When I was working on my post-graduate degree in Folklore at the University of Pennsylvania, twenty-some years ago, I complained to a friend that my only real talent was that I could recite infinite amounts of verse. And what use was that to anyone? Her response has stuck with me. ‘Well, a thousand years ago you’d have been a bard. And basically, that’s what you want to be anyway.’
It was true that I aspired to be a novelist, but I hadn’t ever thought of it that way: that there was a certain amount of mystery and destiny involved in my relationship with words. But maybe there is. More and more, I find that I am able to integrate the stories, poems and experiences of my distant past into my current literary creations.
Just to give you some idea of the scale of the amount of verse in my brain, here are a few examples: in high school, my best friend and I memorized the entire last act of Hamlet so that we could dramatize it in my back garden—not for an audience, but for pleasure. The summer before I went to university I memorized half the collected poems of Rupert Brooke while I was working at a particularly dull paid job. At a literary party, when someone issued the random challenge, ‘Who can recite the most of James Thurber’s The Thirteen Clocks?’ I left everyone else in the dust. In a university seminar, a classmate challenged: ‘The only poetry worth reading is literature that gets memorized. Therefore T.S. Eliot’s “Waste Land” is not great literature.’ Everyone in the class chanted the first lines in defiance, and the challenger responded: ‘Oh, everyone knows “April is the cruellest month.” Who can recite the first lines of “The Fire Sermon” [the third section of “The Waste Land”]?’ And no one could, not even me. I went home to memorize it.
Poetry has always slipped into my prose fiction. When I was a young reader, I loved reading poems in the text of a novel—I loved learning the popular and folk songs of the 19th century American West in Laura Ingalls Wilder’s ‘Little House’ books, and I am one of those readers who adored the verse that adorns J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings (and yes, I can still recite verse and sing songs from both those books). When I wrote Code Name Verity (Electric Monkey 2012), it was my delight to be able to work in some of Robert Burns’s poetry and have it be relevant and appropriate to the text. But when I wrote Rose Under Fire (Electric Monkey 2013), I realized that poetry wasn’t just going to be relevant and appropriate in this book—it was going to be integral.
The idea to include poetry in the Ravensbrück concentration camp setting of Rose Under Fire came from Jack Morrison’s sociological study Ravensbrück: Every Day Life in a Women’s Concentration Camp and from concentration camp survivor Micheline Maurel’s autobiographical An Ordinary Camp. Morrison devotes an entire section of his study to prisoner poetry, for writing poems was an important element of the inmates’ life at Ravensbrück; in fact, it was nothing less than a technique for survival. Nowhere is this more obvious than in Maurel’s account, for she feels that her trading of poetry for food actually saved her from starving to death.
This simple exchange astonishes me. Suddenly it makes me view the ability to recite endless yards of verse in a whole new light. Poetry isn’t just ornamental to human existence—it is necessary. And, miraculously, it is one of the last things that can be stripped from us. As long as we are able to think, to manipulate and articulate words, we have poetry available to us as a weapon and as nourishment.
In Rose Under Fire, I tried to weave poetry into the narrative partly as a tribute to the poets of Ravensbrück, partly as a way to show Rose’s growing maturity as a writer and as a person, and partly just because it felt right and natural. Some parts of this story insisted on being told as poems. Rose’s description of a typical air raid, the story of Róża’s meltdown on Christmas day, Lisette’s failed escape from Poland—these vignettes lent themselves to metre and rhyme and the structural unity that a poem provides.
Writing the fifteen or so poems included in Rose Under Fire was the most difficult aspect of the whole book. Writing the poems slowed it down; I was out of practice, and I was constantly battling the temptation to make them sound like my poems, not Rose’s. In the end, they are the single aspect of the book that I am most selfishly and childishly pleased with. I loved writing them; I love that they are Rose’s, not mine. And I love that they echo and honour the real poetry written by the real prisoners of Ravensbrück—one more small way to tell the world what happened there.
Rose Under Fire is available to purchase from Hive here
Code Name Verity is available to buy on Hive here