Ruth Pitter (1897-1992) lived a life of quiet dedication to her art not unlike that of her more famous contemporary, Elizabeth Jennings, who wrote the introduction to a Selected edition of Pitter's work. Highly regarded critically at the time, Pitter's reputation deserves to be rescued from the comparative obscurity into which it has fallen. She was born in Ilford, Essex, a suburb of London. Her parents were both teachers whose "simple but sound" taste in poetry Pitter credits as an early influence. In the radio interview from which her Archive recording is extracted, Pitter describes Sunday family gatherings in which she and her brother would recite poems learnt by heart the preceding week. Pitter described herself as "rural by adoption" citing the woodlands where she walked as a child and where the family later had a cottage as another vital influence. Throughout her life the natural world remained a key inspiration, more essential to her imaginative well-being than human relationships. Pitter started publishing some of her poems whilst still at school, her first collection appearing in 1920, but it was not until the publication of A Mad Lady's Garland
(1934) with its preface by her friend Hilaire Belloc, that her poetry became more widely reviewed. In order to support herself (Pitter never married), she set up a business in partnership with her friend Kathleen O' Hara making decorative furniture. Bombed out during the war, Pitter worked in a munitions factory before buying a house in the countryside with Kathleen in the 1950s, by which time her poetic reputation had been established. There she was able to indulge her passion for gardening and continued to write. Despite this retiring lifestyle, she remained connected to the literary world through her extensive correspondence with some of the most important writers of the period including Walter de la Mare, Hugh MacDiarmid, Siegfried Sassoon and Kathleen Raine (all of whom are featured on the Poetry Archive). A particularly close friendship grew up between Pitter and C. S. Lewis under whose influence she converted to Anglicanism. Pitter's rural retreat was also balanced in later life by broadcasting engagements with the BBC, both for radio and television, including regular contributions to The Brains Trust
one of the earliest 'talk' programmes on TV. Her poetry was recognised by Philip Larkin who included her in his Oxford Book of Modern Verse
, and by various awards including the Hawthornden Prize and the William E Heinemann Award. In 1955 she became the first woman to receive the Queen's Gold Medal for Poetry. She was made a Companion of Literature by the Royal Society of Literature in 1974 and was appointed CBE in 1979.
Despite these honours, Pitter is now relatively unknown, perhaps because her work was never experimental in terms of form or subject matter. However, in the words of Elizabeth Jennings, she has "an acute sensibility and deep integrity" which comes through in her Archive recording. In her discussion with her fellow poet, John Wain, she talks about the powerful mysteriousness of poetry, a kind of valuable obscurity which resonates in a reader's mind and even body. This, she makes clear, is what she is trying to capture in her poems. Certainly she succeeds in this aim in 'If You Came': written in the kind of tight metrical form which she favoured, the diction and syntax of the poem could hardly be more straightforward. Yet hidden in its simple sound structure and repetitions is a haunting meditation on the nature of love, which the narrator of the poem seems first to offer and then withdraw. The poem's full meaning remains elusive, like the image of the unseen bird, an appropriate metaphor, perhaps, for Pitter herself whom Thom Gunn described as "the most modest of poets, slipping us her riches as if they were everyday currency."
This recording comes from the archives of the BBC. The Poetry Archive is very grateful to the BBC for its support in enabling us to feature this important material on the