Arvon is 50 this year and to celebrate we have collected the stories of writers far and wide who have a tale to tell about Arvon. The collection will be published in our anniversary booklet and featured on our blog throughout the year. The following piece is by poet David Morley.
I had never tutored a blind person. Victoria was blind. She had been thrown from a horse some years ago: the accident took her sight. This was Victoria’s first Arvon. She arrived on my Totleigh Barton course with her guide dog, a black Labrador called Frankie. She talked of her visual disability like it was an irritating partner. At first, I felt I might be irritating her too, with all my talk about poetry, technique and form. Yet as we talked, I became aware that she saw far further into the character of language and sound than I could. Where I hovered around something, she struck to the heart of it.
My poetry workshops were often built around contact with real things and creatures, through walking, seeing, listening, touching. I always want to bring as many senses into play – since there are so many more than five. Victoria took me rightly to task about my overplaying the sense of sight, vision being entirely relative. Vision can reside in memory, she said. It can arise through imagination, not observation. Vision can be sensed through the mind’s eye and even the mind’s ear.
I decided to put aside all my prepared workshops when working with Victoria. I sat beside her every day, at the long table, and in the garden, sharing tea and poems. I taught the group almost entirely through Socratic dialogue, using few if any visual devices. The walks we took were sometimes taken with recourse to touch, scent, taste, and sound. These ways of ‘sensing the world’ found their way into our poetry. The group bonded swiftly, and small miracles began to happen in their work, and in the playful, serious, wonderful interplays between students.
There was only one participant for whom this course wasn’t working – Frankie the Labrador. So, while Victoria and the group wrote in the afternoons, I was encouraged to take Frankie for walks. Victoria felt the dog needed a holiday from his life’s work guiding her. Through a kind of kindred energy, Frankie and I became fast friends. I would take him swimming in the river, cavorting in the woods, and bounding around the cottage chasing illicit chocolate drops.
I talked about Victoria’s lightning ability to find the truth in something or somebody, in some turn of phrase or image. Half-way through the course, this ability lit up within the writing of her poems – and her reading of poetry. She wrote, and sometimes she dictated. But it was like she herself was receiving dictation from Rilke’s angels. I have witnessed many remarkable instances of new writers efflorescing into their true abilities as writers, but Victoria flowered overnight into a marvellous poet. She felt the pages come to life below her fingers before, and as, she wrote. She dictated the words into her voice-capture computer, and we spoke them aloud to release their natural lineation, metre and measure. Poetry became a new sense, a sense for the play and light of language, a way of speaking and singing the world. Poetry became a way of writing with light. She claimed, as she left the course, that finding poetry was like entering Jerusalem.
Years later, Victoria did an MA in Writing at Warwick University. Her guide dog came along but by then I thought he had forgotten we had been pals. One evening, I was hosting a reading by George Szirtes in a large university theatre. George completed his reading, and I joined him on the stage to interview him. As soon as I spoke, a whimpering arose from the back of the theatre. ‘Go on then, boy. Go and see your friend’, urged his owner. And a black Labrador sprang down the steps, leapt on the platform, and curled up by my feet. Had I acknowledged him, Frankie would have bounded around the stage. George gave me one of his looks. We said nothing about the dog.