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Can't find the right words for a loved one? Try verse instead


Jenny Swann set up a printing press in memory of her mother to publish poetry that people could send instead of cards at special times

The last conversation that Jenny Swann had with her mother was about the way the word "iconic" was being dramatically over-used. Their relationship was built on words and literature: Susan Milne, Jenny's mother, was a Jane Austen fan who re-read all the novels before she died. "It was as though she couldn't move on to the next thing, whatever the next thing was going to be, without reading Austen one more time," says Jenny.

When Susan died, in 2007, aged 83, Jenny found herself wondering what to do with the small legacy her mother had left her. "I didn't want to dedicate a bench to her or plant a tree. I wanted to do something that would properly communicate the sort of person she was and of which she'd have approved."

Susan believed in investing wealth not for profit, but to further goals, says Jenny, and one of her goals had always been to infect others with her love of literature.

Jenny decided to spread the word – literally. In 2008, she set up a tiny printing press at home, near Nottingham, to publish short, inexpensive anthologies of poems by individual poets; but she quickly realised that themed collections were a better way of capturing the attention of those who knew little about poetry.

For more than a decade, she had been in the habit of sending a poem to a family member or friend who was celebrating a special birthday. When someone was bereaved she would send a poem of condolence. "And people always loved it because poetry often expresses precisely what needs to be said in exactly the right way," she says.

Jenny realised it was a habit others might like to copy and came up with the idea of poetry pamphlets, to be sent instead of a card on a special occasion.

Jenny decided to theme the pamphlets starting with her own passions. There were others out there, she imagined, who, like her, loved cycling or tea-drinking or puddings, or gardening, and would enjoy a short collection of poems on their birthday.

In time other pamphlets followed, including Ten Poems about Birds, Ten Poems about Love, Ten Poems about London and Ten Poems about Cats. She put together a pamphlet with poems about Wales and another – appropriately enough, given the origins of the idea – with poems about motherhood. She also persuaded eminent voices to write the introductions: Monty Don did gardens, Nigel Slater did puddings and Sophie Dahl did tea.

Greetings cards have, of course, always contained verses – but lines from the pens of poets such as Christina Rossetti, Stevie Smith and C Day Lewis in Jenny's pamphlets are a far cry from the schmaltzy stanzas that usually come inside.

"I hope the words really do say something that is meaningful, so those who receive them find things to laugh and cry over, words that speak to them."

When her own daughters Carri and Emma, now 22 and 21, were small she would read them bedtime poems and, she says, they always loved them. On a family holiday she insisted they learn Wordsworth's The Daffodils by heart.

"I wanted them to be able to walk around with poems inside them," she says. She recently added a range of poetry pamphlets for children to her collection.

Given that the idea was inspired by her mother's death, Jenny knew from the start that she wanted to publish one themed round bereavement – but it took a long time.

"There are two times in life when poetry is particularly important: in love and in loss. And they are not so different because when someone has been bereaved you want to reach out in love to them. You want to take round a casserole or some soup, and to give them a hug. I wanted these poems to be the equivalent of taking round that soup or casserole. As well as giving words that could express how they feel, you're giving them poems they could read out at a funeral – that's enormously helpful for people who are searching for precisely the right way to say something."

That pamphlet In Memoriam contains well-known bereavement verse (Christina Rossetti's Remember, and WH Auden's Funeral Blues, made famous by John Hannah's character in the film Four Weddings and a Funeral) alongside less familiar poems: Penelope Shuttle's The Scattering describes casting a loved one's ashes ("Be the gale teaching autumn/to mend its ways/or leopard so proud of his spotted coat"), while Jackie Kay makes the point: "The dead don't go till you do, loved ones/The dead are still here holding our hands".

If you are not particularly good with words or at putting how you feel into words – and many people are not – then poetry can speak for you. "It is an art form, not just a splurge of emotion," says Jenny. "It's like a beautiful dance – something you can share, and someone else will recognise."

As Carol Ann Duffy, the poet laureate, says in her introduction to one of Jenny's pamphlets, poetry – whether shared publicly or read privately – can put its arms around us and hold us close.

Five years and more than a million posted poems later, Jenny hopes that's just what her pamphlets do. "I wrote poetry myself for a while. Having it published and hearing Juliet Stevenson read some of my poems on Radio 4's Poetry Please was hugely exciting," she says. "But I realised eventually that I'd said everything I wanted to say. And I knew how much wonderful poetry there is out there.

"I think of poetry as this EU food mountain – a great pile of food for the soul that people don't access – partly because they don't know how to."

For more information on Jenny's pamphlets, see candlestickpress.co.uk

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