Silent in Finisterre

2nd May 2017


The houses and landscapes of childhood are the focus of a new collection of poetry by Wadham Fellow in English Jane Griffiths.

  • Jane Griffiths with her book

Silent in Finisterre (Bloodaxe Books), a Poetry Book Society Recommendation, is Jane’s fifth poetry collection and follows Another Country: New & Selected Poems in 2008 and Terrestrial Variations in 2012.

Jane has been working on most of the poems in this collection since 2012 though some, including the sequence The Museum of Childhood, are older.

Relocation from Exeter to Holland when Jane was eight provided the inspiration for some of the work in this collection. Jane explains: “Because we moved to Holland, from a ramshackle house and garden with a view of the hills round Exeter to a straitlaced concrete newbuild in a straitlaced dormitory town six meters below sea level, that first landscape is the before in a life divided into before and after: the lost great good place. Some of the poems here commemorate it by forms of incantation, others take it as the starting-point for exploring questions of memory, perception and language, and the play between them. One by-product of a bilingual upbringing is being unable to take for granted the transparency of words, or even their ability to communicate. No matter which language I was speaking, I was aware of ghost-senses and ghost-sentences: the things I meant but couldn’t say because they existed only in the other language, with its entirely different habits and patterns of use. Several poems directly address this sense that words are a way of seeing rather than expressing what’s been seen. Others question the whole business of representation: of knowing the ‘truth’ of what happened, and of what happens in writing about it.”

Another poem was prompted by a comment made at Wadham by Emeritus Fellow Jeffrey Hackney, about the meaning of ‘idle’ in Coleridge’s The Ancient Mariner. “Called ‘Thesaurus’, it starts with a riff of playful definitions of the word, all prompted by Coleridge’s poem, and then goes into what I suppose is a kind of poetic credo outlining the way I try to use the language, with each word bringing with it a series of more-or-less habitual connotations and prompting associations that shape rather than represent a poem’s meaning”, added Jane.

The title of the volume, Silent in Finisterre, resulted from a similar kind of word-play. It’s taken from ‘Night Drive’, which reflects the physical dislocation of driving a car over a bridge after dark, sea and sky merging into one another to the sound of the shipping forecast; the poem ends with ‘the echo of port in the night’s starboard, the terra firma that is silent in Finisterre’.

“The title seemed to align rather neatly with its interest in questions of expression, and also with the strong focus on landscapes of the South-West: not only the Devon of my childhood, but the Penwith peninsular at the westernmost tip of Cornwall, where several of the most recent poems are set. It’s so far out that the shipping forecast is a more reliable guide to the weather than the one for what’s called ‘up country’ – though to my disappointment it’s not in the former Finisterre, but on the boundary of Lundy, Sole, and Fastnet,” commented Jane.

Commenting on Jane’s poetry, Wadham Emeritus Fellow and poet Bernard O’Donoghe said: “The extraordinary exuberance of Jane Griffiths's poems is a product of their strange balancing between the image and the idea. The images seem to have a verbal life of their own, generated by a dominating thought that the reader is hardly aware of. But then it dawns on you, slowly but unforgettably, and you enjoy the things in the poem all the more when you see what they are for.”

Jane Griffiths, Biography

More about Jane Griffiths

Jane Griffiths was born in Exeter in 1970, and brought up in Holland. After reading English at Oxford, where her poem 'The House' won the Newdigate Prize, she worked as a book-binder in London and Norfolk. Returning to Oxford, she completed her doctorate on the Tudor poet John Skelton and worked on the Oxford English Dictionary for two years. After teaching English Literature at St Edmund Hall, Oxford, and then at the universities of Edinburgh and Bristol, she now teaches at Wadham College, Oxford. She won an Eric Gregory Award for her poetry in 1996. Her book Another Country: New & Selected Poems (Bloodaxe Books, 2008), which included a new collection, Eclogue Over Merlin Street (2008), together with large selections from her previous two Bloodaxe collections, A Grip on Thin Air (2000) and Icarus on Earth (2005), was shortlisted for the Forward Prize for Best Collection. Her most recent collections from Bloodaxe are Terrestrial Variations (2012), and Silent in Finisterre (2017), a Poetry Book Society Recommendation.

Poetry Reading, 11 May 2017