How can a 16 line poem “The Knitter” lead to a 330 page book?

by Author on January 28, 2010

The Knitter

Three nights it came in sleep, that vision clear
Three nights!, each ticking second seemed a year.
Three nights as she with silent needles plied
And wove a shapeless garment, rainbow pied.
“What knittest thou?”, but she, unheeding, heard
Nor lifted eye intent on ghostly cord.
Again, “What knittest?” as the words arose
On ashen lips, in fear the question froze.

Mine eyes beheld – or was it Devil’s ploy
With sleeping brain his unresisting toy.
Mine eyes beheld in stark sun-piercing light
The rubrics of Eternal’s timeless rite.
That forming robe was form’d not with fleece
Shorn from the lamb, symbolical to peace.
Lo! she, with some infernal magic rife,
Entwined her needles with my passing life.

So there it is, all 16 lines of it. “The Knitter” was always my favourite of my father’s poems, the one that stuck in my head from a very young age. Looking at all of then now, there is little doubt that he wrote “better” poems. “The Travers”, and his two war time poems “We Didna Forget” and “Why Cant They Understand” for example would all bear a forensic examination by a room full of poets, and be deemed “better” than “The Knitter”. But I didn’t write a book called “The Travers”.

Now the Knitter is still a fine poem by any standards, but the reason it immediately struck me as a young boy and led to the book of the same name forty years later lies in what it says, and a quite profound philosophy of life that touches on evolution, the randomness of events, the importance of memories and last and certainly not least the importance of others, especially family, in helping us all make sense of our lives.

Now that’s a lot to cram into a sonnet! I’ll never know if my Dad had any of these thoughts in his mind when he was inspired to write it, but I can say for certain that his son took all of them away! I think there is is something both comforting and truthful in seeing life as a collection of memories, and the importance of others in helping us to make sense of them; and to see those memories being as much a part of us as our arms and legs, and the sharing of memories as part of the family bond – and how we can live on through those memories.

The other powerful notion in using knitting as a metaphor of families, and life, is that all knitted things start off as something very simple, it’s impossible to tell what it will eventually turn out to be, but in the right hands it can develop into something beautiful – all by taking a long series of very simple steps. Darwin should have knitted more! The only place where the metaphor falls down is that if you don’t like how a piece of knitting is turning out, you can just rip out the wool and start again. I wish it was that simple with people!

The use of old Scots words means that some parts of the poem can be interpreted in different ways. The last two lines are where all my interpretations of The Knitter spring from:

“Lo! she, with some infernal magic rife,
Entwined her needles with my passing life.”

I never did get to ask my dad what some of this meant. Like the use of the word “rife”. This usually means something like “abundance” or “widespread”, and might be used to describe a disease or contagion – as in “The flu is really rife at the moment”. That might be the meaning he had in mind, but I think he may have been thinking of a more obscure usage, where “rife” can mean “tear” or “rip”. I think his imagination may have been picturing mum knitting through a great tear in the firmament, pulling his lifelines together and making something a lot more worthwhile in the process. She would have been scared out of her mind at the thought! We’ll never know.

So when I sat down six or seven years ago and re-read some of my dad’s poems, my thoughts moved from a starting point of “Wouldn’t it be nice to see the poems published”, to their finishing point of “Why don’t I write a book structured around my interpretation of “The Knitter”, and trying to bring out the key themes I have always taken from it, as well as celebrating in some way my Dad’s life”. What I have attempted with the book The Knitter was in the end a lot more ambitious than my first thoughts, but it feels worth it to me. And in their own ways, the web site, the blog and the book are just other ways to keep the memories alive. Long may the knitting continue!

www.theknitterbook.com

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