by Anna Fleming
After my blog post reporting my year in Grasmere I return to share my year in Leeds. I am a collaborative doctoral award student which means I am partnered with two institutions: the University of Leeds and the Wordsworth Trust. Unlike 2015, when I was based in Grasmere and I used the archive, did community outreach and museum visitor services, my time in Leeds has been much more oriented towards finishing my thesis. Yet following on from the success of the public engagement project I delivered in Grasmere – where I read Wordsworth’s poetry with a number of different people to assess local attitudes and responses to the poet and his poetry – I decided to set up a similar project in Leeds.
From September to December I worked with two groups: primary school children from Shire Oak School in Headingley and older people from Caring Together in Woodhouse. Despite initial reservations and uncertainties, both groups embraced the poetry with huge enthusiasm. Every Thursday morning I went into Shire Oak School where I read Wordsworth’s poetry with Year 5 (9-10 year olds). The initial challenge was that unlike the children I read with in the Lake District who had all heard of Wordsworth and visited his museum, none of these children had ever heard of him. However, all 28 children responded with great enthusiasm to the poetry sessions and quickly learnt details about the poet’s life, family, and his home in Grasmere. The old language did not prove to be too much of a barrier. As one child cheerfully commented: “I like the old words like ‘ye’, ‘redoubled’, ‘mirth’, ‘jocund’ and ‘din’. You wouldn’t get a poem like this in 2016!” The feedback forms demonstrated how much the enjoyed the sessions: 96% gave positive feedback, with 78% reporting they ‘loved it’. Only 4% found it ‘a bit hard’. Interestingly, by comparison the schools I worked with in the Lake District were slightly less positive: 88% responded positively, and 55% said they ‘loved it’. This is perhaps due to ‘Wordsworth fatigue’ that children in the Lake District may have.
I was surprised when I asked some children what they thought of the poem ‘We Are Seven’ and a boy responded: “I like it because it’s philosophical.” In that poem the narrator (Wordsworth?) meets a little girl who says she is one of seven children, but when she describes her siblings she reveals that two have died, so the narrator argues that she is one of five. The children loved talking about the poem: was the little girl was right to say she was one of seven? Was the narrator right to question her about her family, and insist that she is one of five? When we read ‘Lucy Gray’ a few weeks later, a boy insightfully compared the two poems: “‘We are Seven’ is more philosophical because it was all based around one question where this one is more of a story and its mysterious.”
The other group – of up to 15 older people – met every Monday for eight weeks to read and discuss poems by Wordsworth. The challenge here was that it was a mixed group (some people had dementia), and many people had little interest in poetry, having read none since they went to school forty/fifty/sixty years ago. Yet they quickly found their way in and I was struck by their enthusiasm for learning. They were fascinated by Wordsworth’s life, the Lake District, and even the form and structure of poetry. In return, I also learnt a great deal about history, geography, and individual perspectives on Leeds. They really valued the way that reading poems aloud and discussing them “brings the words to life”. As we talked about the poems, people were invited to share their own ideas, interpretations or experiences that relate to the poems. This created a vibrant group understanding, or as one man phrased it: “We’re getting twelve different perspectives on the same thing.” Many people commented that they hadn’t previously like poetry:
“If you’d asked me just 3 weeks ago to read poetry, I would have thought no, that’s not for me. But since coming here I’ve realised that poems are really interesting.”
After reading ‘Expostulation and Reply’ and ‘The Tables Turned’, we had a stimulating discussion about nature. At first there was a sense of distance: how can we relate to the nature that Wordsworth values when we live in the city? What do we have here that compares to his mountains, lakes, trees and rivers? Yet gradually people began to share their own little patches of nature. One woman in a wheelchair said she likes to watch the sun rise through the trees out of her window and see how the whole sky changes. Another woman who lives in back-to-back terrace transforms her yard by filling it with potted plants and flowers, making ‘a little oasis’ among the brick and tarmac. A third woman talked about two trees that grow near her doctor’s surgery. She sees them at the bus stop, and people talk about them as they change to amazing colours in autumn. Seven weeks later, the same woman commented: “Since coming to the group and reading that poem I’ve been noticing nature everywhere.”
After discovering the ways that Wordsworth drew on his community to write poetry, I asked two groups to think about their own neighbourhoods for an exhibition. In response they produced artwork that captures their communities. The older people from Caring Together brought in photographs that represents community for them. These images span from the last few years right up to the end of WWII in 1946. They include pictures of street parties and celebrations, children playing on the streets, or famous Leeds characters such as Woodbine Lizzie (a beggar outside Kirkgate market). The children drew pictures that capture their ideas of community today. Wordsworth’s influence can be seen in the pictures of trees, parks, and walks to school – and more modern times emerge with models of cars, traffic lights, and aeroplanes in Headingley. Group hobbies are also prominent, with many pictures depicting Brownies and sports such as rugby, football, and swimming.
These images are on display in Leeds Central library within the exhibition, ‘Creative Communities: Wordsworth in Leeds’. The exhibition explores the similarities and differences between Wordsworth’s community in Grasmere and communities in Leeds. To do so it displays the pictures from reading group members alongside archive photographs of Grasmere community from the Wordsworth Trust. I selected the Grasmere pictures following an afternoon at the Wordsworth Trust archive. I had wanted to show Grasmere community in Wordsworth’s lifetime. However, it proved difficult to find images of local people before photography (aside from a drawing of the Rushbearing ceremony and a very odd painting of three children with a sheep). Fortunately, the assistant curator, Anna Szilagyi pointed me to the ‘Millennium pictures’, a collection of photographs depicting life in Grasmere over the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. They were collated and printed for an exhibition by Grasmere history group to celebrate the millennium. They are an evocative collection, and I selected twelve images to be displayed in Leeds.
The exhibition opening was a great success. It brought together 51 people: the school children, older people from Caring Together, and staff and students from the University of Leeds. The children and older people were hugely excited to see their work on display. Jeff Cowton, curator at the Wordsworth Trust, revealed how keen the children were when he asked the audience: “What was Wordsworth’s sister called?” Immediately 10 hands shot up and an excited murmur went around, “Dorothy!” Library staff commented afterwards, “I can’t believe how enthusiastic they are, and how much they remember about Wordsworth!” As they were leaving, one older person said: “Thank you. It has been a real pleasure.”
Anna Fleming is a final year PhD student with the University of Leeds and the Wordsworth Trust. In 2015 she spent a year based at the Wordsworth Trust, gaining experience in visitor services, curatorial work and outreach activities. She is now based in Leeds where teaches undergraduate students and is finishing her thesis.
The exhibition, Creative Communities: Wordsworth in Leeds is in Leeds Central library until Friday 3rd February 2017. Read more about it here.