Phoebe Hesketh

Poet of strong character who was unafraid in old age to become 'less flowery and more bleak'

Monday 28 February 2005 01:00 GMT

Phoebe Rayner, poet: born Preston, Lancashire 29 January 1909; FRSL 1971; married 1931 Aubrey Hesketh (died 1976; one son, and one son deceased, one daughter); died Euxton, Lancashire 25 February 2005.

Phoebe Hesketh was one of a distinguished group of 20th-century women poets who deserved greater critical acclaim. Along with Ruth Pitter, Molly Holden, E.J. Scovell and Frances Bellerby she faced some neglect after early success, with renewed interest from discerning editors, notably Stephen Stuart-Smith of the Enitharmon Press, later in life.

When I included her in an anthology for young readers, Six of the Best, in 1989 she told me firmly, "Some of my poems might be suitable but I never write especially for them." It was clear that she was far from being the gentle, demure English lady that first impressions might suggest; her appearance concealed a forthright, determined woman with decided views on life and literature.

The daughter of A.E. Rayner, a pioneer in radiology, and his wife, Gertrude, a violinist with the Hallé Orchestra, Phoebe Hesketh was born in Preston, Lancashire, in 1909, and knew by the age of 10 that she wanted to be a writer. It was at Cheltenham Ladies' College that her English teacher, Miss Winnington Ingram, encouraged her, setting the class the task of crafting a Petrarchan sonnet and pronouncing: "Yours is really good, Phoebe!"

Phoebe Hesketh described herself as having been, in her youth, almost a pantheist, a lover of all nature, especially the sun, passionate about horses and riding, and inspired by the dramatic Northern landscape:

Sap of the sullen moor is blood of my blood.

A whaleback ridge and whiplash of the wind

Stripping the branches in a rocking wood -

All these are of my lifestream, scoured and thinned.

An early influence was Edith Rigby, her father's bicycle-riding, trousered suffragette sister; her unlimited talents and colourful life are celebrated in My Aunt Edith (1966).

Hesketh's writing career started well before then, in the field of journalism, which taught her the disciplines she would later value in writing poetry, "to strip away the unneeded and get down to the bone of the matter". From 1942 to 1945 she was the Women's Page Editor of the Bolton Evening News.

In 1931 she had married a master cotton spinner, Aubrey Hesketh, and their much-loved home, Fisher House, in Rivington, Lancashire, became the focus for the autobiographical Rivington: the story of a village (1972). Three children were born there. Her poem "Boy Drowning" was, she said, "a sort of therapy" when her son Richard died in an accident at school. In another, "House in the Tree", she wrote: "I find you again / Asleep in your tent untouched by the prowling dark / And the difficult joy grown strong through living with pain."

At the Poetry Society in London, she met the poet Herbert Palmer, who became a close friend and was described as "my literary critic, mentor and source of encouragement". In his introduction to her No Time for Cowards (1952), Palmer wrote: "She is a poet of the future as well as the present." The poet and sociologist John Barron Mays praised Palmer's judgement and in his own foreword to her 1980 selected poems, The Eighth Day, noted her "fine economy of language and condensation of meaning and suggestion". "Never be afraid of being yourself. Take no notice of fashion," Palmer advised. It was advice she followed. She was a stringent editor of her own work, altering her style as she became conscious of progress and the changing world - "leaving me less flowery and happy and more bleak", she said in a broadcast interview.

She was surprised and delighted when Sidgwick and Jackson published her first full collection (a short Poems had appeared in 1939), Lean Forward, Spring!, in 1948; between then and 1986 10 more collections appeared with many poems becoming popular anthology choices. She was equally at home with a range of subjects: animals, as in "The Fox", "a nefarious shadow . . . the colour of last year's beech leaves", and "Cats", "contradictions: tooth and claw / velvet-padded"; or characters like the gardener Tom Rich, "this grandson of Colossus / throwing crumbs to the birds / sharing their patience", the title figures of "The Meths Men" and "The Betterwear Man", or the schoolboy in "Truant".

In 1989 she produced Netting the Sun, for the Enitharmon Press, a large "new and collected poems" to celebrate her 80th birthday. The cover design caused concern:

I was given a sketch of a Victorian sitting room with a little, vase of flowers sitting in the window, framed by lace curtains, and I said "That's not my style of poetry at all!" and the artist said "Well, what do you want?" and I said: "I want a pollarded willow sprouting again in its old age and catching the sun in its topmost branches" - and that's what we have.

Five years later followed The Leave Train: new and selected poems, and in 1997 A Box of Silver Birch.

Phoebe Hesketh told her doctor that her memorial stone would carry the text: "The day of death is better than the day of one's birth." He told her he would not like that at all, and she replied: "It doesn't matter, you're not going to have it." The line opens her poem "After Ecclesiastes":

The day of death is better than the day of one's birth.

And the end of a party is better than the beginning.

Quietness gathers the voices and laughter

into one cup -

we drink peace.

Crumpled cushions are smoothed as our souls

and silence comes into the room

like a stranger bearing gifts

we had not imagined,

could not have known

without such comings

and such departures.

Anne Harvey

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