The Potter’s Book is not simply a collection of poetry, it’s also an autobiography, a travel book, a history of pottery, a poetics, a love letter to Lisbeth, a love letter to their children, a love letter to Kerry, an aesthetics, and a meditation on the meaning of life. It is all these things (and more) effortlessly. Or at least that’s the impression these poems create, like a beautifully moulded and finished pot seems effortless.
What I admire most about these poems is that they combine to form a homage to courage, ambition, and sheer determination. All the qualities of the true artist. There is a poem, for example, “The Hands”, that having described the massive wear and tear that a potter’s hands undergo, ends to what is to my mind a delicious defiance against time, age, and accident, as the poet-potter declares his “arthritic hands abandoned to rough consequence” are still flexible or perhaps dogged enough to “meet the mind’s demands”. We must have an art that is defiantly ambitious, otherwise what is art for? Louis knows this, as poem after poem demonstrates, and his hands, whether making objects out of clay or ink, embodied it.
It might first appear that focussing his book on ceramics Louis has limited the scope of his poetic vision. But of course, as he reminds us again and again, it is from clay we have come and to clay we must return. The gods shaped us out of clay, and after they did that medium came to stand for every act of making we have attempted. Louis’s book in fact deals with the very stuff of life, moving us as it does through China, Japan, Dublin, Denmark, to the Potteries in the English midlands to Dingle and the shoreline of Kerry. The metaphor of shaping and glazing and firing clay into beautiful objects, always starting again whenever failure rears its head, comes to stand in this collection for all of life’s great achievements, parenting, loving, making a home and a society, creating art, creating meaning, steering a course undaunted by setbacks and obstacles towards the good life.
The Potter’s Book is a wonderful testament to a shared life of love, family and art. It is a refreshingly honest and self-aware work, a significantly realised contribution, one made by someone who has lived to fulfil their heart’s desire to be “the best”, to be, that is slightly adapting Louis’s words, “the potter [and one of the poet’s] of our time”.