Writing Family History into Poetry
Get a life! I think there are many who consider the often obsessive and ruthless nature of family history research to be a complete waste of time. I get that. Honestly. It can be an addiction if one lets it. Given that it only takes a jump back of only a handful of generations before we are all linked one to another, then what is the point?! And, even after disallowing the complex links our trees have with each other, after returning to that say six generational push-back - when forbearers become too numerous to name, or dare I say, to count - one can’t help but question one’s sanity. Is it worth this amount of time-wastage, when each discovered individual from the family tree has such a minimal – maybe non-existent impact, or genetic influence on our present-day lives? Or, perhaps many of the people we uncover from the depths of their dark-holes turn out to be boring – if that is, we can find any information about them, other than their birth, marriage, or death dates!
I’m always aware of these negatives. But I like to turn the tables and consider our multiple communal inheritance from the opposite viewpoint. I’m always incredulous when considering the random nature of our individual existence. If just one of these thousands of people had NOT been born and NOT eventually parented their own progeny, I/we would not be here. And yet, paradoxically, as you descend through the line of a family branch, with its multitude of complex intermarriages, the preservation or continuation of genes seems inevitable.
It seems to me there is a tremendous need to find those who in our personal ancestral past have been forgotten, marginalised, or set aside – often in favour of other family stories, to fill in their abandoned stories within the context of the whole. And of course, - given that much of this quest of genealogical facts must be taken in good faith - if you wish your own family’s story to be recorded with at least an attempt at authenticity or accuracy, and not biased towards others’ viewpoints, then you must be prepared to spend long lonely hours in the depths of the depositories searching for the requisite information.
As the years have gone by, my fascination with the back-story past of my family has increased incrementally. At a certain point, probably since the death of both of my parents, I found I was looking back just as much as forwards, finding the imagined voices of unknown ancestors echoing insistently in my head. Find us! Let us live! Sometimes the call, the pull to past has become imperative and I’ve found myself, butterfly-like, flitting from one name, one family twig to another, rather than steadily sifting through available material to identify more about one name, one person. This is where poetry can help; for example, focusing intently on one person from the past can help anchor one to the individual in question. Often as I scan the various archives for pertinent names, dates, places, etc etc it feels such a mundane exercise. Unless your family hooks up immediately with one of those so-called Gateway families (see below) then the chances are most of your individual records apropos a person as just that. A name. A date perhaps. A place possibly and if it is a reasonably recent record, there may be more information in a parish record book about the person’s immediate family, for instance as witnesses to a wedding etc. But oh, does it not become tedious! After a while you are in a whirlpool of names. Sometimes just stopping to imagine a little bit of a fragment of an imagined life is a wake-up call. These names are, or were, real flesh and blood, your ancestral flesh and blood and if no-one else has bothered it’s such a satisfying exercise to at least try and re-create them on the page. As Lindsey Holland comments:
Genealogists depend on documented facts – they don’t make up family trees, letting their imaginations roam – but most certificates and censuses reveal only very basic information; perhaps a name, address, date, age, occupation, relations or illnesses. How can such dry date become poetry? See Lindsey Holland, 'Writing from a Family Tree; Ghosts, Presences and Absences', in Agenda 49, no2)
However, this kind of exercise may only appeal to the person who is related to the individual in question. I’m not sure how a poet transforms her personal past into a poem that has universal appeal, but it must mean something that at present it is trendy to write poems linked with family history. It is not easy. Anyone who’s tried it will tell you that. Writing poetry motivated by genealogical research requires an entirely different creative process than other methods of poetry creation. So many hours and days with your head buried in an archive (albeit an online one) looking for that one elusive record that confirms a link you’ve been relentlessly seeking for maybe months, or even years. So much time spent looking for that one spark of tediously come by, yet seemingly, serendipitous discovery! The time it takes to carry out the requisite research weighed against the actual drafting of new poems can be out of proportion. And hardest of all, is the balancing of the contradictory nature of the process of doing research with that of creativity. I have found it is not easy to segue from one to another without an awkward transition phase. However, once in the right-brain creative mode, the reconstructuring of the plethora of names gathered during a few sessions of genealogical research into a well-crafted poem can be very satisfying. Holland comments ‘Imagination will always rush to fill the gaps’ (Agenda). At the very least, the creation of a new poem can be a vast improvement on the everlasting collecting and collating of endless names as they seep up from the archival ether creeping insidiously into one another via the interweaving of genealogical networks.
For me, the most satisfactory kind of family history writing is a mode which doesn’t try to fit an ancestor into a closed box. I find the kind of writing which provides an account of a person’s life as though a string of facts or an assumed life-narrative to restricting. Although I agree with Lindsay Holland that it is important to have a sense of responsibility to one’s ancestors, to tell their truth, there are ways in which one can do one’s best to do that without pinning the ancestors too firmly to one definitive life-story. Perhaps by using questions, so that a reader can imagine that ancestor listening to, then answering that question.
For me then the main reason I prefer to write poems or/and a mixture of poems and prose-poems, or/and layered experimental pieces is that it is a way of leaving all the doors open so as to let these predecessors some flexibility, and also it is a way of saying that we can not know all there is to know; much of what we write is conjecture, not quite fiction, but often biased toward it.
In any case, the study of old archives relevant to family history per se doesn’t always lack the fizz of creativity. For example, through finding locations, the whereabouts of past family-homes, the researcher/poet can be taken into vivid new territory/ies. I’ve found that that applies even to those of us who’ve found most of our family historical lines concentrated in one region rather than manifesting across other (more exotic) countries. Even within the restricted geographical space of a small topographical area, the close psycho-geographic scrutiny of a little parcel of a parish’s land can illuminate the poet’s or writer’s vision. By tracing lines of descent, following pied-piper-like the well-trodden paths of the ancestors through the archival-trail as it ascends the centuries into exciting territories of new Devon land, I realised I was treading into a previously unknown path of my own future.
So, there are similarities between genealogical research and poetry creation. A specific one is patterning. Both poetry and family history require one to discover or/and create patterns. One is looking to find the happy (or unhappy) family pack, children, parents, grandparents, wanting to reassemble or reticulate them from the myriad fragments that are left littering the archives. Or, in the case of poetry, one is searching for the apposite pattern, or design to within which to collect or collate the vision, insight, or narrative one needs to re-envision, or re-tell.
Another similar phenomenon which manifests occasionally in both genealogy and poetry, is when the poet or researcher blunders by chance on a fragment of information (genealogist) or turn of phrase (poet), which elicits pure joy. A wonderful new poem is born. A brilliant new discovery of one’s ancestral past opens out of the blue.
A perfect storm, I thought the day recently when, after staring dumbly at names, places and dates in the depths of an online archive for hours, I stumbled on a duality of genealogical ‘longed-fors’. I’d been hoping for each of them for years but had always thought to find such was wishful thinking. All (amateur) family historians have an aim - and I’m no exception – to hook their family up with that key individual person, someone from their past with ‘status’ (away from the mediocrity of humdrum lower ranks), who will whisk them into the treasure-trove of already accomplished networked genealogies constructed from the interlinking of history’s once high-status individuals. And as we all know a Cadet family will suffice! All you need once you have that name is to trace back a few more generations, and there you have it. The genealogical trail opens out to the widest vista you could ever wish for. A veritable Pandora’s Bix. Something to take you through the last years of your own family tripping. For and I’m sure this must be the case with so many other researchers with Westcountry genealogy – the kinship connections are so deeply interwoven that it is well nigh impossible to sift and sort them into definitive family groups. I have also been dumbfounded by the many black-holes out there on the genealogical trail; for example one genealogical phenomenon that I think pertains mostly to the westcountry is the dearth of ancestral legacies following the loss of so many of the county’s treasured wills during the bombing of Exeter and Plymouth, during WWII.
I’ve been duped several times over the years, led a song and dance as I’ve pursued other’s trails on popular websites, naively believing them when a link back from a g grandfather named Aquila Harley (yes, admittedly an unusual rather exotic name), a yeoman farmer of sorts whose family were rooted in Devon’s South Hams, suddenly took a turn for the better and hooked up with a famous Lord - you might even guess, or know the one! (To be fair, I still have much future work to do to make sure that the previous researchers have made a massive leap of faith in their assumption of our familial hook-up with the said Lord, but at present, their supposed genealogical connection seems more likely to be a castle in the air). I’ve learnt my lesson about this some time ago. Nowadays I like to do it myself. And oddest, or luckiest of all, when I did come upon this longed for family connection with a Gateway ancestor, it was from one of the apparently most feeble branches of our ancestors, the branch I’d hardly bothered even to pass the time of day with, thinking they were all poor, ‘just’ ‘wheelwrights’ and village ‘blacksmiths’ and their ilk. But this time I knew instinctively, this was different. Actually, because of an error of transcription, I almost missed her. But she’d left her mark. Not a cross, as is usual. She’d left an inverted U.
The name, Mary Honychurch, was in any case sweet. The village Honeychurch in mid Devon, is near North Tawton my birth place. It’s a place associated with sweetness and light! Mary Honychurch, it turned out, was a descendant of a steady stream of male Honychurches who’d had well established connections which linked them with the records of the highest social hierarchies not accorded to ordinary, low-status people …
… Slight digression here. As the journey of my own life has gone on, writing about my ancestors has become more an exercise in finding and revivifying some or many of my lost foremothers. It’s been a case of how many more surnames can I find to hang on the tree. Don’t get me wrong. I am not ignoring male ancestors. But the more genealogy one carries out, the more one is struck by the overbearing, overwhelming historical bias concerning the male. Please don’t misunderstand, though I am still fascinated by my male forebearers, it is them after all who provide the information about our social backgrounds, and our ancestral homelands. Even so, for the most part, the poems I’ve written motivated by family history are attempts to fill out the blanks in the lost lives of the women I’ve discovered. I like to watch them spark, fizzle, almost become lifelike as a poem takes root and an incident from their discarded life is lit up, from within. Sometimes it’s as though I am reaching them, stretching out a hand; touching theirs.
… So, here I was in state of near ecstasy luxuriating in all these never attained, fully kitted out genealogies that others had already richly documented. Not only that. Mary Honychurch was from my home-town! Not only did she link our roots upward to meet with the higher rungs of the historical social ladder, which means we can identify so many more of our ancestors, but also, discovering that she lived in the parish of North Tawton preceded by a long line of direct ancestors, meant that our family had at least one important longstanding branch who had been rooted in the place for many centuries. In other words, our childhood home was more than just that; not only had our paternal grandparents decided to establish their family there, but generations before them North Tawton had already been a decided place of ancestral roots.
Again, and again I am struck by the immediacy of connection that can be sparked by a written record in a parish register. A mark. A signature; your electrifying contact with someone who is your direct predecessor (even if she/he is just one of say of your 8 x great grandmothers/fathers). A date informing you of an important happening in your immediate family – even if took place several hundred years ago. All these have left a sigil on a page, a vital trace of a memory of a family tribe, which has lasted over centuries. A lingering eidolon, which means that that memory, that family-event can be restored and through poetry (or other writing) made to live again. Although it is an illusion, often you begin to believe that you’re resurrecting your ancestors as they leap out of the records and make a bee-line toward you!