"It falls on to the open page through some kind magic"
Although my ‘Unsent: New and Selected Poems’ stretches over thirty two years I remain no wiser as to how
poems get themselves written. Since I began writing in my teens, nothing has so enthralled me as poetry;
before my first attempts at writing, reading poetry had thrown a similar glamour over me, as it continues to
do. Words are made of the breath of life, its essence, and they land on the page still breathing. That, I think, is
the mystery and the surprise, for me, and then follows the hard work.
But what kind of hard work is involved? The whole process of editing and re-
meanings from that first draft is an addictive and deep pleasure for me. Seeking to keep the spontaneity alive
is also an exciting challenge.
It takes a long time. Many of my poems are in various draft versions for years. Some poems prefer to develop
at the speed of geological time, it seems! There is also the phenomenon of the now-
know, which arrives as a free gift. It falls on to the open page through some kind magic and needs only the
tiniest of tweaks. But these are rare and seldom occasions. I think perhaps that they only happen if the poet’s
radar is switched on all the time.
Here’s some background. I published my first full collection of poems in 1980, when I was thirty three years
old. The publisher was Oxford University Press, and my editor there, Jacqueline Simms, created a wonderful
and unique stable of poets, including Jo Shapcott, David Harsent, Michael Donaghy,
Hugo Williams and Fleur -
Adcock, to name but a few. By 1998 I had published six collections with OUP, and in that year my first ‘Selected
Poem’ appeared. In 1999 OUP’s superb poetry list was shut-
cultural vandalism. The poets dispersed, and continued to play highly-
the United Kingdom and beyond, winning numerous prizes such as the Forward Prize, the T S Eliot Prize, and
the Griffin Prize. But nothing to me in my publishing life has been sadder than that wilful destruction of a
living poetry list.
My 1998 ‘Selected Poems’ was a Poetry Book Society Recommendation. In a review in
the TSL, Gerard -
Woodward said: ‘Shuttle is a poet of immense reach, both in the range of her subject-
her language. She is both an acute observer and an inventive fiction-
perfectly in tune with her poetry, so that it registers the slightest variation in her state of being. In this sense,
the narratives of emotional, erotic and maternal love that can be traced through these poems collocate into
the drama of a life lived in the full flood of being’.
I published a seventh collection in 1999, ‘A Leaf Out Of His Book’, with OxfordPoets/Carcanet. They also took
over the distribution of my OUP books, including the Selected Poems, which went out of print a few years
There was a considerable gap before my eighth collection, ‘Redgrove’s Wife’, appeared from Bloodaxe Books in
2006. This was due to the death of my husband, poet Peter Redgrove, in 2003, after
some years of ill-
‘Redgrove’s Wife’ contained a number of elegies for Peter, and for my late father Jack Shuttle, who had also died
in 2003. This collection was shortlisted for the Forward Prize for Best Single Collection, and for the T S Eliot
Prize. A ninth collection, ‘Sandgrain and Hourglass’, appeared (also from Bloodaxe, 2010, Poetry Book Society
Recommendation), again containing elegies for Peter, Dad, and my friend, artist,
musician and poet Linda -
Helen Smith who died in 2008.
I’m most grateful to Bloodaxe Books for their generous and sustaining support over the past six years, and for
publishing in October 2012 Unsent, which contains all the poems from my OUP 1998 Selected Poems, with
further selections from the three subsequent collections.
It also contains a volume of sixty-
volumes of elegies (‘Redgrove’s Wife’ and ‘Sandgrain and Hourglass’) with poems covering a wide range of other
Topics, ‘Unsent’ is a book of elegies. I wished to include this volume in my ‘New and Selected Poems’ to create a
triptych of elegies. They seemed to fit naturally together. One theme which emerges in this third volume is the
question – how long do you continue writing and publishing elegies? And I try to find and suggest some
answers. I felt that to publish Unsent as a stand-
overwhelm. There comes a time (and this is delineated in the poems of ‘Unsent’) when I must cease ‘to weep on
the world’s shoulder’.
I’m sure I’ll continue to write elegies, for they are a way of continuing to talk to Peter, to Dad, … but I don’t
plan to publish any more elegies. (Though, as the old song has it, never say never!). The poems in ‘Unsent’ have
been a process of release and re-
They have liberated me into whatever new kinds of poems I’ll be writing next. Those
beginning, taking me to new places and opening new doors. What else are poems for?
This piece first appeared on the blog Peony Moon in 2012
Cornwall Contemporary Poetry Festival
Will be held in Falmouth, from Thursday 22
to Sunday 25 November 2018
Penelope Shuttle has made her home in Cornwall
since 1970 and the county’s mercurial weather and
rich history are continuing sources of inspiration.