Notes from the allotment

Planting potatoes with William Carlos Williams

No sooner had I put the wheelbarrow down than I heard a rattling at the gate some way behind me. In the wheelbarrow were twenty-four maincrop seed potatoes – sixteen Desirée and eight Pink Fir Apple sitting in damp egg-boxes. Above the wheelbarrow the light rain dripped off the pale grey catkins of a goat willow, behind it a big black bee rummaged loudly in gooseberry flowers. All around sparrows, wood pigeons, blackbirds, blue tits and a robin warbled, twittered, and cooed. Idyllic but damp. And someone was at the gate.

I often feel there’s a rattling at some gate or other. You’re trying to work. Who is it, where from, and where and what is the gate exactly anyway? Turning round I saw a man in a hat and tie, like a fifties American doctor in a film, who was clearly unsuited to a field that had endured the wettest February in all of recorded Februaries and was now into a wet March. He was probably not suited to the present pandemic either, unless this was a 1950s film after all. The gate was twenty-five yards away back at the end of the plot near the rhubarb and compost bins.

As I undid the padlock he introduced himself courteously and modestly. I was right – an American doctor, also big-name prizewinning poet, William Carlos sorry-I-scoffed-the-plums-love Williams.

‘Nice to meet you at last. What are you like at planting spuds Bill?’

‘Well, I can turn my hand to most anything, I guess. Say, is that a wheelbarrow you have up there?’

‘Yes, indeed, but please don’t start. For one thing you’re still in copyright – unlike, say, William Wordsworth. His friend Coleridge was on here the other week, by the way.’

‘I have to say, I always found those gentlemen’s style, too – you know.’

He paused uncomfortably.

‘English. And you know, just too darn descriptive and personal.’

‘Bummer. Your shoes are getting very muddy.’

‘I kinda like that.’

‘Fair enough.’

I may have mentioned how wet it’s been. This has meant that the beds for spuds that were prepared and manured in the autumn couldn’t be trodden on, turned over, or have meaningful trenches dug in them. However, allotmenteers can get a bit precious about how to plant potatoes. In some places, for example, they put them straight on the ground and turn earth over onto them with a plough. So the emergency method to be employed here was to poke holes with a dibber, shove them gently in, and cover them up with dry compost.

We worked in silence a while. Then the poet straightened up muddying the back of his raincoat as he did so.

‘I mean take that wheelbarrow, what does it mean? When you look at it and think about it you realise that so much …’

‘Bill, mate, please no more wheelbarrow. I love your stuff, and I truly get your “no ideas but in things” idea. I think though you and Wordsworth have more in common than you might like (oh, that one you’ve just planted, could you just push it in a bit?)’

‘How so, my friend?’

‘Well, your “things” are words, names of things. Nouns like, dare I say it, “plums”. They are ideas. This is not just a thought of mine, by the way. Plato would have said that such ideas are not real but merely pale copies of the ideal.’

‘Oh, but I do not dispute for one moment that words are not the real. But have you never read those swathes of imagining and emotion that fail even to summon the emotion described, and in which there is no image to evoke human experience?’

‘There is a lot of that about, that’s true enough. Something that gets said a lot in poetry workshops is “show don’t tell”, which is close to what you mean, I think. Something I say to myself is “do it don’t say it”, or “don’t describe it, make it happen”. Easier to say than do though.’

‘Sure. These are just itsy-bitsy rules to get us closer.’

‘I mean, to go back to Wordsworth, what he was writing over two hundred years ago must have seemed so spare and pared back, so “unpoetic”, and ordinary.

‘I guess some of it was just that.’

‘But he managed to be both universal and everyday. He said it and did it, in language that for then was contemporary but approaching music.’

‘Yeah, he was quite an act sometimes. Are we finished here?’

‘I think so. I’m not sure how we’ll get that mud off you.’

‘It’s fine. Did you ever think of getting some chickens?’

For I have learned
To look on nature, not as in the hour
Of thoughtless youth; but hearing oftentimes
The still sad music of humanity.
Nor harsh nor grating, though of ample power
To chasten and subdue. And I have felt
A presence that disturbs me with the joy
Of elevated thoughts; a sense sublime
Of something far more deeply interfused,
Whose dwelling is the light of setting suns,
And the round ocean and the living air,
And the blue sky, and in the mind of man:
A motion and a spirit, that impels
All thinking things, all objects of all thought,
And rolls through all things. Therefore am I still
A lover of the meadows and the woods
And mountains; and of all that we behold
From this green earth; of all the mighty world
Of eye, and ear,—both what they half create,
And what perceive; well pleased to recognise
In nature and the language of the sense
The anchor of my purest thoughts, the nurse,
The guide, the guardian of my heart, and soul
Of all my moral being.

[from Lines Composed a few miles above Tintern Abbey, William Wordsworth, 1798]

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