Read Regional: Poets, past and present

I’ve been to two of my four Read Regional events, which means I’m halfway through my mini tour of the North. You might think two events is too few to draw conclusions from, but halfway seems further, so here are my findings. All my visits are taking me to places I’ve not been before. My two visits – to Hebden Bridge, and to Hartlepool – have shown me some thriving local libraries and an enthusiastic, thoughtful library-going community.

The other conclusion I can draw is that visiting libraries leads to visiting graves. Maybe this is a coincidence, but it’s happened on each trip so far.

The first was almost inevitable. Despite having a long-held interest in both literary graves and in Sylvia Plath, I’d forgotten that Sylvia Plath is buried in Heptonstall, or rather, that Heptonstall is right above Hebden Bridge, until my host for the night, poet Sarah Corbett, suggested we visit the grave the morning after my reading. It was Good Friday, which I had also forgotten about, which meant the traditional Heptonstall Pace Egg Play was being performed throughout the day.

Between performances we shuffled through the crowd and away into the quiet of the new cemetery. It had been a wet, dank night, and a grey, cold morning, but the sun came out as we stood by Sylvia’s grave, drinking our take-away teas, telling each other about our versions of Sylvia.

The following week, when one of the audience members at Hartlepool library told me about a grave I would be interested in nearby, I had to try to see it. A previous speaker at the library had said that a relative of William Wordsworth was buried in Greatham, a picturesque village just outside Hartlepool, which happened to be on my way home. No one could remember the person’s name, only that they were ‘maybe a sister’. Living in Grasmere, I knew William’s sister Dorothy is buried by him in my village, so it wasn’t her, but I had remembered on the way into town that his wife, Mary Hutchinson, was connected to the area. I guessed it was a Hutchinson grave I was looking for.

As soon as I entered the churchyard, I saw my problem. Most of the graves were sandstone, and the centuries of wind and rain had washed their text clear.

I was the only human there, but the graveyard was noisy with life: rabbits grazing between the stones, Jackdaws massing around the roof, and small birds flitting through the bushes. I had a good look around, but couldn’t find a grave that was willing to admit to belonging to a Wordsworth relative. I did, however, find someone else: the namesake of my co-reader at Hartlepool, Antony Dunn.

Only one little ‘h’ and several centuries separated the living poet and the dead: Antony Dunn I had just heard reading his very living words, and Anthony Dunn of Greatham, who died October 15 1785.

The sun was setting by this point on one of the brightest days of the year so far, and I was wavering between finding the coincidence reassuringly fatalistic and creepy. I decided I’d seen what I needed to, took my photo, and left, just slowly enough to not let the residents know I was spooked.

Driving home, I saw the pattern, and saw its sense. Graveyards are just libraries of the dead. Copyright libraries of the dead. There is only one edition of each. You can’t take them out, but you can make your little notes to carry away with you. Sometimes people leave their own additions to the text, marginalia or annotations, as at Sylvia’s grave: cheap biros, small change, plectrum, shell, rusty paperclip, half-finished lip gloss.

To find out more about Polly Atkin’s poetry collection Basic Nest Architecture and her remaining Read Regional dates click here.