Jean Bleakney

Newry-born poet Jean Bleakney skims lyrical stones with Martin Mooney

Jean Bleakney is the author of two collections of poems, The Ripple Tank Experiment (1999) and The Poet’s Ivy (2003), which have seen her explore familiar domestic terrain with modesty, a formalist bent and a colloquial humour that sets her apart from her Northern Irish poetic contemporaries.

Bleakney’s route to poetry also sets her apart. A biochemist by training and a horticulturalist by trade, she began to write as a mother in her thirties. As one poem has it: ‘looking back, I can’t honestly remember/Any particular fondness for poetry.’

So poetry for Bleakney is not an art lodged in childhood, not an art of the evolving or discovered self, but a plainspoken matter of proposition and speculation, observation and hypothesis, as this passage from 'Out To Tender' shows:

There are townlands where parameters
inevitably decline to perimeters;
where you can’t be middle-of-the-road
when you’re the whole road.

This may also be evidence of the concern to avoid pretension noted by Patrick Grant, reviewing The Poet’s Ivy in Fortnight magazine.

In one poem, Bleakney herself likens her ‘minimalism’, her hesitancy before the grand gesture, to the art of skimming stones on water.

Similarly, while the poems are predominantly concerned with personal or domestic matters, Bleakney does not take a directly ‘confessional’ line.

I asked whether she deliberately avoided the raw approach, or whether it was simply a matter of temperament.

‘Temperament, I guess. And parental values too. I have a strong sense that overexposure is dangerous as well as unseemly. In poetry, the confessional, raw approach risks making the reader squirm. Likewise, holding back can be an irritating tease. But mostly I prefer to hint at than point at.’

The modesty of this tangential approach has its own potential grandeur. The skimming stones of the opening poem, The Ripple Tank Experiment, are echoed and magnified in the comets of the second, 'By Starlight on Narin Strand', which ‘skate long tangents of brightness/or disintegrate in a short broad fizz of light’.

Avoiding raw confession while remaining autobiographical risks, as Aingeal Clare in Poetry Ireland Review noted, the banality of the ‘weekend columnist’, all anecdote and moral-pointing. But it is not always, as your granny might say, a bad fault.

If the strategy limits Bleakney’s range, it ensures that the poems remain rooted among the things of this world. And looming large there are the plants and the gardens the poet creates and tends. 

'Confessions of a Gardener' makes the symbolic interweaving of art, life, and gardening quietly explicit. ‘My tongue thrills to attenuated Latin./I love all the between-finger-and-thumb bits … there are certain things a woman has to get out of her system.’

I asked Bleakney how the making or design of a garden could be compared or related to the making of a poem?

‘I’m a slow writer,' she reveals. 'Poems never arrive unannounced. So it helps to imagine those first few words (or sometimes just a notion or a vague rhythm) as a seed that, given the right conditions, might germinate into a poem.

'On the garden design front, according to Penelope Hobhouse - garden writer, historian and consultant - 'no garden, great or small, should be seen all at one glance; barriers of some kind must be maintained or introduced to give some element of surprise or secrecy… Each part, however, should lead naturally to another and this can be done by the repetition of a planting scheme or simply by paths…' Seems like a good recipe for a poem too.’

As that suggests, the poems’ formal arrangements, their disposition of those elements of surprise and secrecy, are often what energize and elevate the low-key approach to autobiographical material.

While the poems frequently acknowledge their hesitant, provisional nature (in ‘Winter Solstice’ a bare, dew-drop covered tree is ‘illuminating, galvanising, rather’ its surroundings), traditional forms offer a contrasting certainty.

Does Bleakney find regular form a way of controlling or reining in her raw material, or does she appreciate the technical challenge of traditional form for its own sake?

‘I rarely set out to write in form, but there is some kind of early warning system that alerts me to the possibility. Once presented, it’s hard to resist.

'Hopefully the poem won’t veer too wildly off track. But sometimes it gets lost or abandoned. Intricate, repetitive forms such as the villanelle and sestina can, given the appropriate subject matter, amplify emotional intensity. A sestina is a sort of cage, best reserved for physical/emotional prisons and the obsessional in general. All very S&M!’

A number of writers have argued that Bleakney’s characteristic self-deprecating autobiography, humour and formal skill place her work in a ‘light verse’ tradition. But if Bleakney belongs to any tradition it is one that strives for lightness without trivialisation, that does not avoid the shadows cast by formal playfulness.

Sinead Morrisey, introducing Bleakney’s work on the Poetry International website, mentions Elizabeth Bishop; Aingeal Clare cites Stevie Smith. I wondered if these two were conscious influences?

‘I try not to think about influences, especially local ones. It’s too daunting. I presume I’ve been influenced by everything I’ve read. The stuff I don’t like has the effect of herding me back towards favourites, thus reinforcing them. I’ve read Bishop more closely than I’ve read anyone. I particularly admire her focus; and I certainly delight in Smith’s quirkiness (she successfully rhymed “lent a” with “magenta”).’

Again, Aingeal Clare talks about Bleakney’s closeness to an English tradition ‘both lyric and light’, and one poem has the epigraph ‘after Hardy’. Asked about this, Bleakney describes a poetic inheritance that’s certainly not all quirky fun.

‘Yes, I’ve read and loved Hardy, Herbert, Herrick, Hopkins, Housman etc. And I frequently plump up, like a fave cushion, Larkin’s tuneful world weariness. Lots of American poets too. From Frost and Moore to recent geniuses of concision and precision like Samuel Menashe and Kay Ryan.’

Even at her ‘lightest’, Bleakney’s most successful poems can hint at failures and disappointments that are existential rather than – or as well as – mundane. ‘In Praise of Cinquefoils’ is formally close to perfection, and raises a chuckle that should ring hollow after a few rereadings:

He loves me, he loves me not…
is such a convoluted plot.
How fickle petals are, how long
they sometimes take … then get it wrong.

If time is short and love is true,
daisies aren’t the flower for you.
Take this botanical advice:
Buttercups are loaded dice.