Nothing is permanent in the poetry of Jen Hadfield (‘I don’t know what it is / about this place that things / metaflower so readily / into their present selves’). With a meticulous, sober gaze, she watches how everything around her sprouts and grows, buds and creeps into everything else. Her poems might be about the rugged nature in northern Shetland where she lives (‘the scrambling twig / herniates its varnished bole’), or they also might be about what men makes from such nature, such as timber (‘as if the sap in the floorboards candled // and began to flow’) or a boat that has been turned into an xylophone (‘you can tell it fledged / with ease, just blushed / from boat to instrument’). Language, for her, is pre-dominantly a living creature that she tries to capture in its metamorphoses.
Hadfield is particularly interested in the process by which the English language has been transformed into Shetland dialect via isolation and Scandinavian influences, and she likes to use words from the dialect, such as references to the enigmatic ‘droiltin’ tree. She also shows great flexibility in her language use. Nouns serve as adverbs, and adjectives suddenly become independent. Her language indicates a world in the making – unpredictable and stubborn, but always musical (‘this flying / gleaming floss snatched back / and spent by the wind’).
Hadfield was born in 1978 in Cheshire, the daughter of a Canadian mother and a British father. She studied English at the universities of Edinburgh and Glasgow. In 2003, Hadfield won the Eric Gregory Award for her still-unpublished collection Almanacs. In 2008, she became the youngest poet ever to win the prestigious T. S. Eliot Prize. It was awarded to her collection Nigh-No-Place, in which she wrote about Shetland and Canada. Byssus, from 2014, is her third collection, named after the tough threads a mussel uses to attach itself to its bed. Byssus is about connection, about what it’s like to belong somewhere and be familiar with a place and its language. Hadfield’s poetry has become inextricably linked to Shetland.
Almanacs, Bloodaxe, Hexham, 2005
The Printer's Devil & The Little Bear, Redlake Press/Rogue Seeds, Clun, 2006
Nigh-No-Place, Bloodaxe, Hexham, 2008
Byssus, Picador, London, 2014
Rogueseeds, Jen Hadfield's website
Article by Hadfield in Ideas Factory
Review of Almanacs in The Guardian
Article in The Guardian on Hadfield winning the T. S. Eliot Prize