In the current era of flash fiction, Twitter and shrinking attention spans, why is modern poetry not gaining a wider audience? Poems take just moments to read, but like any good piece of flash fiction or short story, they can have a lasting effect on the reader out of all proportion to their length, providing diversion and stimulation without putting pressure on a busy schedule. Those readers who think poetry is not for them should think again. There is a great deal of accessible, unpretentious and enjoyable poetry now on the market, especially within the independent publishing sector. Open Window by Joyce Williams would be a great starting point for anyone new to poetry, yet will also satisfy those with a regular poetry habit. (The same applies to Breaking Bread by David Nicholson, also reviewed on this website here.)
When I heard that Joyce Williams, the author of Open Window, used to write stories for BBC Radio’s Listen With Mother, a much-loved children’s programme when I was little, I was immediately eager to read it. I vividly remember the programme’s introduction, pronounced in clipped tones: “Are you sitting comfortably? Then I’ll begin.” When I discovered that she was also a highly qualified musician, teaching music and speech, I was intrigued, but not really sure what to expect from her poetry.
My fondness for Listen With Mother certainly predisposed me to like this book, but like is far too feeble a word for my verdict. This collection of poems is utterly delightful, combining lyrical phrasing and apparently effortless, masterful control of form with the poet’s universally appealing, warm and humane response to the world about her. Many of the poems tell stories, providing a fond glimpse into the poet’s childhood or treasured friendships: she is a skilled storyteller.
Open Window contains four sections – Time, Place, People, Nature – in which each poem records the poet’s response to common stimuli, universally available to all. Watching a hot-air balloon pass overhead, being startled by a frog in a field, seeing a packet of Plasticine – such simple things trigger this poet’s imagination.
In “Flowers for Netta”, finding a flower that she cannot identify evokes a moving tribute to a dying friend who had an encyclopaedic knowledge of flowers, ultimately imbuing the simple unknown flower with a poignant weight and significance:
“We brought you flowers, and so your room
Was filled with friends, but still
You took your leave, and there remained at last
Only the flowers.”
In “Mended Shoes”, the dreary task of waiting to pick up shoes from the repair shop invokes fond memories of her grandfather mending shoes in his shed, decades before:
“The old man praises God in muffled hymns
Of glory and salvation as he clumps
The Gospel message safe into our soles.”
There is more humour elsewhere, such as the witty wordplay in “All Change At Crewe”, in which she suggests that some might mistake the familiar railway announcement for the promise of a makeover. There are plenty of other geographical references, too, chiefly to Somerset and Bristol, her home territory, but the reader who knows nothing of that area will still find plenty to enthrall in Joyce Williams’ poetic world, whether or not they are habitual readers of poetry.
The poet’s love of both the spoken word and music clearly influence these measured but fluid poems, and they are perfect for public performance, whether for a recital or broadcast on the radio. In my head I was hearing them in a kind of grown-up Listen With Mother tones, crystal clear and making every word count in the short space of time allotted for performance.
Sadly, we cannot hear the poems performed by the author, as Joyce Williams died after a short illness in 2009. Open Window was published after her death by her husband David, who is in demand to give readings himself to poetry groups and other gatherings. A beautifully presented book whose cover illustration echoes the poems’ freshness and warmth, it is a wonderful legacy.
Open Window is published by SilverWood Books and is available to order from all good bookshops. ISBN 978-1-906236-33-5 Price £7.99 (paperback) It may also be ordered from Amazon here or direct from SilverWood here.