The downstairs front room of Jan’s terraced house in East Oxford was notable for its inviting fireplace and deeply comfortable chairs – but also her poetry collection. She was a keen reader of poetry and wrote poetry herself – perhaps we’ll never know to what extent. Mick Gowar, her good friend and collaborator – Jan contributed to story collections Mick edited; they taught together regularly on Avon courses, having first met when Jan became Writer in Residence at Oxford Polytechnic – is himself a distinguished poet, and uniquely placed to explore Jan’s slim poetry collection for adults, Momma Travels Light. I’m delighted he has contributed this insightful, enlightening essay, which ranges far and wide across her life and writing. To read the poems, click on the title which will take you to a fresh page.
Maurice Lyon commissioned Jan to edit an anthology of war poetry, published as A Jetblack Sunrise by Wayland in 2003. I thought Jan’s introduction would be of interest to her readers:
No one expect to read an anthology as they would a novel, starting on page 1 and working through to the end. Nevertheless, anyone compiling an anthology needs some kind of ground plan, and this collection was put together in the form of a novel, in four chapters.
The first begins with pleas for peace – one day, not yet – giving way to the attitudes that lead to conflict, then to the disruption and dislocation at the outbreak of hostilities. In the second section the majority of the poems were written by those who experienced warfare at first hand, either on active service or as civilians, knew its realities, fought, suffered, resisted, died, and saw the end coming exhausted rather than triumphant.
War is not over when it’s over. The third section surveys the damage. The dead are at least out of it; but what becomes of the survivors, and how do the living cope with the burdens of remembrance and forgetting? The final section examines an uncomfortable proposition: that war is the normal pursuit of mankind; peace breaks out occasionally.
Each poem, with one or two exceptions, is accompanied by the date on which it was written or published. Look at those dates. The greater number are from the twentieth century, but since human first invented writing, they have been writing about war.