Patricia Beer (1924-1999) was born in Exmouth, Devon, into a Plymouth Brethren family, a childhood she recalls vividly in her autobiography Mrs Beer's House. Educated at Exmouth Grammar School, Exeter University and Oxford, she lived in Italy lecturing in English and later taught at Goldsmith's College. Her niece, the novelist Patricia Duncker, recalls the Beer of this period as being "glamorous, widely travelled and extremely well-read". Certainly the last two qualities are evident in her poetry though her culture and learning are worn lightly. She began her writing career in the 50s and was at first influenced by the poetics of the preceding decade, with is reliance on what she termed the "myth-kitty". However, she soon found a more modest tone suited her better and established the style that she largely adhered to for the rest of her life. Key subjects and recurring themes in her writing tend to the traditional - the workings of good and evil, God and religious belief, love, nature and the passing of time - but she brought to bear on these a wary and wry power of observation, what Duncker has called "her ruthless imagination". As well as her seven collections of poetry and autobiography she published a volume of literary criticism on Victorian fiction, Reader: I Married Him, and a novel set in 16th century Devon, Moon's Ottery. Following her marriage she moved back to the county of her birth and lived there until her death in 1999.
The two poems featured in the Archive are both about death, a subject she returned to constantly, in particular how the dead haunt the living. 'The Lost Woman' is an uncomfortable elegy for her mother which acknowledges the tendency to idealise the dead but also reveals a complex legacy of envy and insecurity. Unlike the placid, benign female muses of other poets, Beer's mother speaks to her in sharp tones, undermining her authority as a writer. This is a struggle about voice, about who is allowed to speak and what they can say, and as such it's instructive to hear the poem spoken aloud together with her revealing introduction. This time it's the dead mother who has the last word: "I am not lost". In style the poem is characteristic of Beer's informal-sounding but tightly controlled verse - the basic rhyme structure is ababcc but the effect is softened through half-rhyme and enjambment. 'The Conjuror' displays an equally unshowy technique, together with an element of sly de-bunking humour reminiscent of Stevie Smith whom Beer knew. The idea of a conjuror's grave is a strong one and Beer seizes on its implications with a spiky glee as she describes the ultimate vanishing trick.
This recording was made as part of 'An Introduction by Hutchinson's Poetry Editor' at The Poetry Society on 10 February 1983.