Helen Mort: Do writers have a ‘duty’ to write about social issues?

Munira Rajkotwalla 4 February 2018

‘Writing is a sort of reclamation,’ the highly-acclaimed poet Helen Mort told me on Friday night. Indeed, her poetry is a testament to the power of art to reclaim spheres of experience for those who have often been marginalised. Taking female mountaineering as its central theme, her second collection, No Map Could Show Them, does exactly that. Through her poems, Mort reasserts the voices of history’s oft-overlooked female climbers, whilst simultaneously reflecting on the gender paradigms of our age.

This, I think, is what is so interesting about Mort’s poetry: that both of her individual collections have a contained unity to them. No Map Could Show Them is bound together by its emphasis on rediscovering female perspectives. Likewise, her first collection, Divisions Street, is given a beautiful sense of unity through its reflections on the politics of landscape and of place. This emphasis on harmony in Mort’s work seems to come directly from her philosophy as a writer. When she sets out to write a new collection, Mort develops an overarching subject, allowing particular interests and passions to infuse a whole series of poems. As she told me: ‘I’m a big believer in Ted Hughes’s maxim from Poetry in the Making – as a writer you need to find things that are a big part of your life in some way.’

Talking to Mort, I came to realise how important Hughes’s Poetry in the Making has been in formulating Mort’s idea of the ‘collection’. Hughes’s ‘infallible rule’ is that ‘you write interestingly only about the things that genuinely interest you.’ Hughes goes on to say that the ‘fascinating writer’ knows ‘what is truly alive in him’. Mort’s second collection grew out of her own passion for mountaineering and rock-climbing, a passion she developed in her teenage years and whilst she was a student at Cambridge University. But mountaineering, she observes, is a pastime typically associated with men, and it’s this observation that forms the backbone of the collection.

Indeed, it is the unity of No Map Could Show Them that gives many of the poems such emotional force. In her poem ‘An Easy Day for a Lady’, Mort reflects on how some climbing routes become irrelevant because, after women scale their heights, men no longer perceive them as difficult challenges. She begins:

                  When we climb alone

                  en cordée feminine,

                  we are magicians of the Alps –

                  we make the routes we follow

                  disappear.

The first-person plural pronoun recurs again and again in the collection, highlighting a distinction between the female climbers’ we and the traditionally male representatives of mountaineering. This makes Mort’s sparing use of the lyric I all the more poignant. In ‘Dear Alison’, a poem addressed to the famous mountaineer Alison Hargreaves who died on her descent from K2, Mort writes: ‘When I make slow patterns / on a route called Namenlos / I’m writing to you’.

These lines from ‘Dear Alison’ make explicit Mort’s sense of the synergies between poetry and climbing. She told me: ‘Poetry and climbing are both about grappling with certain difficulties.’ To climb is to search for the foot-holds that will help you reach the mountain’s summit in the most effective way, and I suppose poetry works along similar lines – each word is chosen specifically to enable the poet to best express their meaning. In that sense, much of the collection seems to be a metaphor for writing itself – as in her poem ‘Mountain’, talk is weather and words become rockfall.

In the age of #MeToo and Time’s Up, Helen Mort’s most recent collection has particular significance. No Map Could Show Them not only reasserts the importance of women to the history of rock-climbing. It also critiques gender inequality and mocks prevalent female stereotypes. For instance, in ‘Difficult’, Mort ironically adopts the language of advertisement, writing:

                  In London, it’s said you’re never more than 6 feet

                  from a difficult woman. Have you or a colleague

                  had a difficult woman in the last 6 months?

                  If so, you may be entitled to compensation.

Mort explained to me that she doesn’t think writers necessarily have a ‘duty’ to write about social issues. And yet, as a poet, she is clearly determined to address the problems that face our society today. There is an undeniable energy that permeates her work, stemming from her commitment to her passions and her evident love for her craft. As she told me: ‘Poetry will always be my first love, definitely. You get a sense of electricity when you write verse.’