Lochhead, creator of the poem 1953, is a renowned Scottish poet, hailing from Lanarkshire just outside Glasgow. Born in 1947 to working class parents, Lochhead delights in the music of language. As well as a poet she is a broadcaster and screenwriter and has achieved acclaim for her translation of Moliere’s L’Avare and Classics such as Oedipus and Medea.
Her poems are accessible often making use of colloquial language and dialect. Upon first reading they could appear simplistic, however this belies the magic of her craft, as she plumbs the depth of human experience to create poetry which resonates with all. In her interview with Kirsty Young on Desert Island discs on Radio 4 recently, (May 2017) Lochhead insisted that poetry has no right or wrong answers, and can mean different things to different people. The joy, for her is in the music of the words. Greatly loved in her native Scotland and throughout the UK in Ireland, Lochhead held the post of Makar (the Scottish National Poet) for several years and she often gives readings with her friend and contemporary Carol Ann Duffy, the current Poet Laureate.
Summary of 1953
Titled simply 1953, this is one of many autobiographical poems by Lochhead. Composed in two stanzas, a tone of pride is evident in the endeavour of her community and her parents’ efforts to transform their homes and gardens for Coronation Day. Beneath the good humour and bustle of activity her language clearly evokes a city in recovery, only six years after the end of World War Two:
So gardens happened
where the earth had been one raw wound.
Set in two stanzas of eighteen lines, we trace the transition of the speaker from childhood to maturity. It can be seen as a love poem to her parents and the close-knit community in which she grew up. The language on the surface appears simple yet is densely packed with allusions and deeper meanings. Written in free verse, her use of punctuation propels the poem along at first, before slowing it down in the final eight lines. It follows a simple pattern, showing the men working together to prepare for Coronation Day celebrations, then the women, before jumping many years into the future and the death of what we assume is one of the Speaker’s parents.
Stanza one begins in conversational style, as she almost addresses her father directly. There is a pun on the phrase ‘Stepped on it” which echoes the action of digging and their collective eagerness to complete their task well with their “brand new spades”. The enjambment in the five lines that follow create a sense of the hard work involved as they “slice and turn/clay”. The repetition of “clay” and “clod” along with the word “wet” help the reader imagine the heaviness of the water saturated earth, another reference to rainy Scotland where Lochhead grew up. The use of the words “stank” and “worms and rubble” conjure up scenes of carnage from the battlefields, which many of these men may still vividly recall. The choice of the adjective “marbled” could even refer to headstones. There is a sense of childish pride in the line: “You set paths straight/with paves it took two men to list.” The image of “setting paths straight” could also refer to the restoration of order after the chaos of war, and the rightful place of soldiers returning to their families at last.
As the stanza continues so too does the toil of the men with the active verbs “Tipped” and “Sowed”. The one word sentence “Riddled” could suggest the time-consuming nature of this task, but also has the sinister connotations of being riddled with bullets. These men who carried out the heavy work were also capable of the more delicate tasks of sowing seeds and stretching over the “paper bowties” to frighten the birds. The reference to “Long English lawns/ striped green like marrows” is an interesting choice of simile, since this scene is set on a small council estate in Lanarkshire, in contrast to a sizeable stretch of land further south.
Stanza two takes us indoors, where now it is the women’s turn to toil. Again the speaker uses the more familiar “Mums” in favour of “mothers”, perhaps to show the closeness of families on the estate and the sense of community spirit. Again the active verbs of “stripping” and “treadling” convey the energy as they work. The hyperbole of “ran rivers of curtain material” conveys a sense of joy and extravagance; after the hardship and rationing in the war years this is an event worth celebrating in style. The tone shifts in the next four lines to indicate the hopes and happy expectations evoked by the scent of newness in the surroundings.
Lochhead uses juxtaposition in the concluding part of 1953, to show the illusion of time as it passes. “In no time at all/In a neat estate a long time later”. The internal rhyme in the words “dawn”, “drawn” and “lawn” adds a sense of poignancy as we learn of the very recent death of a loved one, perhaps a parent. It is the Speaker who watches now, through the eyes of an adult, not the excited child of 1953. In contrast to the newly dug gardens and freshly sown seeds, the borders are now “late”, the roses are “mature”. The final image of the undertaker arriving with a pint of milk confirms that yes, a death has occurred, but the speaker softens this news with the reference to the milk, since his bringing it suggests a neighbourly act of kindness. The estate is still “neat” which suggests that the toil of the families working together has infiltrated down to the next generation, who still take pride in their homes and locality. The overall tone of 1953 is therefore one of hope. While it acknowledges the inexorable passage of time and the inevitability of death, it remains uplifting because of the community’s indomitable spirit.