Laundry poems reveal the extraordinary within the ordinary
rite about what you know” used to be the rst commandment of creative writing lessons. For most women, for much of history, what they’ve known most intimately has been the home, with its never-still wheel of domestic activity: sex and shopping, cooking and polishing, and bringing up weans in between. I bet countless imaginative wives and spinsters have short-circuited their literary ambitions by deciding that hearth-side tales were too dull (or too graphic) for public consumption, thereby depriving the reading world of a harem of novelists and poets, some of whom would doubtless have been every bit as good as their less cloistered male counterparts.
A delightful new collection of poems shows that in fact the most mundane of household activities can be inspirational and revelatory. Even those tied to the kitchen sink can add to the ranks of good literature – to Nobel prize standard, indeed, as contributors to this collection testify. So too can those sons, lovers and husbands who have observed the washerfolk or helped them fold the sheets (see aforementioned Nobel prize-winners).
Washing Lines, a slim anthology of works chosen by Janie Hextall and Barbara McNaught and illustrated with exquisite woodcuts (Lautus Press, £10), is refreshing in more than a detergent way. Gathering work by writers across the ages, from Homer to Hugo Williams, it came about when the editors discovered they shared a love of laundry. That may sound odd, as does the fact they had each been gathering poems about washing and, more unexpectedly, had compiled photo albums of washing lines across the world. And yet one can see the attraction in recording this most public of private revelations.
If dancing is, as George Bernard Shaw said, a vertical expression of a horizontal desire, then washing is a horizontal display of vertical behaviour. Acrylic or cashmere, jeans or jodphurs, Primark or Moschino, our clothes are as expressive of who and what we are as our faces or our words. And in which other realm of life apart from a strip club would we willingly reveal our most intimate garb for everyone to see?
As one of the poems here vividly illustrates, what’s on your line can be a matter of pride or shame. The neighbourhood watch is on the mind of a newly married housewife in Marilyn K Walker’s Clothesline Deceit. Startled to discover that her husband sleeps naked, she buys a decoy pair of pyjamas to adorn her washing line.
There’s humour in these poems, but the predominant note is re ective, often wistful. Flapping clothes are ciphers for their owners, a spur to thoughts of absence and loss, and more than one wife or husband here muses on their loved ones, past and present, as their garments dance in the breeze. Seamus Heaney recalls early married life in The Clothes Shrine: “It was a whole new sweetness/ In the early days to nd/ Light white blouses/ On a see-through nylon line/ Dripdrying in the bathroom …” Others nd in the processes of scrubbing, mangling, pinning and folding a spiritual renewal they wish they could conjure for themselves.
If you think about it, the richest source of inspiration is always likely to be ordinary experience, which, as writers know, is never ordinary at all. And when it comes to essential chores, we’re all creatures of habit. Around these habits the human personality grows, metaphysically taking on the shape of whatever repetitive act we’re performing. Poetry is ideally suited to divining the deeper meaning of commonplace rituals.
The surprise therefore is not that two laundry buffs have compiled a collection like this, but that it is so slim. Either laundry has been considered too mundane, even for poets, or there’s still a basketful of other work out there to be pegged to the page of another volume. However hard they or others search, though, they’ll never nd anything ner than Pablo Neruda’s Ode To Ironing, reproduced here: “Linen, canvas and calico come back/ from combat in the laundry/ and from the light a dove is born/ purity comes back from the soap suds.”