out (a labour of love) as well as thousands of fond memories in the minds of his associates, for whom a visit to Glynmercher conjured afternoons and evenings filled with lubricated stories, myths and jazz: an hour or two well off the beaten track. This life-aswork reached a consummation in 2017 with the publication of the first eight books of the Magic Door sequence in one volume, running to 400 pages and containing work from 1970 onwards. The books and poems by Torrance referred to below, with the exception of A Book of Number, are included in this collection.

Although this tribute is centred on Torrance’s writing about ‘nature’, it is easy to feel the inadequacy of the term: his work was never ‘about’ anything so much as the life-long growth of an onward and inward flowing lyrical document. We are perhaps too aware of the conventional images that spring so readily to mind when we think about ‘nature’ as a kind of concept and our propensity as poets to present, or ‘re-present’ its existential threat in ways that protest, albeit with integrity, from a position of artistic comfort. We have no space to go into an examination of what is called ‘eco-poetics’ or even to search the question as to whether poetry can actually help, but we will try to indicate how Torrance’s poetic practice can contribute to our awareness, and make a case for an approach that remains artistically radical, getting under the skin of the preconceived, the habitual and the complacent.

The natural world, for Torrance is always more than a description of flora and fauna, and his poetry more than just a concern for their health; it is more than green politics. Though poetry and the other arts can surely have a part to play in both activism and conservation, what Torrance’s writing embodies is an artistic position of both concern and celebration; of enthusiasm, anger, grief and ecstasy. The forms of his work have as much to say as its content. ‘Think globally, act locally’, the old Friends of the Earth motto, couldn’t be more appropriate for Torrance’s poetic engagement, and we would like to apply it here, appraising briefly his sense of the former term to include the broadest swathe of history, prehistory and geology, and the latter as his daily examination of a singular life lived out in a particular place and culture, close to the ground and the weather.

‘Wales was going to be my mature teacher,’ said Torrance in an interview with Glyn Pursglove in Poetry Wales 19.2 (1983), and indeed, the sense of respect and curiosity about the man-made world of Wales, as well as its bedrock and its natural life, is prominent in his work.

POETRY WALES 28

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