Poem notes


By Damian Walford Davies

With illustrations by Lucy Wilkinson

I came late to the famous diary of Francis Kilvert (1840–79). Published 1938–40, it was immediately acknowledged by readers as a classic. Valued for its detailed observations of nature and social life, it is an important social document; it is also resonantly lyrical. I found it disturbing. Kilvert’s brilliant writing betrays a fascination with the darker side of rural life, and the entries are charged with suppressed desire. The borderland location of Clyro, Radnorshire, amplifies the oddnesses recorded. I was drawn to these vignettes. Something in the writing suggested the need for amplification, and the ‘Kilvert’ sequence enters into dialogue with its subject, responding to short quotations from the diary with poems that both extend and crystallise. (Two other so-called ekphrastic enterprises come to mind: Geoffrey Hill’s response to lines from Cesare Pavese’s diary in Without Title, and R. S. Thomas’s The Echoes Return Slow, in which autobiographical poems and prose pieces fascinatingly play off each other.) I chose entries that worried me; they sit above the poems as both epigraphs and epitaphs. The poems function as a ‘commentary’ – replying, excavating, developing. I aimed for a spareness of language in tune with Kilvert’s economy. The voice shifts, and the line-breaks are meant to cut open and reveal – which, I hope, adds to the strangeness of the portraits of barely contained desire (numbers 2, 4, 5, 6, 9), violence (4, 5, 10, 12), madness and death (2, 3, 7, 11).

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