The Tiny Talent: Selected Poems by Joan Ure (selected and edited by Richie McCaffery and Alistair Peebles. With a foreword by Alasdair Gray). Brae Editions, 2018, 27pp, £7.99 (paperback) ISBN 978-1-907508-07-3
“There was this woman and she had this tiny talent.” So begins the title poem in Joan Ure’s strong, complex, and yet distinctively ironic and playful voice. As quickly becomes apparent, as soon as one begins reading these poems, Joan Ure had the opposite of a tiny talent.
The Tiny Talent: Selected Poems by Scots poet and playwright Joan Ure, published in 2018, the centenary of her birth, is a beautifully produced slim volume of twenty-two of her poems. It is a showcase of her immense and often dark talent, which the detail of the monochrome artwork, “Dark Images” by the artist Bet Low reproduced on the covers, illustrates. Joan Ure was the pen-name of Elizabeth Thoms Clark, who was born on 22 June 1918 near Newcastle upon Tyne of Scottish parents who moved to Glasgow. She died, aged 59, of respiratory failure caused by asthma on 24 February 1978.
The title poem, “The Tiny Talent,” set out like a parable, tells us what will happen to a woman writer if she suppresses her creativity. “She had this talent that it happened to be death / to hide.” The poem goes on to warn that:
if you have a talent then it is Death to sit on it
for too long. In plainer terms, a talent
will not hatch out by being kept hidden and warm!
As one reads these poems one begins to sense the struggle that Joan Ure had to get her voice heard. Elizabeth Carswell, Elizabeth Clark, Joan Ure. Three different surnames, the first: her birth-name, the second: her married name, and the last: the second half of a pen-name chosen because it sounded more Scottish. Joan Ure used a pen-name to save her relations the embarrassment of her being known as a woman writer. Using the forename Joan honoured the memory of her only sister who took her own young life.
Some poems are written like theatrical pieces, dramatic monologues or performance poetry. “Answer on the Side Drum in 1963 to the Blast of the Trumpet in 1557, with Less than Respect,” was originally written to be performed in front of a theatre audience. Joan Ure states in a letter of March 1963 to Christopher Small, literary editor of The Glasgow Herald, that I don't write poems. I write pieces for acting” (Editors’ Notes and Acknowledgments). And yet all these pieces are poetry, if one defines poems by their use of a lyrical and condensed language that communicates, whether to a single reader or performed to an audience.
Her poem “HEADLINE! --- THIS DAY / THE PLAYWRIGHTS / BURNED THE / THEATRE / DOWN!” with its mock newspaper headline, is placed “centre-stage” in this book on the double-page centrefold. In this poem, a woman builds herself a cage and sets it on the through-road to the city that fronts the theatre. She is protesting for the right of a woman playwright to express her own voice:
“All I ask” she weeps, and
who could doubt her? “is
freedom to speak, freedom to
Joan Ure’s plays were concentrated, feminist and witty, and yet few were performed professionally, and many were never staged, and this is what the poem is about. The poem is angry, ironic, sad, and yet there is also wit and humour, as when the police consider that her protest is an inconvenience, literally so – serious notice is taken about her protest only because she has taken up her station “beside the gentlemen’s lavatory too.”
“The gentlemen have taken
To going without” the police
appeal at last to her
The single word “humanity” is given its own line for ironic emphasis. This woman’s protest for the freedom to speak is given less importance than the fact that she is blocking the gentlemen’s lavatory. An aside in the poem infers that the woman has gone mad, and one imagines the crowd and experts discussing this: ‘“Paranoia uncovers certain / truths” psychologists admit.’ By the time people do pay this woman attention, it is too late. Exhausted from struggling for too many years to put on her plays, she has lost her passion, her creative identity.
“Somehow in the fight
I lost the very loving thing
I had to say.”
And that is all.
This matter-of-fact admission towards the end of the poem is especially moving, for Joan Ure is also describing her own struggles to get her creative voice heard.
Other poems in this selection are condensed and almost imagist, such as ‘from “Words and Music.”’ The poem begins with an exhalation of frustration and anger, a release of energy:
Oh I am sick
to bloody death
from the gritty No
of a sour people
which then becomes exuberant, setting her free:
I sharpen my stainless skates
and I skate wild
on the frozen Yes
of my own joy
The conversational tone is emphasised by Joan Ure’s deliberate use of capitalisation to emphasise the words “No” and “Yes,” which become as solid as capitalised German nouns. “You,” the reader, are out on the ice with her, sensing her exhilaration, the cold air on her face, the joy of movement, her daring, the freedom, hearing the swish of the skates cutting the surface of the ice – dangerous ice through which she could fall – a metaphor for how she felt as a woman writer living in Scotland refusing to subdue her talent, to make it smaller, gentler. And she ends the poem with a direct yet personal taunt to the reader to join her in the final line: “How about you?” Notice that the “you” in this final line is uncapitalised, giving the question a more intimate, subtler emphasis. Her voice is angry, dark, and yet sharply playful. It reminds me of Sylvia Plath’s poetic voice. It is a voice that seems hewn out of a wild, inhospitable Scottish landscape of moors and mountains, and it comes from the core of her being.
The title of Joan Ure’s poem “In Memoriam 1971” is a reference to “In Memoriam A.H.H.” by Lincolnshire poet-laureate Alfred Tennyson, his lyrical requiem for Cambridge friend Arthur Henry Hallam, who died suddenly of a cerebral haemorrhage. The writer Stevie Smith, mentioned in Joan Ure’s poem, died in 1971 from a brain tumour, so there is a surface similarity here. But Joan Ure’s requiem is not lyrical, but angry, defiant, anguished, and yet caustically ironic. It describes her own struggles as a Scottish woman writer, and how she could have progressed to still greater things if only people could have seen that, as Stevie Smith stated in her own most well-known poem, she “Was not Waving but Drowning,” of whom Joan Ure remarks:
In Scotland – or Ulster – she’d have
survived about half the time
by my stopwatch for I’ve been watching.
“In Memoriam, 1971” is a feminist protest in which Joan Ure is speaking out for all women, “and some young boys,” who have died prematurely. Her friend, the Scottish poet Crae Ritchie, committed suicide only the year before this poem was written, in 1970. Two of her father’s sisters died in childhood. Then, Virginia Woolf committed suicide – the first woman writer in the poet’s lifetime, “and then, / oh in unbearably quick succession / my only sister,” whose suicide was called by her family “a religious withdrawal.” Then, the poet Sylvia Plath committed suicide, precipitated by “troubles”:
not to be solved by carrying the baby
even with the help of a wedding ring.
Sylvia Plath was not so simply satisfied.
Joan Ure conveys a harsh, bleak Glasgow in which young boys have succumbed to drugs before their adult lives have even begun. She fears for her own sons, and especially if she were ever to have a daughter:
and young boys drugging
before they’ve even learned brutality?
I, personally, am getting scared
for me and my sons. And what if
I ever have a daughter?
As Joan Ure states in the final two lines: “Don’t drown us out of the world: / it could be springtime.”
In all of these poems, Joan Ure, as a Scots woman writer, is wrestling control back. She has no use for “feminine virtues,” as she states in the opening poem in The Tiny Talent, “TWO out of a DOZEN OPINIONATIONS.” Her strong, musical voice rises alive from the page, cuts through time, chisels through the hardest Scottish granite, all the way down to the soft southern downs and sheltered glades of England – although, as she declares: “I am too barbaric to live / in a gentler land.”
The poems selected for The Tiny Talent pay tribute to the fierce talent of an extraordinary writer. As the late Alasdair Gray states in his foreword, “Joan’s work has been unfairly neglected.” I believe that Joan Ure should have her own statue erected in Glasgow. The Tennyson memorial statue (1903) by George Frederic Watts outside Lincoln Cathedral shows him holding a flower in his hand, and has a plaque with his poem: “Flower in the Crannied Wall” (1863). Joan Ure’s statue should show her standing “shoulder to spike / with a thistle” – these last two lines from her poem “The thistle and me,” being a particularly apposite metaphor for her wild Scottish talent that refused to be tamed.
Alison Smith is a poet and a writer. She lives in Lincoln and is an MA student at the University of Lincoln. She is a poetry editor for The Lincoln Review. She is working on her first poetry collection.
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