The Roots of my Final Poem

John William Waterhouse's  The Lady of Shalott  (1888), currently on display at Tate Britain

John William Waterhouse's The Lady of Shalott (1888), currently on display at Tate Britain

It was in December 2018 that I first saw the opportunity for Forestry England’s ‘Writers in the Forest’ project pop up on social media. Almost everyone I knew who loved nature and writing was in the process of applying for it, and I couldn’t wait to submit my pitch to the pool of creativity. I was so lucky to be offered one of the places on the project (along with the lovely Zakiya), but aside from this specific project, can you imagine how many talented writers must be in that pool of submissions? I hope they all get their writing seen so the natural world has even more inspiring voices speaking up on its behalf.

When I first saw the opportunity posted, I was drawn to the idea of celebrating the past while looking forward to the future. I can’t help feeling uneasy about nostalgia - it’s not wholly bad, but I think the last few years in British politics has shown what a powerful force it can be, and how far it can distort reality. In order to pay homage to Forestry England’s past, but still focus on the future, I decided to pitch a poem that would use a traditional structure with a modern subject. At university I loved studying the Romantic poets and the literary ballad as a form, so it was this that I eventually submitted as my potential contribution to the ‘Writers in the Forest’ project.

So what is a literary ballad? Traditionally, ballads are long-form poems with a strong rhythm, rhyme and narrative arc. They are the kind of poem you can’t resist reading aloud! For better or worse, ours is a nation of nostalgia, and my poem is drawing on an old poetic form commonly used in romance and folklore, reflecting on the past but looking forward to a brighter future. In the style of other literary ballads like Tennyson’s In Memoriam and The Lady of Shalott, Rossetti’s Goblin Market and older works like Milton’s Paradise Lost, the poem follows a narrative journey through the forest, exploring themes of sadness, joy, comedy and drama. As a result, I want to bring the forest alive and illuminate how plants, bacteria, fungi and animals are just like us, and how we belong in nature.

The idea for this project sprung from the current ecological crisis, but dwells on hope rather than despair. While we need to stay realistic and aware of the facts, I believe we have a better chance of protecting the environment if we feel inspired and uplifted to do so. Nature is not an optional ‘other’ to be saved and pitied, but a rich, vibrant, tangled web of life that we are all part of. A healthy forest is a perfect reflection of how the world should be - full of growth and life, sustainability, wildlife, an antidote to mental and physical health issues, a space to have fun, spark ideas and be constructive. They are places of the past and future, of beauty and complexity, life and death, peace and violence, vibrancy and a value that cannot be quantified; I want to reflect each of these ideas in my poem, influenced by the time I have spent in the forests this summer.

I can’t wait to share the final poem with you when it’s completed, together with the panel illustrations I’m designing to accompany it! Keep an eye on this blog for more updates…

Tiffany FrancisComment