How much should we care about trees? Two books by Lynne Wycherley

I love my smart phone. I love the internet. I even love Zoom! All of these have brought me a sense of community, a sense of belonging, a sense of being part of the world that goes back before the Pandemic. I suppose I am a certain kind of person, a natural social distancer, who finds these virtual relationships safe and empowering. I know, but choose to ignore, that I am being trailed by algorithms so that I am offered new trainers in online advertisements before the thought that the old ones are worn out has surfaced in my conscious brain.  I know, but choose to ignore, that the internet can be a bad place, where bad people can do bad things, whether at the level of state, corporation, gang or individual.

I also love cows, especially in the early morning of early summer when their grazing shapes emerge from the haze that precedes sunlight.  And I love roast dinners, cheese, woolly jumpers and organic cotton. Blood, sweat, death. 

I’m very fond of trees, seeing in them that reassuring recurrence of green celebrated by Philip Larkin: 

            Last year is dead, they seem to say,

            Begin afresh, afresh, afresh.

A false reassurance, perhaps; the promise of renewal that Nature has offered for so long seems increasingly less credit worthy.  Wanting, like any other entitled, white middle-class senior, to have it all: i.e. trees and the internet, good food and a clear conscience, I was brought up short by reading Lynne Wycherley’s collection, The Testimony of Trees (Shoestring, 2018). In this book, Wycherley is the advocate for trees, speaking often in first person, adopting the tree’s perspective. She believes that trees are damaged by the radiation from mobile phone masts and that wireless radiation, more generally, is a threat to all natural organisms, including ourselves. My immediate reaction is sceptical: 5-G protesters, anti-vaxxers and Q-Anon gather together in the darkness of my prejudices and I seek to dismiss Wycherley as a tree-hugger.

Two things force me to think again: the first is the quality of Lynne Wycherley’s poetry and of the intellect which informs that poetry; the second is the scientific evidence. It is not that the evidence is conclusive either way; rather it is that the jury is still out and we have to ask why the vast increase in different kinds of radiation which we are experiencing would not affect the well-being of animals, plants and ourselves. Moreover, there is much stronger evidence for some of the imputed effects than others. For example, as far as I can see from my superficial and uninformed consultation with Google, the claim that phone masts can cause dieback in trees is much more substantiated than the diagnosis of electro-hypersensitivity, which is a condition that sufferers believe is caused by wireless radiation.

Wycherley has done a lot of homework on this, which is reflected in the sources she mentions in her notes.  Some of her poems and her comments sound impressively scientific, but despite the popular slogan, ‘Follow the science’, scientific papers often reflect the bias of their authors or those who cite them. Here is a screenshot of the Google response to the question, ‘Is 5 G harmful’.

References are equally balanced, with the sources reassuring us that 5G is safe often coming from interested parties, e.g. media broadcasters, while the voices of doubt are often singular or associated with ‘alternative’ organisations.

Nevertheless, The Testimony of Trees is passionately, almost polemically opposed, to the phenomena of the digital age. One of her main targets is the phone masts which she says are causing die-back in trees:

            We are floss, we are frail, in the ever-wind,

            stems, serifs, pared back,

            laterals lost to sky-wolves

            as if a gale has shorn us from one side…

…         In digital storms we are fraying

                                                                        ‘As If A Gale’ p.4

In this poem, as in each of the first four in the sequence, the poet speaks on behalf of the tree, in a first person advocacy. I’m not sure why the poet includes ‘serifs’ a term which is, as far as I know, specific to printing, in the description of the effects of wireless radiation or whether it is anything more than a visual metaphor. Wycherley has a penchant for unusual vocabulary choices, sometimes words which are very specific to a particular field of study, sometimes words which are unfamiliar because they have been displaced from their usual context. The breadth of reference and urgent need to proclaim her cause sometimes, paradoxically, lead to a failure in communication.

What might prompt a poet to speak up so passionately on behalf of trees?  Some ecocritics see human exploitation of natural resources as a form of injustice on a level with other forms of social and human injustice:

‘For most ecocritics, human abuse of the natural world is best understood as the corollary of unjust or oppressive systems of government and economics, and forms of social organisation ( hierarchy, plutocracy, patriarchy) that both abuse other human beings and which have no hesitation taking a similar stance towards anything else.’[1]

When we think of ‘hierarchy, plutocracy, patriarchy’, we can see Donald Trump as a symbolic figure representing all three; a man whose contempt for other people, especially women and non-whites, whose worship of capitalism and whose status as an arch-plutocrat (even if most of his wealth is an illusion) was necessarily accompanied by his disregard for the environment. Exploitation, for him, was always the name of the game.  However, while we can acknowledge the destructive forces which lie behind the different forms of exploitation and oppression, it is too easy to lump them all together.  Just at an emotional level, I can’t feel the same way about a damaged tree as I do when I see the terrified and hopeless face of a young girl fleeing the Taliban with her family. Perhaps this is because I am a woman, and human so while I empathise with Afghani women, I feel sorry about the destruction to plants and trees in a less visceral, more secondary way, and in part my distress arises from the impact on my environment, rather than a concern for the non-human being, in itself.

*** BESTPIX *** KABUL, AFGHANISTAN – AUGUST 10: Displaced Afghan families head into Kabul from the northern provinces desperately leaving their homes behind on August 10, 2021 in Kabul, Afghanistan. The Taliban has taken control of six provincial capitals, among other towns and trade routes, since the United States accelerated withdrawal of its forces this year. Afghan families from Kunduz, Takhar and Baghlan provinces have arrived in Kabul in greater numbers, fleeing the Taliban advance. (Photo by Paula Bronstein /Getty Images)

Is it possible for the human to speak up for non-human entities, like trees or birds, in a truly disinterested, ‘biocentric’ way?  I believe that our concern for the environment and the natural world is inevitably anthropocentric.  No matter how profound our horror at the damage humans have inflicted on the earth, our concern is still primarily for ourselves. We want to live in an environment which supports human life, an environment which is pleasant rather than toxic.  Our fears for trees, birds and other wildlife are fundamentally fears for ourselves.  The deep ecologists who insist otherwise, who advocate anti-human measures such as enforced population reduction, or who project, beyond a human apocalypse, the survival of a cleaner, somehow purer planet, are either disingenuous or deeply misanthropic.

Lynne Wycherley is very far from being a misanthropic poet; her vision in her most recent two collections is ecological and humane. Immediately following the first four tree poems she moves to a number of pieces which express her fear for children in a digital age:

            adverts! adverts! – 

            ‘set phasers to stun’

                        click-rates – war-games 

                        children in screens

                        their neurons firing, firing

            while the slow wonder

            of a primrose waits

            its silk word held to heaven.

                                                            ‘Amulet’ p.7

Most of these poems have quotations from scientists, or other writers, including William Blake, Rudolf Steiner and David Jones, as explanatory epigraphs. They are often essential to understanding the gist of poems which tend towards broken, exclamatory fragments and juxtaposed sharp contrasts between the world as the poet remembers it to have been, or would like it to be and the reality of the digital present:

            Selfies: humanity in a mirror-house

            404: lost in device, S4L: spam for life

            husked in pixels, URLS, a second skin.

            Not a child but an end user.

            Not a carer but a high-speed interface.

            Not eyes but an emoticon

            and the rivers tears

            running.

                                    ‘The Mirror-house’, p.10

Sometimes the poet’s familiarity with the very horrors she is presenting lead her into a sort of private shorthand, which make her meaning elusive; for example, I don’t know what she means by ‘husked in pixels’. The downside is that we hear a sort of shrill anger which is not always effective in hitting its target, and I am sure that Wycherley, in this sequence, does want to hit her targets. It is a campaigning work of eco-political engagement where the poet rejects the ivory tower of aestheticism for the often brutally harsh language she abhors:

            Life/not life, an eerie dance

            WYRN? (‘what’s your real name?’)

            L09, RU18? 

                                    ‘Vigil (II)’, p.19

The poems in the final quarter of the book, ‘Coda: a gift, a grace’, provide some kind of respite and contrast as they celebrate the beauties and healing powers of the natural world. The protest is still here, but it is less strident, and sometimes stunning:

            The sun drifts down

            like an angel from Chagall

            our world still burning in its arms.

                                                            ‘On Midsummer Hill’,p.36

These lines are the more powerful, because of their ambiguity. In the context of the poem, ‘love’s long moment’, the ‘burning’ could be passion; in the context of the book, it could be ecological disaster. The Coda pieces are a bit of a mixed bag; some commemorate individuals, like ‘The Bee-keeper, Buckfast Abbey’, some recall the past ‘Poacher’s Child’ which ends with a splendidly robust cock of a snook at the rich and powerful:

            and filched from those who’d thieve us – 

            overlords, offshore funds – 

            a pheasant’s sheen

            still warm.

                                    p.38

The final, rather mysterious, poem, ‘Waiting for the Stars’, attempts to pull together the different strands in the collection.  The first stanza has a typically end-of-day, onset of dusk peacefulness, that is until the last line, ‘a chain of rooms log-on.’  Thereafter, the poem seems like a struggle between the power of starlight to soothe our souls and the agitation caused by a plethora of different electronic devices.

            Star-sleet soothe

            Our fast-lane lives, screen-shot lives.

Ambiguity returns in the last stanza, which could describe the emergence of stars in the evening sky but could equally refer to words on the screen in a dark room.

            I wait for ice points to

            crisp in the blue –  

            lit words in the rushing darkness.

                                                                        p.44

I don’t imagine that Wycherley thinks we can return to a pristine, pre-digital age; it’s not as if the threat to nature started with wireless and the internet. Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring described the destructive effect of chemicals and pesticides; Dickens, in many of his novels, describes the life-shortening pollution and smog caused by industry and domestic coal fires.

Nevertheless, this collection seeks to shock us into realisation of the possible harm arising from our electronic technologies and an awareness of our own responsibility to take action. She does refer in a note to page 18, to safer ways of using our ‘digital gifts’ so she should not be seen as merely a Luddite. However, there is a strand of nostalgia in her work which is more apparent in her next collection, Brooksong and Shadows, inevitably so because a large part of the book is taken up by poems commemorating the impact of World War 1 on Otterton, the Devon village where she now lives. 

There is no reason not to explore the past in poetry. In these poems, the lives of the villagers and the young men from Otterton who died in World War 1, become part of the four-dimensional fabric of the place which Wycherley is learning and exploring through her work. Nevertheless, the way in which she presents this past, particularly when she juxtaposes it with digital and electronic realities of the present, may suggest that regression to that time is desirable, an idea which is nostalgic and unrealisable.  In a beautiful poem, ‘Making, Un-making’,  she shows how the skills of the farm boy adapt awkwardly to his new role as a soldier, lamenting the ‘hands that once shaped/ carriage-wheels’. She seems to see the war as a water-shed between the past and modernity: ‘on the Front/the weft of life sky-blown.’ She contrasts past and present:

            Violas, home-tooled,

            the Carters lofting notes in the air

            as if a string was drawn across the woods.

            So deft, it shimmers, shames us.

            Our digits numb, dull with disuse,

            our senses lost in pixels, screens,

            the day’s wild honey flown.

The poem emphasises the connection between the villagers and their environment; they have made their own instruments, and when they play it is as if they were mediating the music of the woods. Against this harmony of human with the natural world, she sets our present alienation from that world caused by our obsession with screens. She points up the contrast by comparing our fingers unskilled by the digital revolution through a pun ‘our numb digits’ to the musical dexterity of the past. However, the pursuit of an earlier idyllic period when humans were at one with nature, goes back to Wordsworth and the Romantics, and further back than that to traditions of pastoral, where country life is contrasted favourably with the corruption of the city, through a deliberate blindness to the whole truth of rural society and rural poverty.

I recognise that my own resistance to Wycherley’s campaign against electronic technology may make me hypercritical of the implications of her writing, which is more rigid and less doctrinaire than I may have suggested. For instance, in the second part of the book, “Path of the Dancing Hare’ she widens her range and in the moving ‘Skyline with Tractor’, shows clearly that she is not totally opposed to modernity or even the internal combustion engine, as she describes a farm worker operating complicated farm machinery:

            His hydraulic ballet,    

            working the fears, 3-point hitch,

            raising the tines as he turns.

Here, man and machine are shown to be in tune with the land, writing ‘a grooved beauty, combed/ like corduroy, wood-grain.’ In contrast, agriculture today, just a few decades on, is presented as ‘data analytics, farming/ through screens; sensors,/drones, swarming.’ There is a cold irony in the last two words which use the language of nature (bees) to refer to the unnatural.

In many of her poems, Wycherley uses language or imagery which merges human and non-human. For example, in this one the vocabulary of ploughing describes the farmer’s hair, ‘furrowed hair.’ In ‘The Fire-step’, from the war poems sequence, soldiers are equated to plants, ‘trench-mates draggled/burr-reed and heath-rush’.  Throughout there is a sense of kinship between human and non-human, so that the otherness of plants and animals and other non-human entities is reduced. The Feldgrau of the German uniforms might be ‘ghost-sleet’ as the dusk melds natural and human; the terrified soldiers are ‘fern-like’.  It is hard to say how far these images identify a kindness that humans share with the non-human on the earth and how far they appropriate natural phenomena in an anthropocentric drive towards expression.  For example, in the first part of ‘Tremble of the Tide’, ‘A Stranded Jellyfish’, the poet explores the difference between herself and the jellyfish:

                        At the river’s mouth

                        two worlds clash,

                        saline and fresh, my

                        footsteps’ dust: your sheen.

The difference between the water creature and the land creature is then used to create a likeness through simile: ‘You gasp for water as I for air.’  In the final lines, the focus has moved all the way to the human speaker: ‘If I wear my soul like a veil/will I look like you?’

What, after all, have jellyfish to do with souls? This, I think, illustrates how difficult it is for the poet, more than for the journalist or the scientist, to write about a non-human being without revealing a personal, or anthropocentric, interest. Lynne Wycherley writes with such passion about the natural world using herself and her own experience as her instrument and her perspective. Her fellow feeling for the non-human is partly unavoidable anthropomorphism and partly a recognition of a shared identity. We may not be the same kind of creature as a tree or jellyfish, but our DNA will show that we are not entirely other either. Moreover, we are more and more realising that our own health and wellbeing rests on our preserving the health and well-being of the organisms around us. Wycherley’s poetry is challenging, not necessarily because it is particularly difficult, but because it forces us to confront many of the assumptions with which we feel too comfortable.


[1] Timothy Clark, The Value of Ecocriticism, Cambridge University Press, 2019

Writing about Nature: poets and the non-human: John Clare, William Wordsworth, Seamus Heaney, Steve Ely.

Awareness of climate change and the growth of ecocritical theory have placed a new value on poetry which foregrounds the non-human.  This may lead to the revaluation of past writings about nature or to the emergence of conscious attempts to acknowledge non-human forms or beings as themselves rather than as appendages or furnishings for the human perspective.  Fundamentally, however, we, as humans, continue to impose our own views, needs and ways of understanding on the world around us, although our ways of representing that world may be changing with changes in our knowledge.

One wing of ecocriticism links the ecological battle to other struggles against oppression and for social justice as expressed in feminism, post -colonialism and LGBTQ+ theory. This alignment of the environment with other ‘victim’ categories, has led to an upgrade in the status of the poet, John Clare, who has become a favourite of ecocritics, perhaps at the expense of his more middle-class predecessor, William Wordsworth. For example, in The Value of Ecocriticism Timothy Clark claims:

The case of John Clare exemplifies how ecocriticism is altering the literary canon.  Clare’s status has risen substantially in the last twenty years, precisely because his work offers a less human-centric view of life, giving moral standing and value to individual birds and creatures of the field, openly persecuted.  At the same time, the reputation of Clare’s contemporary William Wordsworth as a ‘nature poet’ has become contestable, with the realisation of how deeply a problematically human- and even male-centred stance structures a poem like the famous ‘I wandered lonely as a cloud.’ For this is concerned with natural phenomena (daffodils in this case) overwhelmingly as a psychic resource, to be celebrated in almost consumerist terms for their contribution to personal growth and pleasure (‘I gazed and gazed, but little thought / What wealth the show to me had brought’ (emphasis added) – a ‘great wildlife spectacle’, in effect.[1]

The John Clare poem which Clark chooses counter Wordsworth is ‘The Ballad of Swordy Well’ where the poet speaks in the voice of a personified tract of land threatened with enclosure and over-exploitation: ‘When grain got high the tasteless tykes / Grubbed up trees, banks and rushes’. Clark argues that Clare’s poem ‘demonstrates a rhetorical, conceptual and narrative inventiveness sensitive to the claims of non-human entities’. This may be so but Swordy Well or Swaddy Well as it was more commonly known cannot be held up as an example of nature uncorrupted by human influence.  The area had been a quarry since Roman times and was therefore shaped and marked by anthropogenic activity for centuries. 

Clark rightly recognises that ‘Clare bestows Swordy Well mainly with the language and perspective of a labourer who would formerly have lived with and from the land, but who is now fallen in want upon the parish.’[2]  Clare’s poem recognises the parallels between the exploited habitat and the exploited peasant, both victims of what we would describe as oppressive capitalism. However, despite the poet’s strong feeling for the land, this is not really a biocentric or non-human-centric poem.  Swordy Well becomes an alter ego for Clare himself, and for the people whose lives and livelihood had been destroyed by the new agriculture, the demand for corn during and following the Napoleonic Wars and the appropriation of common land by larger farmers who could afford to finance the legally binding acts of enclosure.  Even so sensitive a portrayal as this cannot be more than a human perception of what the land has suffered and felt; it can never really represent the voice of the land.  Moreover, much of what Clare describes is presented in terms of the damage it has done to people and community: 

            Lord bless ye, I was kind to all

            And poverty in me

            Could always find a humble stall,

            A rest and lodging free.

            Poor bodies with a hungry ass

            I welcomed many a day

            And gave him tether-room and grass

            And never said him nay.

            There was a time my bit of ground

            Made freemen of the slave.   

            The ass no pindar’d dare to pound

            When I its supper gave.

            The gipsies’ camp was not afraid;

            I made his dwelling free, 

            Till vile enclosure came and made

            A parish slave of me.

This is a poem of political protest which recognises the injustice of the social system into which the poet was born, just a few steps away from villeiny or serfdom, which was to some extent mitigated by the existence of common land which made ‘freemen of the slave.’  It is most certainly anthropocentric but perhaps differs from other poetry of its time in that the poet recognises his kinship with the land and nature and identifies with it in fellow victimhood, rather than being awed or charmed by it as spectacle.  If we compare this poem with the famous passage from the stealing the boat episode in Wordsworth’s Prelude where the poet becomes aware of powers and forces in Nature which are terrifyingly other: 

   huge and mighty forms, that do not live
Like living men, moved slowly through the mind
By day, and were a trouble to my dreams.

we see a difference in perspective which may in part be connected to the types of natural phenomena the poets are writing about, in part to do with the difference in class of the two poets. 

The notion that the forms of Nature or behind nature ‘do not live/ Like living men’ contrasts sharply with Clare’s ability to empathise and identify with the creatures and even the land itself. Further insight into Wordsworth’s perception of Nature as ‘other’ is provided in the 1802 Preface to the Lyrical Ballads. Discussing his choice to use simpler language, stripped of poetic artifice, Wordsworth wrote:

Low and rustic life was generally chosen, because in that condition, the essential passions of the heart find a better soil in which they can attain their maturity, are less under restraint, and speak a plainer and more emphatic language; because in that condition of life our elementary feelings co-exist in a state of greater simplicity, and, consequently, may be more accurately contemplated, and more forcibly communicated; because the manners of rural life germinate from those elementary feelings; and, from the necessary character of rural occupations, are more easily comprehended, and are more durable; and lastly, because in that condition the passions of men are incorporated with the beautiful and permanent forms of nature.

This now seems a very peculiar idea, derived more from the poet’s poetic, psychic and philosophical needs than any empirical evidence. Nevertheless, it became ingrained in the Romantic credo and goes some way to explain the initial popularity of the poetry of John Clare and other peasant poets, who were seen to be closer to the elementary feelings and forms of Nature.  It is an attitude which, I feel, persisted into the reception of Seamus Heaney’s early work, a somewhat condescending admiration for the lowly, even oppressed figure, from a rural background who somehow had the authority to speak with authenticity about and even for the phenomena of the natural world.  However, neither Heaney nor Clare primarily seek to portray the non-human as separate from the human; rather they use their detailed knowledge of the natural environment to express their own condition or plight; Death of a Naturalist, Heaney’s first book, is largely to do with growing up and moving from innocence into experience, while Clare’s beleaguered gipsies, birds and tracts of land represent his own sense of displacement and loss.  Clare nevertheless shares with the modern ecologist the sense of nature as impermanent and threatened, in contrast to Wordsworth who speaks confidently of ‘the beautiful and permanent forms of nature.’ Granted, it is never quite clear whether these forms are real and phenomenal or underlying ideas.  

Clare, Wordsworth and Heaney must all be seen as writing anthropocentrically. They can do no other, because they write as humans. The quest for a biocentric poetry can be little more than a poetic conceit or enabling device to allow us as humans to devise new human ways of presenting non-human forms to ourselves.  There is a growing body of ecopoetry in which writers do search for new, less egocentric ways of writing about the environment and the non-human life forms with which we co-exist. [3] It may be instructive to compare two texts, written about fifty years apart, which present the life of the eel. The first is Seamus Heaney’s “Lough Neagh Sequence’, a group of seven poems which were included in his second collection, Door into the Dark (1969)[4]; the second is Steve Ely’s book length poem, The European Eel (2021).[5] I should say that I think that this is not Heaney’s best work, whereas I was extremely impressed by Steve Ely’s poem. Nevertheless, both poets work through their perceptions of the eel, its otherness, its strangeness which is so very not human, to present a world where human and eel co-exist and do have a relationship.  In the end, both poets use the eel as a device to say something about humans, because it is impossible for humans actually to assume the voice or perspective of the eel.

Most of Heaney’s sequence makes very little attempt at the eel’s point of view. The poems are dedicated to the Lough Neagh fishermen and it is with them that Heaney identifies. 

  Only in the second and sixth poems does he focus directly on the eel and its journey. Interestingly, in the second poem his eel is male:

Dark

 delivers him hungering

down each undulation.

This poem, like the sixth, where his eel becomes female, is written in a form of free verse where the beginnings of lines are not capitalised and the short, enjambed lines slither down the page imitating the shape and motion of the eel.  ‘Undulate’ is a word which seems intended for the eel and both Heaney and Ely make use of it. 

 However, in Heaney’s poem, the attraction of the word as an appropriate end to the poem does not compensate for the vagueness of meaning. We know that eels prefer to feed in the dark and shun daylight, so in this sense Heaney is accurate; furthermore, this image is thematic for the collection in which the poems appear. ‘Dark/delivers’ seems to be a metaphor of birth, while dark, as always, has connotations of fear, death and the unknown, all of which are shared by the eel. However, what undulation is the eel ‘hungering down’?  His own body? or the riverbed or  ditch where he is lurking? The ambiguity is annoying rather than enriching.  Ely uses the word to describe his eels at an earlier stage, when they are known as ‘glass eels’:

                                                            each travelling 

            in the flexural power of its new undulatory wiggle.

These lines are as idiosyncratically Ely as Heaney’s image is characteristic of him.  The combination of scientific and colloquial language, ‘flexural’, ‘undulatory’, and ‘wiggle’ as well as the repetition of the ‘əl’ sound which creates an auditory image of the newfound wiggle make the eel simultaneously strange and recognisable.

Heaney too presents the eel as strange and ‘other’; indeed, the choice to use free verse for the two eel poems creates a forceful contrast with the ‘human’ poems, which are written in one or another carefully rhymed fixed stanza forms, where the beginnings of lines are capitalised. The first and last poems are written in quatrains, whilst 3,4 and 5 are in tercets.The eel becomes the antagonist in Heaney’s poems, where the fishermen or the poet himself are the protagonists. This sense of conflict, pitting the human against the eel, carries over into the language: ‘The fishermen confront them one by one’. In this first poem, Heaney seems to be trying to establish an epic struggle, man against the elements, in a battle which has chivalric rules: ‘There is a sense of fair play in the game’. However, the heroic flavour is undermined by Heaney himself, when he criticises the fishermen’s fatalistic attitude to drowning, expressed in the repeated line: “The lough will claim a victim every year.’ The implication that this is some kind of sacrificial tax, exacted by the lough in payment for the harvest of eels is countered by the poet’s common-sense argument that on inland water, even on Lough Neagh, a fisherman who could swim would be able to stay afloat long enough to be rescued.  The apparent timelessness of eel fishing is put in doubt by reference to new gates and sluices put in place at Toomebridge.[6] This doubt reappears in the fifth poem, Lifting:

            And when did this begin?

            This morning, last year, when the lough first spawned?

            The crews will answer, ‘Once the season’s in.’

The folksy wisdom of the fishermen is again undermined by the vagueness of the expression. In normal speech, ‘Once the season’s in’ would refer to a question about the future, i.e. ‘When will this begin?’ rather than responding to one about the past, as here. Further, it is unclear what is meant by ‘when the lough first spawned’ which recalls the mythic origin stories of the first poem. How can a lough ‘spawn’? Does the poet mean the fish within it spawn, even though we know that eels, which are at the centre of this poem, do not spawn in the lough? Throughout this sequence, we feel that the poet is struggling, on the one hand, to present an accurate picture of eel fishing while, on the other, to work out what the eel means to him. 

                                                            Each eel

            Comes aboard to this welcome:

            The hook left in gill or gum,

            It’s slapped into the barrel numb

            But knits itself, four-ply,

            With the furling, slippy

            Haul, a knot of back and pewter belly

            That stays continuously one

            For each catch they fling in

            Is sucked home like lubrication.

‘Welcome’ is a strange word to use in this context; perhaps it is ironic. The lines which follow, however, are visually and aurally effective as the poet describes the brutality of the hooks, and uses a combination of slithery ‘l’ s and plosives to convey the sound of the wet fish ‘slapped’ into the barrel. I can’t help asking how he knows the eel is ‘numb’ but am won over by the enjambed, coiling lines ‘furling, slippy/Haul, a knot of back and pewter belly’ only to be brought up short again by the confusing simile in the last line. How can a catch be ‘sucked home’ like ‘lubrication’? Although the image of slipperiness is maintained, the exact meaning is unclear. 

This is one of several places in the sequence where the poet swithers between empathy and revulsion. In the third poem which shows the fishermen collecting worms for bait, we can see the same fascinated disgust as he first describes the capture of the worm: “Nab him, but wait //For the first shrinking, tacky on the thumb’ and then sympathises with it, ‘Innocent ventilators of the ground’. The tactile language of the first quotation contrasts strangely with the Latinate vocabulary in the second again, to my mind, creating an uncertainty of tone in the poem.  Perhaps Heaney finds the solution to his dilemmas in the final poem where he stops trying to write about fishermen or eels in any objective sort of way and reveals the place of these amphibious images of land, water, worms and eels in his own psyche.

            Vision

Unless his hair was fine-combed

The lice, they said, would gang up

Into a mealy rope

And drag him, small, dirty, doomed

Down to the water. He was

Cautious then in riverbank

Fields. Thick as a birch trunk

That cable flexed in the grass

Every time the wind passed. Years

Later in the same fields

He stood at night when eels

Moved through the grass like hatched fears

Towards the water. To stand

In one place as the field flowed

Past, a jellied road, 

To watch the eels crossing land

Re-wound his world’s live girdle. 

Phosphorescent, sinewed slime

Continued at his feet. Time

Confirmed the horrid cable.[7]

Interestingly, in this early version of the sequence, this poem comes first and I think that it illuminates the poems which follow. As the sequence stands, in the published version, we have to read meaning back into the group from the final piece. We are presented with a small child, recognisable from Death of a Naturalist although distanced from the poet by the use of third person.  This is a very vulnerable and insecure child, ‘small, dirty, doomed’, terrorised by the bogey threat used by adults to force compliance.  It is easy to see how the lice who ‘gang up/ Into a mealy rope’ metamorphose into the ‘four-ply’ oneness of the captured eels.  The ‘riverbank/ fields’ previously simply the place where the fishermen found their bait are revealed to be places of terror, where the wind rippling the grass suggests the ‘thick cable ‘ which is the monstrous rope, be it lice, worm or eel, which will drag the child down out of his own element into the water.  Migrating eels, even for the adult, are ‘hatched fears’ and their sinuous oneness is said to have ‘re-wound his world’s live girdle.’ This line may, to some degree, explain the line about the worms in the third poem ‘Making the globe a perfect fit’.  The ‘live girdle’ is an ambiguous image; it seems to take in the figure in the poem and the world, perhaps binding them together in a recognition of the continuity between human and the natural.  However, the final three lines and the curiously anticlimactic shudder of the last three words, suggest that this is not a happy resolution and that this ‘horrid cable’ of connectedness is a threat to life and identity. The sense of flux and disorientation is powerfully conveyed as the stationary becomes mobile and the solid turns liquid: ‘the field flowed past’, ‘eels crossing land’. Whether placed at the beginning or the end, this is by far the most successful poem of the sequence. At the same time, it confirms Heaney as a poet who is using the imagery of the non-human and the world around him to explore his own place in that world.[8]

If, for Heaney, the eel is the antagonist, in The European Eel it is presented as the protagonist.  However, like Heaney, Steve Ely is concerned to show the creature as other, non-human and he takes considerable care to avoid anthropomorphism or sentimentality, specifically through the use of a vast amount of scientific and technical vocabulary, which creates the effect of objectivity and in forcing the reader to look up so many words, makes the eel and its environment strange.  This is a poetic device; it may allow for accuracy of detail and allow the poet to say things about the life of the eel which could not otherwise be conveyed, but no matter how latin or greek and unfamiliar, this is still human labelling, not the language of the eel itself.  There is, however, a relish in bringing this scientific lexis into the poetic realm:

                        the bluefin persist into open ocean,

            harrowing the holocaust photocline with xiphius,

            macrocephalus, savage architeuthis. 

                                                                        p.47

The notes tell us that xiphius, macrocephalus and architeuthis are swordfish, sperm whales and giant squid, all names with which most readers are more familiar. Ely subdues the jaw-breaking terms to the music of his propulsive unrhymed lines with their ancestral memory of blank verse.

The poet counters the estranging, alienating effect of scientific language with sudden incursions of the familiar, for example, when he describes how the minute leptocephali, eels in their larval stage, begin to feed: ‘hunts /in the eutrophic blizzard, seizing diatoms, /dinoflagellates, polyethylene microbeads’. This has the same shocking effect as Chris Jordan’s photographs of the guts of baby albatrosses that have died from ingesting plastic. It also reveals the human purpose of Ely’s poem. He is not writing as the eel, or even directly for the eel, but for, or to, humans, showing us how we have created the toxic environment which has made the eel, like so many other non-human creatures, an endangered species.

At one level, this is an epic like the Odyssey, recounting the maritime journeys and adventures of its hero and celebrating miraculous escapes and astounding achievements; as in the Odyssey, the initial group of voyagers reduce to one.  However, unlike Odysseus, Ely’s eventual protagonist is neither male, nor human and although her journey brings her home and unites her with a ‘nuptial’ partner, it results in new life for her progeny but in her own death. At another level, though, this is a poem which seeks to inform and persuade. It is a protest poem and as such, employs some techniques which are as much journalistic as poetic.  Ely provides a detailed set of notes, which go some way to absolving him of the charge of obfuscation. In addition, he frequently uses journalistic or didactic similes, as opposed to purely poetic ones. In a poem we are accustomed to seeing the simile used to draw a comparison between two known elements so that we see one or both of them in a new light.  Heaney very few similes in his sequence, although there are many metaphors which work in a similar way: ‘Thick as a birch trunk/ That cable flexed in the grass’ (Vision). Here the cable which has already been introduced  in the first stanza as the ‘mealy rope’of lice is given dimension by being compared to a ‘birch trunk’, something which we can also relate to.  In the didactic simile, one of the terms is unknown. Showing us the feeding leptocephali, Ely writes:

            A month or so since hatching, the size

            of an April tadpole, they move in the plankton

            like Pac-Man’ 

                                    p.11

This is a brilliant simile, because it is so visually effective but also smacks us straight back into the realities of the Anthropocene which are listed in gruesome detail at the bottom of the same page:

            oestrogen-saturated sewage, methamphetamine

            neurotoxins, chromosome-warping

            neonicotinoid run-off.  The leptocephali soak it up,

            and tumble to Hatteras with the flotsam

            of the current – single-use Canaveral

            space junk, the strip mall’s car-tossed,

            fast-food trash and radioactive manatees.

Such passages, which could be described as merely eco-rant, are redeemed by their rhythmic force, their skilful deployment of assonance and alliteration and by the surprising juxtapositions which keep us alert and make us want to know more.  I think the manatees are radioactive because they seek refuge in the warm waters created by nuclear power stations.

As the eel reaches England, the landmarks and ecological disasters become more familiar and homegrown. Ely seizes the opportunity to show his political hand: ‘they’ll travel north and west/ into the PRIVATE salmon and brown trout streams/ of Northfield’s Tory spots day;’ and 

            Barely a cordon, hardly a shoal, they move into the kingdom

            of the Amazon Fulfilment Centre, its clear-fell

            devastation of investment, jobs and growth.

                                                                                                p.20

Ely’s distaste for consumerist modernity sometimes topples over into growling misanthropy as when he fantasises a cultural avatar of the eel, the Bentley Worm:[9]

                                                seizing tribute

            from the ranks of the High Street’s drunks

            and the grave-yard’s coked-up, shrieking children.

                                                                                                p.25

Nevertheless, despite the devastation of the deindustrialised landscape the eel travels through, when she eventually reaches Frickley Beck, there is enough goodness left to sustain the survivor and perhaps the faith of the writer in the ‘dark pleroma’ defined by him in his notes as ‘the fullness of life and spirit on Earth’:

                                    you can still tickle trout,

            and river fish flee before your bootsteps – 

            dace and gudgeon, bullhead and barbel,

            the odd patrolling pike. And eels, of course,

                                                                                    p28

This is one of only a few authorial intrusions into the poem, where we understand that he has brought the eel to his own place, somewhere he knows personally and where, we learn from the prose interlude between the two sections of the poem, he has captured the eel which he kept in an aquarium for three months in order to study its behaviour.  

Generally, the poet keeps himself out of the eel’s story, fulfilling his intention of foregrounding the natural object and avoiding anthropomorphism. Sometimes, though, the empathy seems so strong that it becomes a form of anthropomorphism, as in the final three page long account of the eel’s mating and orgasm which matches Molly Bloom’s in intensity. The eel is described as shivering ‘in the warm,/aphrodisiac current, every nerve-end tingling,/ each tender tip engorged.’ ‘Aphrodisiac’ is surely an adjective which is culturally human and just as I found myself asking how Heaney knew his eel was ‘numb’ so I wonder how Ely knows his has ‘tingling’ nerve-ends. I suppose the description is physiologically justifiable but the arousal and excitement of these final pages draws on human feeling and experience.

In the reflective essay which appears in the blog of the Longbarrow Press, Ely presents three hypotheses which underpinned the writing of his long poem.[10]

My first research hypothesis asserted that grounding the writing of the poem in scientific research, ecological commitment, and direct, sustained experience of the natural object would provide the basis for writing about nature that would have scientific as well as literary credibility, and might therefore contribute in an informed way to debate about the ecological and human crises of the Anthropocene. I think the poem vindicates the hypothesis. The engagement with research that informed the piece is clear, as is the ecological commitment. The natural object is foregrounded, protagonism[11] is limited to the structurally necessary middle section, and the piece is, I hope, not exploitative or parasitic. The poem has the potential to educate and inform the poetry reading public and be an adjunct to scientific research.

Ely hoped that researching the eel as a scientist or scientific journalist might have done would allow him to write in a way which would have scientific as well as literary credibility. He believes he has done this and this may well be the case.  However, the poetry -reading audience is at best, fairly small and it is questionable how far this poem does more than could be done by a good, popular science writer.  For me, this poem does succeed in foregrounding the representative endangered species and so contributing to ‘debate about the ecological and human crises of the Anthropocene’. However, I can’t help wondering if the poetry needs the eel more than the eel needs the poetry. In other words, are poets seeking to justify their endeavours by taking on the mantle of the scientist and the eco-crusader? And, if so, is there anything wrong with that?

The second hypothesis asserted that writing emerging from an engagement with scientific research, ecological commitment and direct, sustained experience of the natural object will show the influence of those factors in the foregrounding of the natural object, the nature of the language used, the forms and structures adopted and in an expression that seeks to create its effects as much by the artful deployment of empirically, experimentally and experientially derived knowledge as by rhetorical means. Again, I feel that the poem vindicates the hypothesis. The poem is replete with scientific and technical language to the degree that a distinctive register is achieved, and the engagement with research that underpins it echoes through its structure and language. The natural subject is foregrounded, in a largely non-anthropomorphic manner. The poem’s epic monology, a deviation from my usual dialogic, polyphonic practice when composing longer poems, emerges directly from the ethos and praxis implied in this hypothesis.

This is where I think Ely justifies his project.  His poem is ‘replete with scientific and technical language’ and does create a ‘distinctive register’.  This is not simply through the acquiring of empirical and experientially derived knowledge, which is surely what we do all the time to some extent anyway, but by the artful deployment, using the poetic skills, traditionally called rhetoric, of the unfamiliar scientific and technical vocabulary.

The third hypothesis asserted that it is possible for writing that is shaped by the first two hypotheses to nevertheless demonstrate a sophisticated and reflexive artistic subjectivity that constitutes affective, but non-didactic art. I believe that the principles embodied in the first two hypotheses led directly to the vindication of the third hypothesis, in the specific and unexpected sense that the decision to imagine in detail the lifecycle of the European eel paradoxically highlighted the elisions, lacunae and uncertainties in our knowledge of the species, and created in me an overwhelming sense of its enigma and otherness. This produced a speculative expression that infuses a religious or spiritual aspect into what began as a strictly scientific project and broadens the focus from the European eel to the cosmic context of life on Earth. I’ll conclude with some reflections on this unexpected development.

Ely suggests his poem is ‘affective but non-didactic’; this contradicts the intention, stated in the first hypothesis, to educate and inform. As far as I can see, the poem is both affective and didactic, but not preachy.  The rest of this paragraph refers most obviously to the last part of the poem, which presents the part of the eel’s journey about which least is known, that is, its return to the Sargasso. As the poet himself admits, in another authorial intrusion: ‘I’m making it up as they go along.’ (p.44) What the poet seems to be acknowledging is that the unsolved mysteries of the eel have propelled him into writing not a treatise, but a poem. He takes this further by suggesting a ‘religious or spiritual aspect’ which is indeed reflected in some of the language in the final pages, which abound in aureate expressions almost as ornate as the gold leaf on a medieval icon: ‘her gold load’, ‘glittering golden ova’, ‘cornucopean flame’.  I’m not sure about this; I felt that the poem was working very well without this dimension and that the poet had conveyed his respect for the eel’s ‘enigma and otherness’ very successfully by the scientific language mediated by explanatory or didactic metaphor and simile found throughout the poem.  

I admire this poem because Ely has succeeded in presenting and foregrounding one of the natural objects with which we share our world in such a way as to show how the human and the non-human co-exist and to emphasize the damage inflicted by the human on other species. By presenting the eel’s life in the recognisably human form of epic, just as Clare chose to represent Swordy Well through a recognisably human first person voice, Ely has shown us which side he is on – the side of the oppressed and the threatened, whether it be by capitalism, industrial and agricultural revolutions or consumerist pollution.  The poem attempts to be with and for ‘nature’ whilst respecting non-human otherness, rather than distinct from and threatened by nature and indeterminate but terrifying natural forces, which is what we see in Heaney’s ‘Lough Neagh Sequence’ and in the boat-stealing episode from The Prelude.


[1] The Value of Ecocriticism by Timothy Clark (Cambridge, 2019), p.11

[2] Ibid, p.8

[3] The very awkward locutions I use here arise out of the attempt not to refer to Nature or the natural, terms which are always problematic.

[4] Faber

[5] With artwork by P.R. Ruby, Longbarrow Press

[6] The poem implies that these measures are intended to maximise the catch, rather in the manner of factory fishing, and so this might seem to be an ecological protest., or a romantic protest against an industrialising   process. However, the sluices and gates have a more complex purpose and are used to allow a certain number of eels to escape and to maintain numbers of eels arriving into the lough where they will spend years maturing.  https://www.google.com/url?sa=t&rct=j&q=&esrc=s&source=web&cd=&ved=2ahUKEwjV9fzdxZfyAhWMJMAKHfZ-B-cQFnoECAMQAw&url=https%3A%2F%2Fwww.bbc.co.uk%2Fnews%2Fuk-northern-ireland-33892222&usg=AOvVaw2o9MoLRD0qH30ceMCYxcYN

[7] https://belfastgroup.digitalscholarship.emory.edu/groupsheets/heaney1_10415/

[8] I don’t intend to suggest that Heaney should have been writing eco-poetry, or been more aware of the eel. When he wrote the sequence, the eel was not an endangered species and awareness of what is now referred to as the Anthropocene was in its infancy.

[9] Google does not seem to recognise this creature but in behaviour it seems to resemble the Lambton worm, a monster from medieval legend which terrorised the Durham countryside until eventually vanquished by the man who had first discovered it as a small, elver-like creature.

[10] https://longbarrowblog.wordpress.com/2021/07/02/body-of-dark-steve-ely/

[11] Ely uses ‘protagonism’ to mean authorial intrusion into the poem.

Hearing the Words: ‘The Nightfishing’ by W.S. Graham

Louise Glück, in her essay Invitation and Exclusion[1], argues for poetry that requires a listener or a reader rather than that which is merely overheard, contrasting Eliot, whose ‘cri du coeur craves a listener who becomes, by virtue of his absorption, [the poet’s] collaborator’ with Wallace Stevens: ‘Stevens’ meditative poems are not addressed outward; they are allowed to be overheard’.  Some readers regard the work of W.S. Graham, with its enduring preoccupation with language, as metapoetry, exclusive because it is concerned with the writing of poetry, rather than with the world.  This is very far from the truth as can be demonstrated from an analysis of The Nightfishing, pivotal in the poet’s career. Graham’s poem is about the sea, about the real sea, ‘a grey green sea, not a chocolate box sea’, a poem which he hoped would make ‘somebody seasick ( a good unliterary measurement)’;[2] it is a very Romantic poem with its outsider hero off on a quest:

            Now within the dead 

            Of night and the dead 

            Of all my life I go.

                                                (p.105)[3]

Moreover, as the ‘seasick’ comment suggests, it is a thoroughly physical poem, written to be heard, whose hypnotic rhythms drew me in many years ago, before I even tried to understand it.

The opening of the poem, like that of Dante’s Inferno, places us somewhere that is immediately recognisable yet obviously allegoric, suggesting that the narrator has reached a crucial point in his life and is about to embark on a journey, we imagine, a journey of discovery:

                        Very gently struck

                        The quay night bell.

                        Now within the dead 

Of night and the dead 

Of my life I hear

My name called from far out.

                                                                        (p.105)

This summoning bell tolls or knells faintly throughout the poem, offering both a sense of mortality, especially since it is introduced here alongside the repetition of ‘dead’, and a feeling of security or stability as it anchors us to the land, to the quay from and to whose ‘open arms’ the voyager travels and returns. However, this is balanced or contradicted by the poet’s preoccupation with flux, often suggested to derive from Heraclitus. Be that as it may, Graham sees the instant as the only living reality, while all the moments of the past are a heritage of dead selves:

                        Within all the dead of

                        All my life I hear

                        My name spoken out

                        On the break of the surf.

                        I, in Time’s grace,

                        The grace of change, am

                        Cast into memory.

                        What a restless grace 

                        To trace stillness on.

                                                            (p.105)

The poem is a psychic drama and a poetic meditation dressed up in a very physical, tactile language of reality. Indeed, one of Graham’s themes or purposes is the relation of language to reality. In all his letters about the poem, Graham insists on the reality of the sea while also establishing it as a metaphor, something which becomes possible in this poem because the sea is envisioned as the ground[4] of being.  The Nightfishing is often recognised to be in a tradition of literary works about the sea; I have seen references to Moby Dick and The Wreck of the Deutschland. I am strongly reminded of The Ancient Mariner, particularly because of the dead selves Graham carries with him on his voyage.  Whatever its literary antecedents, the poem is strikingly effective in its evocation of the Atlantic waters fished by Scottish fishermen. When I first read the poem, I assumed that it was set off the coast of Cornwall, but the few geographical references are apparently to Scotland: ‘the Mor light’ ‘the Black Rosses’, ‘Skeer’, although these names are generically Gaelic rather than specific:

‘The place names in this section have a Scottish flavour, suggesting that Graham was thinking of a voyage beginning in the Firth of Clyde, and moving out past the islands.’[5]

                                               

          Graham did go out with fishing crews several times, so the poem reflects experience: ‘The undertow, come hard round,/ Now leans the tiller strongly jammed over/ On my hip-bone.’ (p.109) Or, hauling in the nets: ‘The headrope a sore pull and feeding its brine/Into our hacked hands.’ (p.113) The boat , with its ‘twin screws’ that ’spun sweetly’, the gear of nets, corks and bladders:

   Our mended newtanned nets, all ropes

            Loose and unkinked, tethers and springropes fast,

The tethers generous with floats to ride high,

            And the big white bladder floats at hand to heave.

                                                                                                (p.109)

all convey the reality of a working fishing trip.  The sea too as it changes through the course of the night is presented with painterly clarity, whether it is in the still moment of dawn after the nets have been set:

            Now round the boat, drifting its drowning curtains

            A grey of light begins. These words take place.

            The petrel dips at the water-fats. And quietly

            The stillness makes its way to its ultimate home.

            The bilges slap. Gulls wail and settle.

            It is us still.

                                                                                    (p.111)

or the heavy seas encountered on the return journey:

                                                The long rollers,

            Quick on the crests and shirred with fine foam,

            Surge down then sledge their green tons weighing dead

            Down on the shuddered deck-boards.

                                                                                    (p.114)

Knowledge of the sea and fishing lore feeds into the narrative:

            Yes, we’re right set, see, see them go down, the best

            Fishmarks, the gannets. They wheel high for a moment

            Then heel, slip off the bearing air to plummet

            Into the schooling sea.

                                                            (p.110)

The protagonist of the poem is the writer in the present moment of his life, but despite the abstract nature of this concept, he is presented in heroic, almost cinematic images:

                                                I turned out

                        Into the salt dark

                        And turned my collar up.

                                                                        (p.106)

There are echoes of old black and white naval movies as the hero ventures out with the crew on the mission and returns successfully with nets full of herring. Gerard Carruthers advances a loftier model for Graham’s fisherman, suggesting that the narrator is based on ‘the fisherman-apostle Peter’.  He argues that Graham’s poem is ‘underwritten by the account in Luke’s gospel where Peter has had a fruitless night of fishing on the sea of Galilee and is ordered back out by Christ. Peter proves his faith by following the command and being rewarded with a prodigious, miraculous catch’.[6]  Some of Graham’s language and rhetoric has a religious provenance; like Samuel, the narrator hears his name called: ‘I hear/ my name called from far out’ and he refers several times to ‘grace’, ‘Time’s grace, the grace of change’, the grace of the ‘instant,/ bound by its own grace’.  Nevertheless, the poem is wholly secular.To me, the narrator-protagonist is the hero of his own metaphysical romance, writing the story of himself in his head in a rhetoric which is often raised to match the heroic nature of the quest.

No matter how convincing and physical the detail of the fishing voyage, the poem is always metaphysical.  In his letter to Charles Causley, Graham writes:

…although I wanted to write about the sea it was not the sea only as an objective adventure ( if there is such a thing) but as experience surrounding a deeper problem which everybody is concerned with.

I mean the essential isolation of man and the difficulty of communication.[7]

This may be the central theme of the poem, though as Graham acknowledges in the same letter, others may read more or less into it. Certainly, he returns repeatedly to the difficulty of language in the context of time and change. He declares that only in the present instant is he alive and himself, so that it seems impossible for language and communication to be accurate and authentic: ‘Each word speaks its own speaker to his death.’(p.115) As if to reinforce the aliveness of the moment, much of the narration is in present tense, giving the impression that the ‘adventure’ is unfolding before us, moment by moment. 

            The air bunches to a wind and roused sea-cries.

            The weather moves and stoops high over us and 

            There the forked tern, where my look’s whetted on distance,

            Quarters its hunting sea.

                                                            (p. 112)

However, the poet’s view is neither as bleak nor as solipsistic as this argument might suggest. The next few lines in this stanza indicate the importance of memory, in a simile which extends the hauling in of nets to the metaphysical level: ‘I haul slowly/ Inboard the drowning flood as into memory,/ Braced at the breathside in my net of nerves.’ (p.112) A few stanzas later, there is a lapse into the past tense: ‘And then was the first/ Hand at last lifted getting us swung against/ Into the homing quarter’. (p.113) This is an implicit admission of continuity, as is the combination, in the next stanza, of the description of the voyage with the process of the poem:

            Into the running blackbacks soaring us loud

            High up in the open arms of the towering sea.

            The steep bow heaves, hung on these words, towards

            What words your lonely breath blows out to meet it.

                                                                                                (p.113)

Communication is possible, though difficult: ‘I cried headlong from my dead’. The poet’s language is built from the continuity of dead selves which have preceded the present moment and thus he is able to articulate his ‘ghostly constant’.(p.111)  It is the possibility of memory, continuity and communication that permit the inclusion of the ballad-style section 2, with its reference to his birth:

            When I fell from the hot to the cold

            My father drew his whole day’s pay,

            My mother lay in a set-in bed,

            The midwife threw my bundle away.

                                                                        (p.107)

and also, what seems to be a love poem, section 4, using, Graham claims, the rhythm ‘I took from an early poem I came across in the MSS of early Scots poetry, from the Ballantyne MS.’[8] Although the section reiterates the idea of change and death from one moment into the next, he sets this against the possibility of love and a home whose identity is not put into words:

            O my love, keep the day

            Leaned at rest, leaned at rest.

            What one place remains

            Home as darkness quickens?

                                                            (p.117)

So, despite, the difficulty of communication we realise that Graham is not speaking simply to himself; rather, he is speaking as himself and as a representative human being to others, with the hope though not necessarily the expectation of being heard. As he puts it in a later poem:

            What does it matter if the words

            I choose, in the order I choose them in,

            Go out into a silence I know

            Nothing about, there to be let

            In and entertained and charmed

            Out of their master’s orders?  And yet

            I would like to see where they go

            And how without me they behave.[9]

W.S. Graham is said to have been a man at once gregarious and shy, who sometimes found social interactions awkward but who enjoyed a number of intense and valued friendships. ‘The Nightfishing ’ overcomes isolation, not only in its address to the other in section 4, but in its recognition of companionship throughout the voyage. The ‘we’ he uses so often is not simply the collection of dead selves, but other members of the crew, those who set out and hauled in the nets alongside him. As they come back into harbour:

Moored here, we cut the motor quiet. He that

I’m not lies down. Men shout. Words break. I am

My fruitful share.

                                    (p.116)

 His poetry is difficult and his meanings often elusive but his focus on language arises out of his recognition of its centrality to our humanity, as that which articulates our ‘ghostly constant’ allowing us, despite our instant to instant, and final, mortality, the possibility of memory and communication:

            So I spoke and died.

            So within the dead

            Of night and the dead

            Of all my life those

            Words died and awoke.

                                                (p.120)

In addition to books cited above, I have found the following helpful:

Give Me your Painting Hand, W. S. Graham and Cornwall, by David Whittaker, Wavestone Press, 2015.

SINGER, LAVINIA. “Significant Shapes: W. S. Graham’s Painting Poems.” Chicago Review, vol. 62, no. 1/2/3, 2018, pp. 60–66. JSTOR, http://www.jstor.org/stable/26725259. Accessed 31 Mar. 2021.

WILKINSON, JOHN. “The Weight of Words: W. S. Graham’s Lyric Poetry.” Chicago Review, vol. 62, no. 1/2/3, 2018, pp. 40–57. JSTOR, http://www.jstor.org/stable/26725257. Accessed 31 Mar. 2021.

Natalie Pollard, ‘The pages are bugged’: The Politics of Listening in the Poetry of W. S. Graham, The Cambridge Quarterly, Volume 39, Issue 1, March 2010, Pages 1–22, https://doi.org/10.1093/camqtly/bfq001


[1] Proofs and Theories, Carcanet, 1999

[2] Letter to Alan Clodd, 1955

[3] All quotations from ‘The Nightfishing’ taken from New Collected Poems, ed. Matthew Francis, Faber and Faber, paperback 2005.

[4] I recognise that this word seems inappropriate, but it is perhaps the flux and instability of the sea which makes it Graham’s founding metaphor.

[5] Note by Matthew Francis, editor of New Collected Poems,Faber and Faber, 2004.

[6] Gerard Carruthers Born in a diamond, screeched from a mountain pap, The Hugh MacDiarmid Lecture, 2018,Studies in Scottish Literature, p.18

[7] Letter 84 in The Nightfisherman, Selected Letters of W.S.Graham, edited by Michael and Margaret Snow, Carcanet, 1999

[8] Letter to Norman McLeod, number 95 in The Nightfisherman

[9] ‘Approaches to how they behave’, from Malcolm Mooney’s Land, New Collected Poems, p.178

Waiting to be interrupted: an exploration of some of the work of Louise Glück

A Nobel prize winning poet, writing in English, that I had barely heard of. Shamed by my ignorance of the work o, I started to read her in bulk. I started with A Village Life, 2009, which is comparatively recent, and which I will return to. I followed up with The First Five Books (Carcanet, 1997) which includes all her work up to Ararat(1990). The prevailing impression from this collection was gloomy. In fact, when I read ‘The Undertaking’ , the opening poem in ‘The Apple Trees’ which is the second section of The House on Marshland (1975), I was surprised by how upbeat it was. 

            The dark lifts, imagine, in your lifetime.

            …

                                    the sun is shining,

            everywhere you turn is luck.

At the same time, I asked myself how long this sudden cheerfulness would last. 

Five pages later the poem ’12.6.71’ opened and closed thus:

            You having turned from me

            …

                                    the snow

            which has not ceased since

            began

Gluck repeatedly rejects the idea that she is a confessional poet, yet many of her poems are clearly based on the material and suffering in her personal life.  However, when we read her work, we are forced to agree that she is far from confessional in the manner, say, of Sylvia Plath or Robert Lowell. Somehow, even when poems include details which seem most intimate and personal, they seem strangely impersonal, detached or even cold. Some of the poems carry a tremendous punch, but although they shock, they don’t quite move. For example, poems on the death of a father:

            For once, your body doesn’t frighten me.

            From time to time, I run my hand over your face

            lightly, like a dustcloth.

            What can shock me now? I feel

            no coldness that can’t be explained.

            Against your cheek, my hand is warm

            and full of tenderness.

                                    ‘For my father’ in Metamorphosis in The Triumph of Achilles (1985)

Grief is undermined by self regard. The speaker is looking at herself, the one who is still living, the survivor, with a truthfulness that shocks and disturbs. The pieties surrounding grief, death and burial are further subverted in ‘A Fantasy’, where the widow is imagined after the funeral:

            In her heart, she wants them to go away.

            She wants to be back in the cemetery,

            back in the sickroom, the hospital. She knows

            it isn’t possible. But it’s her only hope,

            the wish to move backward.  And just a little,

            not so far as the marriage, the first kiss.

What seems at first to be grief, resolves into fear of the future, the wish to have things the way they were, rather than any kind of celebration of love or the marriage.

We know that one of the most significant factors in Glück’s life occurred before she was born, the death of her sister as an infant.  She writes about this in her short essay ‘Death and Absence’(1984, reprinted in Proofs and Theories, Carcanet,1999):

I have always been, in one way or another, obsessed with sisters, the dead and the living both.   The dead sister died before I was born. Her death was not my experience, but her absence was. Her death let me be born.  I saw myself as her substitute, which produced in me a profound obligation towards my mother, and a frantic desire to remedy her every distress.

She says that she wrote about her sister’s death only after the birth of her own son. Although the lost sister appears in several poems, perhaps the most powerful is ‘Lost Love’ from Ararat (1990):

            Something did change: when my sister died,

            my mother’s heart became

            very cold, very rigid,

            like a tiny pendant of iron.

            Then it seemed to me my sister’s body

            was a magnet. I could feel it draw

            my mother’s heart into the earth,

            so it would grow.

What strikes me again in this poem is how clipped and reserved it is, how controlled. The language is simple with a metaphor that extends through two stanzas but becomes part of the massive understatement about the poet’s mother and the complex mother-daughter relationship. Perhaps the adherence to rhyme in her first book, Firstborn, which more or less disappears from the second book onwards, was an early manifestation of this need for control. There is also a frequent sense of holding back and distrust.  This is particularly evident in ‘Mock Orange’ and ‘Night Song’ both of which appear in The Triumph of Achilles (1985). I find ‘Mock Orange’ viscerally shocking:

            I hate them.

            I hate them as I hate sex,

            the man’s mouth

            sealing my mouth, the man’s

            paralyzing body – 

            and the cry that always escapes,

            the low, humiliating 

            premise of union – 

These stanzas have a truthfulness which is hard to acknowledge since they present a fear of losing control and a distrust of the body that may remind us of ‘the syndrome of anorexia that for years shaped [her] life’. [1]  The Triumph of Achilles contains many poems about love, but its poems are not exactly love poems as they wrestle with the conflict between individual autonomy and union with another; in this sense, ‘Mock Orange’, the opening poem, has an admonitory function. The sequence ‘Marathon’, in particular, reveals this ambivalence about love:

                                    And in each of us began

            a deep isolation, though we never spoke of this,

            of the absence of regret.

            We were artists again, my husband.

            We could resume the journey.

                                                                        ‘Summer’

Ararat, the fifth book, is constructed on a family very similar to Glück’s own family, three generations: parents, daughters and the daughters’ children. Structures, emotions and relationships are dissected and analysed in a manner that would be raw if, again, it were less controlled.

            They always said

            I was like my father, the way he showed

            contempt for emotion. 

            They’re the emotional ones,

            my sister and my mother.

The justification for this laundering of family pain seems to be the poet’s conviction that her experience is general, that her familial structures are archetypal, a belief which becomes true through the enaction of the poems. However, not all of her poetry is as apparently transparent as Ararat and I will consider three later books where family or personal tropes persist but within the artifice of an overarching book-length concept. These are The Wild Iris, 1992, A Village Life, 2009 and Faithful and Virtuous Night, 2014.

The Wild Iris is an exploration of religion or at least of theology by a poet who has previously seemed profoundly agnostic. ‘Celestial Music’, the penultimate poem in Ararat, puts a clear space between her and a friend who is a believer.

I have a friend who still believes in heaven.

Not a stupid person, yet with all she knows, she literally talks to god,

she thinks someone listens in heaven.

The clear implication is that belief in God is stupid, yet in The Wild Iris God is a key player. The collection, set in the garden, a locus immediately resonant with religious and mythical archetypes, is shared between the voices of plants, the poet and God. However, the plants, God and the figure of the poet come across as dramatized arguments rather than as real, even when the detail is accurate and convincing. The collection reads like a series of thought experiments and indeed there is a heady excitement in taking on the voices of God, who is presented through a variety of different human perceptions.  In ‘Clear Morning’ God is transcendent, ‘thinking matter could not absorb [human] gaze forever’ but ‘prepared now to force / clarity upon you.’ In ‘Midsummer’ there is a stronger sense of incarnation, ‘You were/ my embodiment, all diversity’. Most of the time, God is the disappointed Creator familiar from Genesis:

            ‘I couldn’t do it again,

            I can hardly bear to look at it – 

                                                            ‘The Garden’

We have to remember that God is in dialogue with the Poet who is also the Gardener, an ambiguous figure, halfway between creator and curator. Moreover, the Poet is ventriloquising the voice of God just as she ventriloquises and anthropomorphises the plants to make up the tapestry of her debate. The plants follow the natural seasons from early spring through to late Autumn, rehearsing a cycle of death and resurrection the poet acknowledges as Romantic: ‘let them/ bury me with the Romantics’. (‘Matins’ p.13) Two pages later, in ‘Retreating Wind’ a disappearing God points out the fallacy of an over simple identification of the human with the seasonal:

            Whatever you hoped,

            you will not find yourselves in the garden,

            among the growing plants.

            Your lives are not circular like theirs:

            your lives are the bird’s flight 

            which begins and ends in stillness –   

Nevertheless, it is in the plants that Gluck finds images for living or for expressing human yearnings or dilemmas. ‘Trillium’ discovers grief, ‘Snowdrops’ faces the pain of re-engaging with the world, Scilla celebrates community over individualism, whilst Lamium seems close to a self-portrait:

                                    Some of us

            make our own light: a silver leaf

            like a path no one can use, a shallow

            lake of silver in the darkness under the great maples.

            But you know this already.

            You and the others who think

            you live for truth and, by extension, love

            all that is cold.

The disingenuousness here is the failure to acknowledge the passion and emotion which is found throughout this collection although suppressed by the austerity of the diction and the control of the lines. The book shows the poet making ‘[her] own light’ and the two long lines ending the second and third stanzas attest to the quality of this light; it is derived from the sun but it pings ‘like someone hitting the side of a glass with a metal spoon’ and it is ‘silver’ not golden.  The poet aspires to the coldness of intellectual rigour which is metallic and inorganic but recognises implicitly that this is far from enough, that her ‘lake of silver’ is ‘shallow’, an idea emphasised by the placement of the word at the end of the line.

Despite the rejection of the parallel between humans and plants, the dialogue between plants and their human gardeners mirrors that between the human and God and the plants seem to move from birth through adolescence to eventual old age. Whereas the snowdrops at the beginning of the sequence dare to ‘risk joy’, the white rose near the end faces bleakly the uncertainties of death in unanswered cries to the human,’ you are not the light I called to/ but the blackness behind it.’  This is not the last word, however. The final two plant poems move through the despair of the crucifixion – ‘My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me’:

                                    are you

            close enough to hear

            your child’s terror? Or

            are you not my father

            you who raised me.

                                                ‘The Golden Lily’

to the hope of resurrection:

            Hush beloved.  It doesn’t matter to me

            how many summers I live to return:

            this one summer we have entered eternity.

            I felt your two hands

            bury me to release its splendour.

                                                                        ‘The White Lilies’

We may note in this final image of the poem and the book that plant and gardener are at one. The relationship between the human and the god she has created is more problematic. In ‘Retreating Light’ God is leaving, job done, because the humans have finally learnt how to live ‘like independent beings’ and how to create, how to be their own god.

            Creation has brought you

            great excitement, as I knew it would,

            as it does in the beginning.

            And I am free to do as I please now,

            to attend to other things, in confidence

            you have no need of me anymore.

Yet the sequence does not end there. In ‘Lullaby’ the god who withdrawing from the world is also withdrawing the world as creation is reduced to flickering appearances:

            You must be taught to love me.  Humans must be taught to love

            silence and darkness. 

In ‘September Twilight’, the last God poem, the god has become a grumpy poet unhappy with his flawed creation, ‘a draft to be thrown away,/ an exercise// because I’ve finished you, vision/ of deepest mourning.’  The last two lines evade explanation but, at the very least, convey a sense of terminal dissatisfaction. The voices of God and human go past each other, each wanting more than the other can give.

The ‘human’ poems are usually titled either ‘Matins’ or ‘Vespers’, placing them within the tradition of Christian prayer and meditation. Some have likened the collection to the medieval books of hours. Certainly, the voice of the human echoes the spiritual travails of figures such as Teresa of Avila and John of the Cross as it struggles with a God which is at first  the ‘unreachable father’, unknowable and impersonal: ‘I am/ at fault, at fault, I asked you/to be human’. Then about halfway through, there is a change in perception as the view of god does again become human. 

                        I am ashamed

            at what I thought you were

            distant from us, regarding us

            as an experiment: it is

            a bitter thing to be

            the disposal animal,

            a bitter thing. Dear friend,

            dear trembling partner, what 

            surprises you most in what you feel,

            earth’s radiance or your own delight?

            For me, always

            the delight is the surprise.

                                                            ‘Matins’ p.31

In this poem, the poet is on the same level as her God who she is constructing in her own image. It contrasts strangely with God’s final poem, ‘September Twilight’ quoted above. We move from Matins to Vespers, morning to evening where the poetic voice torments itself with its relationship to God. On page 43 she describes how God appears to her:

                        I climbed

            the small hill above the wild blueberries, metaphysically

            descending, as on all my walks: did I go deep enough

            for you to pity me, as you have sometime pitied

            others who suffer, favoring those

            with theological gifts?

Here, the poet appears to be inviting a ‘dark night of the soul’ in order to achieve the ecstatic vision:

                                    your fiery self, a whole

            pasture of fire, and beyond, the red sun neither falling nor rising – 

However, the ending of the poem reverts to rationalism:

            I was not a child; I could take advantage of illusions.

Glück allows herself to construct a faith to set against her nihilistic idealism, where the natural world and the garden she loves are always on the point of disappearing to leave noting but darkness behind them.  Towards the end of the book, in ‘Parousia’, she remembers childhood belief which she is trying to recover:

            I try to win you back,

            that is the point 

            of the writing.

But she adds, a few lines later: ‘What a nothing you were’ and then concludes ‘you are everywhere, source/ of wisdom and anguish.’ In the next poem, winter is approaching as is death and the poet’s sense of having been admitted to the divine presence has been cancelled: ‘you have drawn/ a line through my name.’ The poem ends with an ambivalent restatement of the relationship between God and human.

            When you go, you go absolutely,

            deducting visible life from all things

            but not all life,

            lest we turn from you.

                                                ‘Vespers’, p.55

I suggest that Gluck is an idealist because in this book, plants, garden, the world of nature, even the bit players, John and Noah, her husband and son, are all constructs, fictions dramatizing the struggle of a mind or soul to know or redeem itself through the possibility of a relationship with a god which is itself fictional. It is a metaphysical exploration of ideas which is the very opposite of materialism.

A Village Life is even more clearly a fictional setting where the writer can work through her ideas. The blurb suggests this village is Mediterranean, but it is not any place that ever actually existed. It made me think of my grandchildren’s favourite computer game, Minecraft, where it is possible to construct your own house, estate, town, world. The poet works out emotions and ideas through her avatars who are given a gapped narrative that the reader feels must exist but struggles to follow. The first poem gives some sense of the abstract quality of the entire collection. It begins in the third person, describing the meditations of, apparently, a mill worker as he looks out through his window to see ‘not the world but a squared-off landscape’. The poet is indicating already that this is a selective and constructed picture, and our perspective is further skewed when she moves to first person in what seems to be some kind of renunciation which may anticipate old age or death

                        I open my fingers – 

                        I let everything go.

                        I let it go, then I light the candle.

Is this the old man at his window coming into his own voice or the poet consciously substituting the light of her art for that of the real world?

There are a number of different characters, some still living in the village, some who have moved away, some old, some young, or possibly the same individuals presented at different times in their lives. The pervading perspective is of jaded, rather sour, rather plastic wisdom. The setting is stylised: the village has a central fountain to which all roads lead at the same time as they lead away towards the mountain:

            The roads don’t gather here anymore;

            the fountain sends them away, back into the hills they came from.

            Avenue of Broken Faith, Avenue of Disappointment,

            Avenue of the Acacia Tree, of Olive Trees,

            The wind filling with silver leaves,

            Avenue of Lost Time, Avenue of Liberty that ends in stone,

            not at the field’s edge but at the foot of the mountain.

                                                                                    ‘Tributaries’

The poems reflect the seasons and the weather which are made to echo the ages and stages of the characters in a conscious use of pathetic fallacy which the writer had exploded elsewhere. There are recurring events, two poems from the earthworm, two from bats, and four about burning leaves which seem to signal the cycles of life and death, destruction and phoenix-like resurrection. The image is so persistent that I wondered if it might originate from the poet’s experience of losing her own house to fire.

            So it’s finished for another year,

            death making room for life,

            as much as possible,

            but burning the house would be too much room.

                                                                                    ‘Burning Leaves’ p.26

Reflecting the sense of decline in the book, the balance of the burning leaves tips towards death in the later poems

                                    it is obvious they [sparks] are not defeated,

            merely dormant or resting, though no one knows

            whether they represent life or death.

                                                                        p.35

            Maybe this is how you’ll know when the earth is dead – 

            it will ignite.

                                                                        p.61

For me, the imaginary world of this book is mostly grey or sepia coloured, but there are momentary glimpses of real toads, as in the rather curious poems about adolescence which depict boys and girls on the cusp of sexual awareness.

            They know people who’ve done it, as a kind of game or trial – 

            Then you say, no, wrong time, I think I’ll just keep on being a child.

            But your body doesn’t listen. It knows everything now,

            it says you’re not a child, you haven’t been a child for a long time.

            Their thinking is, stay away from change. It’s an avalanche – 

            All the rocks sliding down the mountain, and the child standing underneath 

            just gets killed.

In this poem, where the Edenic companionship of boy and girl is under threat from their growing consciousness of their sexuality and there is a powerful sense of loss, one of the oddest things is the fluidity of the pronouns. The first stanza is all ‘they’ before moving to direct address in the second ‘you can spend the whole day’. Later, even the body gets a voice ‘it says you’re not a child’, and towards the end of the poem the unity of the two children separates into ‘he’ and ‘she’.

            Today she’s folding the blanket alone, to be safe.

            And he looks away – he pretends to be too lost in thought to help out.

                                                                                                            ‘Noon’

This confusion of voices, where the writer seems to intrude upon her creation, once again undermines the autonomy of the imaginary world. In a companion piece, ‘At The River’, a young girl describes, or mocks, how her mother has told her about sex:

            she went on holding my hand as she made her speech

            which was more like a speech about mechanical engineering

            than a conversation about pleasure.

She and her friends gather by the river where they laugh about this and the book, Ideal Marriage, which her mother has given her. They are preoccupied with sex which they discuss endlessly without, most of them, having any actual experience. Running in parallel with this, is the story of her parents’ marriage, the father who pours himself two glasses of wine every night, one, suggests his daughter, for the Holy Ghost who never shows up. At the end of the poem, she asks him:

                                                Did your friend go away?

            And he looked at me intently for a while,

            then he said, Your mother and I used to drink a glass of wine together

            after dinner.

The particularity of this detail and the sadness it reveals contrasts with the preceding stanza where the protagonist, returning from the river, comments on the reflections of the stars in the water:

            But the ones in the river – 

            they were like having some idea that explodes suddenly into a thousand ideas,

            not real, maybe, but somehow more lifelike.

The ‘like’ in the second line is unexpected and ambiguous; it could reflect the idiom of an American teenager (not a Mediterranean one) or it could signal the introduction of an elaborate simile. Either way, the reality of both the actual world and the imaginary world are undermined by the primacy of ideas.

The final poem is also the title poem and it features an older man, perhaps the same one as in the first poem and probably the same one as in ‘A Warm Day’. He may even be looking out the same window as in the opening poem. However, in this poem he speaks in first person as he ruminates over his daily routines, the different stages of life and approaching death. It is hard not to see him as a stand-in for the aging poet.  His instruments are locked up but he still hears ‘music coming from them sometimes’. He thinks back to the tension of the pre-adolescent. ‘Soon it will be decided for certain what you are, / one thing, a boy or a girl.’ Although written before trans issues became so prominent, this foreshadows, perhaps accidentally, the angst of binary sexuality. The light in the poem fades and reduces to firelight, then moonlight and the moon becomes a symbol of the soul:

            It’s dead, it’s always been dead,

            but it pretends to be something else,

            burning like a star, and convincingly, so that you feel sometimes

            it could actually make something grow on earth.

            If there’s an image of the soul, I think that’s what it is.

This concluding notion seems both religious and Platonic, although earlier in the poem he has decried his neighbour’s religious faith: ‘She believes in the Virgin the way I believe in the mountain, / though in one case the fog never lifts.’ The soul is seen as a deception, ‘pretend[ing] to be something else’, but nevertheless deriving its truth or being from a remoter power. 

The village of A Village Life, with its stylised setting and characters, is a device which allows the poet to clothe and develop her ideas. Faithful and Virtuous Night exploits a different convention partly through a deconstructed quest narrative where there appear to be at least two protagonists: one is an aging male artist who remembers his life going back to his childhood as an orphan, living with his aunt and his brother. There are accounts of episodes in boyhood, living in Cornwall and undergoing psychoanalysis. However, another voice belongs, apparently, to the poet herself, notably in ‘Visitors from Abroad’ and ‘Aboriginal Landscape’ in which the recurrent themes of her relationship with her mother and the sister who died in infancy reappear. It is quite difficult to work out what is going on and whether we should see the male figure as detached from, complementary to, or an alter ego for, the poet. The quest imagery and indeed the title of the book derive from the old man’s childhood memories of his brother reading Arthurian romance: ’my brother was reading a book he called/ the faithful and virtuous night’. This misunderstanding is the foundation for the image of night as death or at least the harbinger of death: “I became/a glorious knight riding into the setting sun, and my heart/became the steed underneath me.’ In this book, Glück is much possessed by death, but not particularly gloomily; in fact, this poem even includes a pun:

            Neigh, neigh, said my heart,

            or perhaps nay, nay – it was hard to know.

                                                                                    ‘An Adventure’[2]

If the old man’s adventures all seem to be episodes on the journey towards death which becomes itself the object of the quest as suggested in the opening poem ‘Parable’, the utterances which come from the poet appear in one way or another to be a reaction to the death of her parents, or particularly, of her mother.

            We read your books when they reach heaven.

            Hardly a mention of us anymore, hardly a mention of your sister.

            And they pointed to my dead sister, a complete stranger,

            tightly wrapped in my mother’s arms.

            But for us, she said, you wouldn’t exist.

            And your sister – you have your sister’s soul.

            After which they vanished, like Mormon missionaries.

                                                                                    ‘Visitors from Abroad’

Along with the characteristic austerity and control, manifest here in the clipped, end-stopped lines often backed up by full stops which are used for emphasis rather than to demarcate sentences, Glück exhibits again an almost gleeful, if macabre, dark humour.

However, most of the book is devoted to the novelistic development of the central character, who is reminiscent of other hyper-refined male sensibilities, a sort of cross between Henry James and Philip Roth.  He is embarked on the quest for, or journey towards, death which is neither a real quest nor a real journey, as to paraphrase Beckett, he would have died in any case. This is the message of ‘The Parable’:

                                                            we had changed although

            we never moved, and one said, ah, behold how we have aged, traveling

            from day to night only, neither forward nor sideward, and this seemed

            in a strange way miraculous.  And those who believed we should have a purpose

            believed this was the purpose, and those who felt we must remain free

            in order to encounter truth felt it had been revealed.

I don’t know quite how to regard this, admittedly very readable, narrative thread. I have to see the old man as a pretext rather than an autonomous character, partly because at times he seems to merge with the other speaker, partly because, like her, he is preoccupied with the relationship between art and life. In ‘The Past’ and ‘A Summer Garden’ there is reference to a mother who has died, apparently recently, although the old man’s mother was killed when he was a small child. This might suggest that the poems are in the voice of the poet except that their preoccupations seem to echo that of the male character. In fact, ‘A Summer Garden’ is primarily an elegy for the poet’s mother, Beatrice Glück, who died in 2011, aged 101: ‘Mother died last night, / Mother who never dies.’ The poem goes from the day of her death when the bereaved daughter reflects on her loss, echoed in the songs of, presumably, an au pair:

            We could hear

            Maria singing songs from Czechoslovakia – 

            How alone I am – 

            songs of that kind.

            How alone I am,

            no mother, no father – 

            my brain seems so empty without them.

These songs may remind us of the Jacques Brel song which haunts the old man:[3]

            The little cat is dead, meaning, I suppose,

            one’s last hope.

            The cat is dead, Harry sings,

            he will be pointless without his body.

            In Harry’s voice it is deeply soothing.

            Sometimes his voice shakes, as with great emotion,

            and then for a while the hills are alive overwhelms

            the cat is dead.[4]

The tug between life and death carries on throughout the collection and comes back to a celebration of a moment of life earlier in the life of the poet’s mother, when she took her grandchildren to the park:

            The children held hands, leaning

            To smell the roses.

            They were five and seven.

            Infinite, infinite – that 

            was her perception of time.

            She sat on a bench, somewhat hidden by oak trees.

            Far away, fear approached and departed;

            from the train station came the sound it made.

            The sky was pink and orange, older because the day was over.

            There was no wind. The summer day

            cast oak-shaped shadows on the green grass.

This not the last poem in the book. The final piece is a short prose text which picks up some of the threads in the whole collection, including, I believe, an underlying interest in the delimitations of gender. This brings together, or perhaps it doesn’t, a man and woman, who might perhaps or perhaps not be the two voices in the poem. Figures from a photograph, they are imagined meeting:

She drops her book; stooping to pick it up, she touches, by accident, his hand and her heart springs open like a child’s music box. And out of the box comes a little ballerina made of wood.  I have created this, the man thinks; though she can only whirl in place, still she is a dancer of some kind, not simply a block of wood. This must explain the puzzling music coming from the trees.

                                                ‘The Couple in the Park’

The ‘puzzling music’ refers to an earlier poem, where the male artist meets a woman who tells him about walking in a garden where she would hear final notes of The Marriage of Figaro. She tells the artist that all her walks are circular, and she always ends up where she started, at her own front door. The artist attempts to interpret this experience but concludes

                                                that whatever message there might have been

            was not contained in speech – so, I realized, my mother used to speak to me

            her sharply worded silences cautioning me and chastising me – 

                                                                        ‘A Sharply Worded Silence’

The ‘sharply worded silence’ which is something we may all recognise becomes even more resonant when we remember that the artist’s mother is dead. The overlap between the man and the woman reappears as we question our first assumption that it is the male who is speaking.

It may be the limitations of a prosaic mind which drives the reader of poetry to seek for logical interpretations and explanations. There is an instinctive quest for meaning which may be one of the pursuits this book is challenging, but only if you plump for the most negative reading.  The poem travels beyond logical prose in expression and, if we trust the poet, we may see that what she is saying now in verse we may be able later, in our enlarged experience, to translate into prose. Death is on the horizon, and the horizon may always be coming closer, but it is the process of the quest which matters.  Louise Glück beguiles us with the language of childhood, with stories and images, which are cut loose to drift across each other in a way that is productive in challenging assumptions, but which does not offer any definitive alternatives.


[1] ‘Death and Absence’ in Proofs and Theories

[2] Perhaps this is an allusion to the words of Peter Pan: ‘To die would be an awfully big adventure.’

[3] You can hear Jacques Brel singing this song, Les Vieux, on You Tube: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=OMxvAY54_Vg

[4] Presumably from The Sound of Music.

Light-fall by Lucy Ingrams

I came to Light-fall by Lucy Ingrams (Flarestack Poets, 2019) after hearing the poet read.  I was immediately struck by her attention to text, to meanings, sound and cadence so that every syllable seems to justify its location.  Most of these poems are set outside, in the woods, in the fields, near the sea but the texts work at different levels,  hinting at human stories and drama played out in a context where natural detail is of profound and felt importance. 

‘Today’ is constructed around an opposition of self and a loved other where:

            you watch the sea from the doorway, while I study grasses…

Self (the poet) is content to focus on close-up detail outside and ‘come back tuned to fine-jointed staves,/ shy-coloured panicles.’ The other, however, looks out to sea and notes the loss of the horizon; together they mourn as ‘a low fleece/  of fog wraps the chord-line between’ sea and sky. Ingrams’ ability to combine figurative language with scientific exactitude ‘shy-coloured panicles’ gives her writing extraordinary authority. The musical imagery is an undernote suggesting the loss and recreation of harmony between the couple which is led by the speaker who shows the other ‘the frail/fastenings, like hair, weaving Earth to the air’ so that their shared vision becomes whole gain, or ‘regains curvature’. It is not clear what the subject of this final verb is; it could be the Earth or it could be an unstated whole which is either a human relationship or a view of the universe. As we reach the end of the poem, we realise that we have been reading a slightly deconstructed love sonnet.

Indeed, many of the poems are unobtrusively love poems where emotions are worked out through the language of the natural world. In ‘Signs’ the poet demands to read nature as a code, echoing the childhood game of pulling petals off a daisy to discover ‘whether you loved me   loved me not’. Ingrams plays with and contrasts the covert meanings in the signs written in letters with the natural language of ‘fields/hung with signs of their own’. The poem reaches no conclusion but it adds lustre to love through the beauty of the images which are looked to for answers

                                                                        sure only

            I’m not            whether you love me   love me not

            flowering stars on the blackthorn bars        and at dusk

            Sirius setting   Leo rising   or neither and both.

This is an example of the poet’s attention to lineation and spacing, which I have not managed to repeat accurately here. She is careful to use the way the text appears on the page to bring out its emphases and music.    

‘So will there be apples’ is another love poem which seems to open with the hopefulness of spring:  ‘all thought of  / him rinsed with light… the hedges whisper in / new viridian dialects’.  In the second stanza, doubt sets in with the desire for rain ‘when will it rain?’ and the threat or promise of fire ‘this blue match / to a log – flame licking /the emerald evenings.’ The third stanza invokes with all its connotations the mystery of the ‘greenwood’ which has somehow been there all along.  Love becomes dangerous as perhaps the object of love is dangerous, or unnatural ‘”frost in May”‘ and the fire of passion is in danger of becoming a ‘conflagration’ but the protagonist of the poem persists in her quest despite the dark warnings of her friends: ‘she goes out      she goes looking’. What is she looking for? – love, the forbidden apple, the mysterious promise offered by the greenwood?

‘Ship carver’ is a tribute to a craftsman and a reflection of the poet’s love of the sea which uses sea-related imagery with astonishing skill to convey the dedication of the carver to his work: ‘coiled shavings …foam at the door’, ‘dusk closes over, swift/as the sea takes a skiff’. Somehow the poem evokes maritime history as far back as the Vikings as she describes how the woodcarver dresses ‘a prow for the wind’s/hoops’ and all this although he is working in a ‘workshop keep / seventy miles from/the tidemark.’ 

Ingrams excels in conveying emotion through the phenomena and cycles of the natural world. In “August letter’ she appears to be grieving for someone who is lost to her, probably through death. She celebrates the meaning of August, as a pivotal point leading to winter:

‘I peer into its tunc/and trace a tiny counterpoint: snow hyacinths on a tablecloth,/winter coats on chairs pushed back, the smell of pears.’ I’m not sure about ‘tunc’; I assume it’s Latin and not as the online urban dictionary tells me, ‘male genitalia’. Occasionally, I feel Ingrams takes her adventurousness with language too far; I was also uncomfortable with the adverbial coinage ‘latticely’ (‘Blue Hour’) although I knew what it was saying. Here, conversely, I’m not sure what the word is saying but I enjoy its sound and positioning.

I will quote the last three stanzas of ‘August letter’ which brilliantly combine images of nature, ourselves in nature, light, death and loss.

            The evenings here are long still, are they with you? Yet I find

            I plant mine up with candlelight, burn apple wood – watch 

            the mirror catch and flush.

            This month’s like that, a flare I want to boost.  That even so

            will carry summer out upon its bier. My fingers flutter like

            the leaves to think of it.

            In the dream, your hands were empty – full of your touch. If you

            were here, I could put mine out and you could take them.

Lucy Ingrams has already won The Manchester Poetry Prize , 2015, and the Magma Poetry Competition, 2016. This is a pamphlet of outstanding quality from a poet whose work continues to develop and excite. I very much look forward to a full-length collection.

Elizabeth Jennings and the poetic vocation

Elizabeth Jennings and the poetic vocation

At the moment, there seems to be a lot of poetry about. Online magazines and small presses proliferate; even the small print magazines seem to be keeping their heads above water.  Some of this may be due to corona virus; people have time to write and even read poetry.  However, as I pick my way through Zoom poetry events, I find myself wondering how it is possible to read with discrimination, or even enjoyment, under this onslaught of words.  I am not complaining about an excess of bad poetry; on the contrary, much of what is available is, thanks to poetry workshops and courses, pretty good.  What is difficult is to discover and recognise the very good, the authentically new, the lastingly valuable.  With an ever-growing pile of magazines, pamphlets and first collections on my desk, I have been tempted to flee, to look backwards and to reconsider some of the older names in the poetry world.

Thus it was that I started reading, or rereading Elizabeth Jennings.  Why? For a start, she once lived at the bottom of my road. Secondly, she is a woman poet who has dropped out of fashion but who had known considerable success, was moderately famous, but never, sadly, rich.  In my mind, she was the sort of poet whose work turned up in GCSE and A-level anthologies. I remembered her poems as thematically unthreatening but with plenty of technical features to be identified in the pursuit of good marks.

Engaging now with the full range of her poetry, I find her more interesting but strange, in the sense of alien. She suffers by being out of tune with her time and even more so with ours. What concerned her has been pushed to the very margin of our concerns today. On a line drawn between Christina Rossetti and Sylvia Plath, she would come much closer to Rossetti, not simply because she was a single woman and deeply religious, but also because she clings to some outmoded nineteenth century poeticisms. She is a little too fond of the exclamatory ‘O’. In ‘In This Time’[1], lamenting the loss of myth and legend which she seems to attribute to excessive introspection and self-absorption, she includes a somewhat startling and metrically unnecessary inversion: ‘Hardly we hear the children shout outside’ as well as an equally unnecessary undirected apostrophe three lines further down, ‘O let the wind outside blow in again’. She is confident with form and her earlier poems were mostly written in carefully organised and rhymed stanzas, made more subtle by half and near rhymes. Even so, sometimes the form pushes her towards conclusions which are too pat, or a rhyme can seem forced, or a line is padded. In ‘Poem in Winter’, the pronoun ‘it’ is awkward in the first stanza as it buckles under the demands of end rhyme:

Today the children begin to hope for snow

And look in the sky for auguries of it.

In the first three lines of the second stanza, there is another awkward ‘it’ forced into prominence by the iambic pattern, while ‘And’ and ‘still’ seem to be there to preserve the metre and ‘indeed’ does more for the rhyme scheme than the meaning.

            And even if the snow comes down indeed

            We still shall stand behind a pane of glass

            Untouched by it,

The last stanza, as rather often in Jennings’ poems, takes on a didactic function, which more contemporary poets would perhaps avoid. Nevertheless, her work is underpinned and strengthened by her vision and sense of vocation, by her ideas of what it was to be a poet. In her case, the poetic vocation was bound in with her Catholic faith although the relationship between her religion and her poetry was not as smooth as she would sometimes have had it appear. Like T.S. Eliot, whom she much admired, she yearned for the mystic’s union with God, and she explored the relationship between mysticism and poetry in Every Changing Shape[2] which, although written relatively early in her career, provides a key to understanding her own poetic vision. She seeks to show, through a study of writers from St Augustine to Wallace Stevens:

Not only …the usefulness of poetry as a vehicle for mystical experience but also …some kind of demonstration, however, tentative, that both mysticism (contemplation) and poetry (making) spring from the same creative source.[3]

She goes on to argue, and here she is close to David Jones, also a poet whose Catholicism is central to his art, that poetry:

…is itself a kind of contact with God. And it can be a contact with God because all art is a participation in the eternal act of creation.[4]

Jennings is careful to maintain the distinction between poetry and mysticism, but values poetry for its power to use the imagination (and imagery) to convey experiences otherwise beyond language.  However, although she holds this exalted view of what poetry can do, only a minority of her own poems are directly concerned with religion. Her themes are childhood, relationships with parents, friends, lovers, nature, loneliness and death. Her poetry is always written out of her own experience and although she abhorred ‘confessional’ poetry, it is difficult to read her work as anything other than autobiographical.  Indeed, because she disapproved so strongly of letting it all hang out and washing the family dirty laundry in public, it is often quite difficult to know what she is talking about in her poems, if, for instance, she is addressing Christ, a friend or a lover in “Transformation’:

            Always I trip myself up when I try

            To plan exactly what I’ll say to you.

            …

            Who could not guess such misery would start

            And stop so quickly, change the afternoon

            And, far more than that, transfigure me.

            Trusting myself, I enter night, stars, moon.[5]

I am inclined to think that this poem is actually addressed to a friend or one of her quasi lovers, as so much of her work seems prompted by actual incidents, even though, as here, it borrows the language of religious or transcendental experience.  The only poem I have found where Jennings does seem to be writing about a personal mystical experience is ‘A World of Light’. The title acknowledges the mystic poetry of Henry Vaughan and in it she describes the sort of encounter which she explores in the work of many of the mystics and poets she considers:

            Then senses ceased and thoughts were driven quite

            Away (no act of mine). I could relax

            And feel a fire no earnest prayer can kindle;

            Old parts of peace dissolved into a whole

            And like a bright thing proud in its new plumage

            My mind was keen as an attentive bird.[6]

However, unlike Vaughan she becomes self-conscious and the final stanza suggests that she feels that her language and her imagery are second-hand and inadequate:

            Yes, fire, light, air birds, wax, the sun’s own height

            I draw from now, but every image breaks.

            Only a child’s simplicity can handle

            Such moments when the hottest fire feels cool.

            And every breath is like a sudden homage

            To peace that penetrates and is not feared.

Incidentally, Jennings skill is demonstrated by the way she has used the same end sounds in all five stanzas of this poem. Despite this virtuosity with form, the imagery is less convincing.  The ‘hottest fire’ that ‘feels cool’ recall simultaneously the cleansing fires of purgatory and the oxymoronic language of courtly love. We might wonder why in the last line ‘peace’ should be ‘feared’ and question whether she is talking not about a peace but a penetration that need not be feared.  Jennings was known to have a fear of sex and it is doubtful if any of her various love relationships were ever physically consummated. Rather conveniently, she transfers the responsibility to one of her loves, apparently a Catholic priest:

            Only in our imaginations

            The act is done, for you have spoken

            Vows that can never now be broken. 

            I keep them too – with reservations;

            Yet acts not done can still be taken

            Away, like all completed passions.[7]

I don’t really know what the last lines of this stanza mean and the final stanza of the poem also strikes me as a fudge:

            A touching, then a glancing off.

            It is your vows that stretch between 

            Us like an instrument of love

            Where only echoes intervene.

            Yet these exchanges are enough

            Since strings touched only are most keen.

There is a feeling that she has successfully worked through the metaphoric vehicle, but that the actual experience, the underlying tenor remains stubbornly unchanged.

 Of course, she was completely aware that sexual imagery is often used as a way of conveying mystical experience, something that she acknowledges in her discussion of St John of the Cross.[8] I am wary of tipping over into prurience when discussing Jennings but the tone and content of her love poetry, which often seems to have an adolescent intensity, would be easier to understand if more was known about her life.  The only biography, The Inward War by Dana Greene, while it supplies possible names and dates, does very little, despite its title, to illuminate the poet’s inner conflicts. Perhaps biography shouldn’t matter, and the best poems can be appreciated without it. Nevertheless, so much of her work clearly springs from the day to day events in her life that a better knowledge of what was actually going on would be beneficial, partly because the less successful work does not detach itself fully from the context.  Jennings’ poetry invariably strikes us as searingly emotionally honest, but she keeps a great deal from us. Some of her most compelling poems draw on her experience of mental illness in hospital. In ‘The Visitors’, Section V of ‘Sequence in Hospital[9] she describes the difficulties of dealing with visitors, whose ‘kindness makes [her] want/ To cry’ but whose visit leaves her feeling ‘limp and faint’. However, the poem ends with an address to an unnamed you:

            Your absence has been stronger than all pain

            And I am glad to find that when most weak

            Always my mind returned to you again.

            Through all the noisy nights when, harsh awake,

                        I longed for day and light to break – 

            In that sick desert, you were life, were rain.

In this case, the imagery of light, life and rain incline me to think she means Christ, but there is an almost coy awareness of the traditional overlap of language in the treatment of sacred and profane love.

The themes which emerge most strongly from Jennings’ work are a yearning for the innocence of early childhood which is linked to a prelapsarian view of Nature and a pervasive fear which is never made specific but overshadows her entire oeuvre. These ideas come together in an early poem, ‘Reminiscence’,[10] where she speaks of childhood as ‘cloudless and gentle’, as life experienced through the senses before the life of the mind introduced ‘something’ which ‘made [her]numb with fear’. This disabling fear may be related to the growth of consciousness, it may be related to her difficult relationship with her father, it may be a fear of sex or of God derived from her early and unhappy perception of the Catholicism she was born into, or it may be simply an existential dread.

On the other hand, ‘The Fear’ hints at something more specific:

            When still within I carry an old fear

            A child could never speak about, disgrace

            That no confession could assuage or clear.[11]

It is known that as a young person she found her religion oppressive, and this was something she only overcame when she went to Rome and discovered a joyful way of living with her faith. Nevertheless, the memories of childhood unhappiness were enduring as shown in ‘First Confession’, a poem from the 1990’s.

                                    My spirit had been light

            And happy for six years.  I lost my trust

            And learnt a little of the spirit’s night.[12]

Despite her apparently unquestioning acceptance of her religion – she protests, she struggles, but never denies it – it does not seem to have brought her happiness even though she used it to underpin her poetic vision. It seems to me that her first loyalty is to poetry even though she longs for the mystical experience which would reward her faith.  Her vocation is poetic, not religious. In ‘To a Friend with a Religious Vocation’[13]she considers the differences:

            Your vows enfold you.  I must make my own;

            Now this, now that, each one empirical.

            My poems move from feelings not yet known,

            And when the poem is written I can feel

                        A flash, a moment’s peace.

She makes comparisons elsewhere between the experience of vision of transcendence which the mystic may seek language for and the momentary achievement of vision which the poet feels, having written successful poem.  The poem’s final stanza suggests that the darkness which for the religious is the absence of God is for her the silence when the words for the poems do not come.

            Yet with the same convictions that you have

            (It is but your vocation that I lack),

            I must, like you, believe in perfect love.

            It is the dark, the dark that draws me back

                        Into a chaos where

            Vocations, visions fail, the will grows slack

            And I am stunned by silence everywhere.

Silence is identified with chaos, whereas the poem is a device for creating order. I think this is why Jennings was so prolific, writing compulsively, up to three poems a day, even when most ill or unhappy : ‘Coins, counters, Towers of Babel/ Mad words spoken in sickness too – / All are considered, refined, transformed / …And stored and given back – and true.’[14] In another poem she says ‘poetry must change and make/ The world seem new in each design’. The stress is on design, form, number and imagery, the power of the imagination to create pattern and order, however fleeting. This ‘flash’ is the poet’s participation in divine creativity. Rebecca Watts argues that Jennings did not write in order to heal her wounded psyche, but because ‘she felt that writing poetry was “ the one thing I can do”’.  I think this was a way of overcoming the fear, the darkness and the silence, or at least holding it at bay.

We can see that Jennings had an elevated view of the poet’s calling and that her ‘vision’ was coherent throughout her career.  Childhood is Edenic and associated with the joy in the natural world; it is destroyed by fear and guilt and Jennings accuses adults of creating this sense of fear in children much too early. She values friendship, love as agape, but suffers from unfulfilled desire, fear, guilt and loneliness. She yearns for the solace of her religion but only rarely can she reconcile the demands of her ‘hard creed’ and her impulse to poetry:

            Always that dark cross throws its shadow on me

            And I am often in the garden where

            Christ came so often to the brink of despair.

            It is, I think, in my own poetry

            I meet my God.  He’s a familiar there.[15]

Alice Oswald argued, in her inaugural lecture as Oxford Professor of Poetry, that great poets had a unified vision, whereas minor poets did not.  This is a debatable distinction and I would suggest that while Elizabeth Jennings did have a unified vision, she is only occasionally great. Often her language and her form do not hold up under the strain she puts on them; sometimes she drops back into banality.  Nevertheless, she had a lifelong commitment to poetry and there are many ‘flashes’, whether whole poems, stanzas or memorable lines or images.

This brings me back to my feelings of uneasiness when contemplating the current poetry scene. What is required to be a poet? What is poetry for? These are silly questions, because they are so wide-ranging. Poetry has been used for everything from trying to seduce a lover (though it is unlikely that many seduction poems were written primarily for this purpose) to entertainment, to recording and celebrating a shared history to praising God. The training to be a Bard in ancient Ireland was long and rigorous and involved a huge amount of memorising as well as learning complicated traditional rhyme schemes, metaphors and similes.  A sixteenth century Elizabethan gentleman would have been expected to be able to compose verses as well as wield a sword.  John Donne, whose verses were circulated among friends, could be described as an amateur poet: Shakespeare was obviously a professional. No matter what the background, any decent poet will have learned from their predecessors.  Even John Clare, isolated in rural Helpston, was desperate for books and found his early inspiration in The Seasons by James Thomson.  Whether the poet starts young or comes to poetry later in life, they will develop as they assimilate the work of the past and of their contemporaries.  Some writers will become central to them, touchstones they regularly return to, as, for example, Alice Oswald does to the Iliad and the Odyssey.  Poets also learn by sharing their work with their contemporaries and accepting constructive criticism. This is a process which has become almost industrialised through Creative Writing Degrees, poetry workshops and institutions such as the Arvon Foundation and The Poetry School. The fact that these organisations seem to flourish reflects the level of demand.  There is also a multitude of small presses, print and online little magazines and local poetry nexuses, many of them surviving on minimum funds through the energy and hard work of dedicated enthusiasts. The Alchemy Spoon[16] is a new print magazine, a courageous venture at a time when our entire lives seem to be going online.  Its inaugural edition includes some impressive poems from writers well-known and not so familiar.  The introductory editorial by Vanessa Lampert is also interesting.  She explains the magazine’s commitment to ‘welcoming older unpublished and new phase writers to our pages’. The phrase ‘new phase’ apparently refers primarily to those who have come to poetry later in life, although Lampert also suggests that the ‘new’ of ‘new phase’ refers to poets who have ‘remained alert to the athleticism of poetics and the potential of poetry to branch out and articulate the ethereal and changeable feeling states of our lives.’  This seems admirable, but I am more concerned by her earlier suggestion:

The art of poetry offers writers the opportunity to abandon the conformity embedded in the way we learn to use language, to reach out and seek invention.  Additionally, poems can free us from the tiresome constraint of always being required to tell the truth.

In the world of Trump and Johnson, where the tiresome constraint of telling the truth seems to have been rendered null and void, it would seem preferable to suggest that poetry is indeed a way of telling the truth, albeit through such lying devices as metaphor and imagery. The emphasis on playfulness also worried me, although I recognise that poetry and all art does have a ludic function. The quality of the poetry in this magazine, the level of engagement of the interviews and essays belie these suggestions of hobby writing, or poetry as something to do when you have retired.  I doubt if Elizabeth Jennings would have welcomed a description of her work as either untruthful or playful and, as someone who had devoted her entire life to her art, she might have been lukewarm about the notion of ‘new phase.


[1] New Selected Poems, ed. Rebecca Watts, Carcanet, 2019, p.17

[2] First published by Andre Deutsch, 1961; paperback edition, Carcanet, 1996

[3] p.18, paperback edition

[4] p.30 ibid.

[5] Collected Poems, Carcanet, 1986, p.107

[6] New Selected Poems, p.60

[7] ‘The Instrument’, New Selected Poems, p.74

[8] ‘The Innocent Audacity -An Approach to St John of the Cross’ in Every Changing Shape

[9] From Recoveries, New Selected Poems, p.78

[10] New Selected Poems, p.3

[11] New Selected Poems, p.42

[12] New Selected Poems, p.166

[13] Ibid. p.68

[14] “Any Poet’s Epitaph’, ibid.p.107

[15] ‘A way to a creed’, ibid.p.147

[16] The Alchemy Spoon, Issue 1, Summer 2020. Edited by Roger Bloor, Vanessa Lampert, Mary Mulholland.

NO FAR SHORE by Anne-Marie Fyfe

Anne-Marie Fyfe

A whole year without seeing the sea. Last year, I was lucky: I went to St David’s in Wales, to the coastal path of Cornwall and to the Island of Elba, off the coast of Italy in the Mediterranean. Not to Ireland, not last year – too complicated and too expensive.  Now I’m sitting at my computer, browsing ferry prices, contemplating running the gauntlet of Covid and the weather, in a last-minute effort to get to Ballycastle beach. Inland, in Oxford, as far as it is possible to be from the sea in England, I have been surfing the Internet, browsing poets and making unexpected links.  So it was, by a process of one thing leading to another, that I came across Anne-Marie Fyfe and her 2019 book, No Far Shore.[1] I have known of Fyfe for many years, but I have not read her poetry; nor did I know until now that she grew up in Cushendall. It was this fact as well as her enthusiasm for the work of Elizabeth Bishop which drew me in. I have only just discovered Bishop’s poetry, in the sense of ‘getting’ it, although I had in the past read a number of her poems with nothing more than polite admiration.

No Far Shore is a mix of memoir, poetry and travel writing. It touches on what is familiar to me, the Antrim coast and the Achill Islands, writers like Bishop and Melville and MacNeice but also introduces places and writers I don’t know or have never visited, like Martha’s Vineyard, Nova Scotia and the work of Robinson Jeffers, whose writing I barely remember from my Faber anthology of American Literature at university. Usually, I don’t like mixtures of poetry and prose, because I find that I need to change gear when moving from one to the other, which I find uncomfortable and often leads to paying less attention to the poems than they deserve. However, I enjoyed this book, partly because of the combination of the familiar with the unknown, and partly because of what the poet had to say about the sea, which, if you have grown up close to it, exerts a magnetic influence all through life. Although I grew up in Belfast, Ballycastle, on the other side of Fair Head from Cushendall, was almost a second home for me, in childhood, adolescence and even into my twenties.

Fair Head, seen from Ballycastle beach

Fyfe pays attention to coasts as liminal places, the border between water and land, but also acknowledges the pull of the horizon, that sense of boundlessness that the sea offers and which we fear and yearn after. She explores this in the title poem, which is taken from an earlier collection, Late Crossing:

            NO FAR SHORE

            It will be winter when I untie

            The boat for the last time:

            when I double-lock the back door

            on an empty house,

            go barefoot through bramble

            & briar, measure each 

            stone step to the slipway.

            It will be night-time when I row

            to the horizon,

            steady in the North-Star light

            the darkened house at my back.

            It will be winter when I draw

            each oar from the water,

            shiver,

            & bite the cold from my lip.

Another interesting poem, which accompanies Fyfe’s exploration of the idea of North, is ‘NORTH HOUSE’.  Although Fyfe’s take on North is very different from that of Seamus Heaney, this poem reminds me of Heaney’s ‘Storm on the Island’, which, despite its place on the GCSE syllabus, has always struck me as portentously heavy-footed.  Like Heaney’s poem, Fyfe’s appears to be allegorical and is one of the few places where she addresses the political context as she refers to ‘A mansard dwelling that guards its northernness’ and ‘Our north-wing corridors are the iciest in history.’  She does also write about her grandparents’ mixed marriage in relation to the building of the Titanic.  Her grandfather was a Protestant and therefore able to work in the shipyards where Catholics were not welcome. 

This is not a review and I have not worked out in my own mind how I feel about the poems in this book. However, I have been encouraged to look further at Anne-Marie Fyfe’s work and inspired with a longing to return to the sea, best evoked for me by lines from Seamus Heaney, which although they do not refer to the Antrim coast, catch the magic of light on water and of the opening up of vistas.

            And some time make the time to drive out west

Into County Clare, along the Flaggy Shore,

In September or October, when the wind

And the light are working off each other

So that the ocean on one side is wild

With foam and glitter, and inland among stones

The surface of a slate-grey lake is lit

By the earthed lightning of a flock of swans,…

As big soft buffetings come at the car sideways

And catch the heart off guard and blow it open.

                                                            ‘Postscript’ from The Spirit Level


[1] Seren,2019.

Thinking with feelings: a reading of Elizabeth Bishop’s ‘In the Waiting Room’ compared with the prose of ‘The Country Mouse’.

Elizabeth Bishop described writing poetry as ‘thinking with feelings’[1]; in the conventional division between logic and emotion, this phrase seems to be an oxymoron; from a different point of view, it is a representation of the ‘unified sensibility’ which Eliot identified in the metaphysical poets. Many readers have recognised the elusive nature of Bishop’s work, even when it seems most straightforward.[2] This arises partly from the accuracy of her descriptions which often seem to have the objectivity of science combined with her use of these observations as part of the process of thinking through what she is feeling so that what she describes always resonates with what lies under the surface. Her poems are notable for how they travel, for their ‘journeys’, even when they are cast in forms as static and restrictive as the villanelle (‘One Art’) and the sestina (‘A Miracle for Breakfast’).[3] Despite her skill and fluency in using fixed forms, many of her poems, particularly the later ones, are in free verse. Most of them are based on personal experience, events or periods which she may also have recorded in memoir or autobiographical fiction, in prose which, like her verse, conveys an observer’s cool objectivity even when what they recount is deeply subjective. 

‘In the Waiting Room’ which appeared in Geography III, (1976), revisits some of the same material as found in the autobiographical memoir, The Country Mouse (1961). Both pieces describe a visit to the dentist with an aunt which triggers a traumatic recognition of selfhood. ‘In the Waiting Room’ is written in free verse and is quite long, nearly three pages of verse; the incident described in prose takes half a page, and uses just over half as many words. Here is the paragraph:

After New Year’s, Aunt Jenny had to go to the dentist, and asked me to go with her. She left me in the waiting room, and gave me a copy of the National Geographic to look at.  It was still getting dark early, and the room had grown very dark.  There was a big yellow lamp in one corner, a table with magazines, and an overhead chandelier of sorts.  There were others waiting, two men and a plump middle-aged lady, all bundled up.  I looked at the magazine cover – I could read most of the words – shiny, glazed, yellow and white. The black letters said: FEBRUARY 1918.  A feeling of absolute and utter desolation came over me.  I felt…myself.  In a few days it would be my seventh birthday.  I felt I, I ,I, and looked at the three strangers in panic.  I was one of them too, inside my scabby body and wheezing lungs. “You’re in for it now,” something said.  How had I got tricked into such a false position?  I would be like that woman opposite who smiled at me so falsely once in a while.  The awful sensation passed, then it came back again.  “You are you,” something said.  “How strange you are, inside looking out.  You are not Beppo, or the chestnut tree, or Emma, you are you and you are going to be youforever.”  It was like coasting downhill, this thought, only much worse, and it quickly smashed into a tree. Why was I a human being?

The prose, which uses very simple language and syntax in a way which suggests a child’s language or a spoken anecdote, conforms to Labov’s framework for oral narrative,[4] both in structure and linguistic features. It opens with an abstract, telling us what the story will be about – the visit to the dentist. It continues with orientation, with lots of descriptive detail building up time and place ‘the waiting room’, the ‘big yellow lamp’, the ‘overhead chandelier’. Past progressive tenses are used to set the scene: ‘It was still getting dark early’, ‘There were others were waiting’. These are succeeded by simple past verbs indicating that the complicating action of the story has begun; ‘I looked at the magazine cover’, ‘I felt I, I, I, and looked at the three strangers in panic’. The actions are interspersed with evaluation, the writer’s comments on her own story. These feature modal verbs and comparisons with unrealised events: ‘I would be like that woman opposite’, ‘It was like coasting downhill’ as well as intensifying evaluative adjectives such as ‘absolute and utter’ and ‘awful’. The resolution or final action of the story ‘it quickly smashed into a tree’ reveals the writerly nature of this story because the subject of the simile in the ‘unrealized comparison’ ‘it was like coasting downhill”  becomes the actor in the final action, transposing the whole story from literal to metaphor. The message or meaning of the story is carried in the coda: ‘Why was I a human being?’ The writer has simultaneously recognised her own selfhood and that she is a member of a species.  She is both ‘you forever’ and ‘one of them’.

Bishop’s story or anecdote differs from the account of the same incident as presented in the poem, but neither of them are factual accounts of what actually happened. [5] Although both are very carefully located in time and space, they describe a subjective experience or memory which is unverifiable.  Despite shared features, which make it clear that they are different explorations of the same event, we can see that in each, Bishop thinks with feelings which take her and her readers to different places and that these differences are realised through differences in content, structure and form.

In the prose paragraph, Bishop focuses on her self, on the discovery of her selfhood, ‘I felt… myself’ and thinks through what it is to have that feeling. The ellipsis and the italics emphasize the shock of recognition as does the second use of italics and repetition, ‘I, I, I’ as she struggles to understand the significance of the first person pronouns. Italics are used again for ‘you’ and ‘one’, as she tours around the idea of self.  There is a peculiar dialectic at work as she moves between the feeling of individuation, separate from the world, ‘not Beppo[6], or the chestnut tree, or Emma’, and recognition of herself as part of the species, ‘I was one of them’. Part of this unwelcome realisation is a strong awareness of the restriction of physicality. Just as the middle-aged woman opposite her is ‘all bundled up’ so she is confined ‘inside her scabby body and wheezing lungs.’[7] The sense of revulsion she feels against the others in the waiting room becomes self-disgust. As well as the restrictions of the flesh, and of clothes, she also anticipates being bound into the social code, of smiling ‘falsely’ as she accuses the middle-aged woman of doing. 

This is a dramatic story, presented, as we have seen, in narrative form; even though the events are thoughts not deeds and entirely subjective, they are given a setting and then recounted in a succession of past simple verbs: ‘I looked’, ‘the black letters said’, ‘ a feeling…came over me’, ‘I felt’, ‘the awful sensation passed…came back’, ‘it quickly smashed’.  As in oral narrative, the author evaluates or comments events as she recounts them.  In the poem, however, the sequence of events, while still present, takes second place to the thinking through and expanding on the feelings experienced.

The poem opens with the same setting as the prose, in a dentist’s waiting room on a winter afternoon. The language at the beginning of the poem is paratactic, using short sentences and clauses connected by ‘and’:

In Worcester, Massachusetts,
I went with Aunt Consuelo
to keep her dentist’s appointment
and sat and waited for her
in the dentist’s waiting room.
It was winter. It got dark
early.

This could create the effect of a child’s perceptions, but it also suggests that the writer is tiptoeing around the experience before she begins to explore the feelings it evoked.  Notably, the poem is firmly placed in Massachusetts, home of Bishop’s family on her father’s side whom she lived with after her early years in Nova Scotia with her mother’s parents. She never felt as comfortable in this second placement so the emphasis on location may prepare us for the sense of alienation later in the poem. Although at this point the poem is following the narrative structure of the prose, already evaluation is coming to the fore as the writer examines the significance of her story for her, rather than simply telling it. The modal verb in the parenthesis, ‘(I could read)’, may suggest the adult looking back at the child’s experience, perhaps with a sense of pride, but possibly also reassuring herself about the moment or stage in her own development.  When she notes that she ‘carefully’ studied the photographs, we are again detached from the child’s experience and shown the adult looking back, rather as if the camera had pulled back from a shot of the magazine to show the whole scene: a precocious child sitting on a chair with a magazine which is not appropriate for her surrounded by adults she doesn’t know. 

A major difference from the prose version is the importance of this National Geographic magazine. In the prose, we never get past the cover but here we dive straight into the content of what is implied to be the February 1918 issue. Apparently Bishop checked the magazine in 1967, when she was near to completing the poem, confirming ‘a photo essay on  “Valley of 10,000 Smokes” that “has been haunting me all my life, apparently”’.[8] The pictures in this essay, which was about Alaska ,have been conflated with many other images from elsewhere. For instance, Osa and Martin Johnson, an American couple who were explorers, were in the Pacific in 2017 and the story of their adventures was made into a feature film but I can find no trace of them in the contents of the National Geographic in February 2018 or any of the issues for the previous year. I can remember from my school library, or possibly also from dentist or doctor waiting rooms, those yellow bordered and often dog-eared National Geographics, which were supposedly educational but provided insights into the truths about adult human bodies, so decorously clothed in everyday life. I also remember pictures of African women with their necks impossibly extended by an accumulation of neck rings.  After the protracted, almost fearful orientation stage of the poem, she plunges from a colon into a collage of photographs which opens with a terrifying, hell-like description of a volcano:

the inside of a volcano,
black, and full of ashes;
then it was spilling over
in rivulets of fire.

This is one of several dizzying and disorienting moments in the poem. Suddenly, it is as if we are no longer in the waiting room but inside the volcano made more terrifying by the active verbs which convey movement despite being based on a still photograph, quite probably in black and white. It functions as a transition and is paralleled by the transition at the end when the protagonist emerges from her altered state back into the here and now of the waiting room:

The waiting room was bright
and too hot. It was sliding
beneath a big black wave,
another, and another.

Then I was back in it.
The War was on. Outside,
in Worcester, Massachusetts,
were night and slush and cold,
and it was still the fifth 
of February, 1918.

The way she presents the return to everyday consciousness in the poem is very different from the metaphor of smashing into a tree in the prose. It is an inward-looking attempt to describe a loss of control or even of consciousness and creates a sense of vertigo and nausea through the blackness of the wave which complements the blackness of the volcano, two elemental and overwhelming images of fire and water.

The volcano is succeeded by a succession of pictures, which could represent the way the little girl turns the pages,[9] focusing mainly on the photographs, despite her reading skills. The impact of these images is to make her recognise her nature as a human, specifically as a human animal and a gendered human animal at that.

Rather strangely, the first image Bishop notes is of Osa and Martin Johnson, ‘dressed in riding breeches,/laced boots, and pith helmets.’  It may be that she is trying to diminish or dismiss gender difference: she names Osa first, and presents the pair in unisex clothing. However, the following pages or images, which show people undressed, defeat this attempt: ‘black, naked women’ with ‘horrifying’ breasts.  It is striking that so many of the images she details are connected to mutilation: ‘A dead man slung on a pole’, ‘Babies with pointed heads/wound round and round with string’, ‘women with necks/ wound round and round by wire’. The impression of humanity which the child is forming is one of ugliness and vulnerability. The theme of pain and mutilation is transferred from the magazine to the dentist’s surgery through the verbal equivalent of a sleight of hand:

Suddenly, from inside,
came an oh! of pain

It is not immediately clear whether the pain has come from inside the magazine or inside the surgery, so that ‘Aunt Consuelo’ is put on a level with the ‘black, naked women’. The choice of name for her may also contribute to this, whether deliberately or not. The change from ‘Jenny’ in the prose, comfortably white Anglo-Saxon, suggests Latino, and a lower, oppressed class, an ‘other’ type of humanity. The ‘othering’ of Aunt Consuelo is intensified when Bishop describes her as ‘a foolish, timid woman’. Being foolish and timid, like having ‘awful hanging breasts’, may be part of the condition of being a woman from which Bishop seeks to detach herself. Almost immediately, the perception of the other is overwhelmed by the perception of sameness:

What took me
completely by surprise
was that it was me:
my voice, in my mouth.
Without thinking at all
I was my foolish aunt

Again, as boundaries blur and disappear in a fusion of first person plural and singular, there is the sense of vertigo: ‘I- we – were falling, falling’.  In the following stanza, Bishop explores further this new confusion over ‘I’, ‘you’ and ‘them’.  She splits herself into ‘I’ and ‘you’ in order to conduct an internal dialogue: ‘I said to myself’; this is a process of ratiocination, used to stave off the existential nausea she is experiencing:

I was saying it to stop
the sensation of falling off
the round, turning world.
into cold, blue-black space.

Although she is thinking, she is thinking with feelings: 

But I felt:[10] you are an I,
you are an Elizabeth,
you are one of them.

Bishop succeeds brilliantly in showing not only the child coming to an awareness but also the terrifying instability of that self. Recognition of self demands the recognition of, and implies the perpetual struggle to maintain separateness from the other. The result is a confusion which resists language:

How–I didn’t know any
word for it–how “unlikely”. . .
How had I come to be here

‘Unlikely’ resonates first because of its inadequacy and understatement and then because of its root which is the theme of the poem, ‘likeness’ and ‘unlikeness’, together with the second meaning of ‘unliking’, not enjoying or not being pleased by something, an emotion which is much stronger here than in the prose. The poem ends as it began, with an orientation. However, in this case, the protagonist is orienting herself, establishing the ‘here and now’ which she has so dizzyingly been removed from.


[1] Quoted by Megan Marshall in A Miracle for Breakfast,2017.

[2] In the Bloodaxe collection of essays, Elizabeth Bishop – Poet of the Periphery, ed. Linda Anderson &Jo Shapcott, 2002, Linda Anderson says that ‘her value seems to elude definition’ while Deryn Rees-Jones admits the ‘mixture of love and resistance’ which has made it hard for her to write about Bishop’s work.

[3] Bishop’s effective use of the sestina and the villanelle have almost won me over to these forms, to which I have previously expressed my antipathy.

[4] Labov’s narrative model
Table and exercise adapted from Sample Unit, Simpson, Paul. Stylistics. London: Routledge, 2005 http://www.routledge.com/textbooks/0415281059/  https://webpages.uncc.edu/~bdavis/LabovHymes.pdf

[5] Bishop’s aunt was not called Jenny or Consuelo.

[6] A dog

[7] Bishop suffered from asthma and eczema.

[8] Letter to Robert Lowell, quoted by Megan Marshall in A Miracle for Breakfast,2017.

[9] Even though the images included may come from a variety of times and sources. The photograph below from Megan Marshall’s biography was taken by Bishop in her exploration of the interior of Brazil in 1958. ‘Pointy-headed babies’ is probably also an image from the South America. The Olmec people of Mexico apparently bound their babies’ heads to produce a shape like an ear of corn. (Neil MacGregor, History of the World in 100 Objects, Radio 4, repeated 27.08.2020)

[10] My underlining

W.B. Yeats: quarrelling with himself

‘We make out of the quarrel with others, rhetoric, but of the quarrel with ourselves, poetry.’[1]

Yeats

This famous statement by W.B. Yeats reflects the appeal of his most powerful poems. The poems which I go back to or am rediscovering often possess this quality of emerging from the writer’s internal struggle, which not only elicits an emotional empathy but also creates a dynamic which carries the poem forward. It is this sense of struggle that I responded to as I reread Eliot’s Four Quartets and which I recognise again in Yeats.

 

I was brought up on Yeats, particularly the early poetry and the drama, so, in one sense, his work feels as if it were part of my DNA.  On the other hand, I find many of his ideas antipathetic, offensive or just plain daft, and I have no wish to immerse myself in them.  I have read many demolitions of his romantic ideas about big houses and the role of the aristocracy as well as articles challenging his status as an Irish writer, given his Protestant Ascendancy background, and these have flavoured my attitude over the years. Rereading him now, I recognise that he belongs indisputably, wilfully and complicatedly, to Irish history and culture; I recognise also the heights of sheer brilliance he reaches in language; finally, I recognise and respond to the element of struggle which runs through so much of his poetry but which is perhaps most apparent in his later work.

 

At a philosophical level, this struggle has been described as dialectic, a process which Yeats inherited from the Romantics, most particularly William Blake, who remained one of his heroes and whose work he championed: ‘Without contraries, there is no progression’. At the emotional level, we might think of Keats and his ‘Ode to a Grecian Urn’, where the conflict between the desire for the ageless immortality of art is set against the warm but fragile flesh: ‘breathing human passion’ versus ‘Cold pastoral”. Keats’ poem seems very much a fore-runner of Yeats’ ‘Sailing to Byzantium’.

 

Given the breadth, depth, range and sometimes passionately controversial nature of writing on Yeats, I feel reluctant to offer any analysis of his work beyond an attempt to explore this idea of personal struggle or felt conflict in a few poems. ‘The Stolen Child’ is a very early poem which I have a vague memory of reciting in choral speaking lessons at school and the chorus remains in my head:

Come away, O human child!

            To the waters and the wild

            With a faery, hand in hand,

            For the world’s more full of weeping than you

 can understand.

Aside from its wisps of Celtic Twilight, the poem presents the conflicting attractions of the purity and primacy of Nature with the comforts and sociability of human society. The Nature which is shown is that of Ancient pre-Christian Ireland, rich in wildlife and fruit.  As in Keats’ faery world in ‘La Belle Dame Sans Merci’, nothing here is cooked; only in the last stanza, which describes the world the child is leaving, is there mention of human crafts and artefacts: ‘the kettle on the hob’ and the oatmeal-chest’.  The ancient but persisting natural world is offered as an escape from the trials of human life which the child has not yet experienced. Yet all the attractions of the outdoor faery world which stretches from lake to hill to ocean and which is mapped in Irish place names, ‘Sleuth Wood’, ‘the Rosses’, ‘Glencar’ are matched by the security and warmth of the limited homestead evoked with yearning in the final stanza:

He’ll hear no more the lowing

Of the calves on the warm hillside

The poem opposes the longing for freedom, space and unity with Nature or what is beyond to the physical and joys and pains of being human.

 

In ‘When You are Old and Grey and Full of Sleep’, Yeats’ version of a sonnet by Ronsard, Love (or the rejected poet) ‘fled/ And paced upon the mountains overhead/And hid his face amid a crowd of stars’. Although the opening of the poem follows Ronsard quite closely, in these final lines Yeats moves away from the French which has a carpe diem theme:

Vivez, si m’en croyez, n’attendez à demain:

Cueillez dès aujourd’hui les roses de la vie.

 

Yeats, on the other hand, shows both lover and beloved left wanting. The beloved woman is left with nothing but dreams of the past as she nods by the fireside, while the lover/poet has retreated to what is lofty and beautiful, the mountains, stars and grandeur of nature but has lost the possibility of physical human love and companionship.

 

The dialogue or debate poem has a long history in the context of Christianity, where, as Marvell put it, the ‘resolved soul’ is in conflict with ‘created pleasure’.  This struggle between the soul’s heavenward aspirations and the physical joys of materiality reappears, minus the Christianity, in ‘A Dialogue of Self and Soul’ published in The Winding Stair and Other Poems, in 1933, when Yeats was already in his sixties.  The conflict between Self and Soul in this poem has variously been described as between intellect and lust, mind and body, life and death.  Part 1 of the poem is self-consciously embellished with Yeatsian tropes such as Sato’s sword, ‘emblematical of love and war’ or ‘the tower/Emblematical of the night.’ Most of this part of the poem could be described in Yeats’ own terms as ‘rhetoric’.  The argument is balanced and the language and pace stately rather than passionate. There are vague expressions such as ‘the basin of the mind’ and reference to philosophical abstractions such ‘Is’ and ‘Ought’ which signal but do not evoke. In places, the passion and the poetry break through and in doing so, reveal the poet’s profound ambivalence.  “The winding ancient stair’ is a symbol Yeats chose to make real in his purchase of the tower at Ballylee. The paired adjectives ‘winding, ancient’, ‘broken, crumbling, ‘breathless, starlit’ accentuate the difficulty of this ascent.  ‘Breathless’ seems ominous, foreshadowing death, while the darkness ‘where all thought is done’ and is finally indistinguishable from the soul signifies the annihilation of the individual self.  The soul seeks its own extinction, something the self recoils from. Indeed, such is the self’s rejection of the soul that it is banished from the second part of the poem, where the passion of the ‘living man’ shines through. Yeats seems to be considering the possibility of some form of reincarnation where the unredeemed or unenlightened self would have to repeat his life. The first stanza of Part II is a rending recapitulation of childhood and growing up which through its devastating frankness becomes recognisable beyond that individual self and time:

 

 

What matter if I live it all once more?

Endure that toil of growing up;

The ignominy of boyhood; the distress

Of boyhood changing into man;

The unfinished man and his pain

Brought face to face with his own clumsiness;

 

Here is the sense of struggle and of pain which makes us cherish the poem; in the third stanza, he continues to switch between relish and disgust: ‘I am content to live it all again… to pitch into the frog-spawn of a blind man’s ditch.’ This is the very antithesis of ‘starlit air’ or ‘beautiful, lofty things’, but there is pleasure and even profit in it as revealed by the surprising adjective ‘fecund’: ‘that most fecund ditch of all,/The folly that man does/Or must suffer, if he woos/ A proud woman not kindred of his soul.’  Isn’t this another way of saying that poetry comes out of personal conflict?

 

At the end of the poem, in the view of Carol Rumens, ‘the poet finds resolution by discarding remorse in favour of self-forgiveness’. She applauds the conclusion`:

The final, gloriously childlike “We must laugh and we must sing” rings out after all the turbulence like the Ode to Joy at the end of Beethoven’s ninth symphony.[2]

However, I am less convinced by the ending; it is not so easy to banish remorse and the language which is a reprise of Blake’s  ‘For everything that lives is holy’ sounds forced:

We are blest by everything,                                                                                                 Everything we look upon is blest.

‘Forgiv[ing yourself] the lot’ can only be a very temporary sweetness and is only convincing in the presence of its contrary.

In ‘Sailing to Byzantium’ from the earlier collection, The Tower (1928), the overt opposition is between the mortal, subject to age and decay, and the supposed ‘artifice of eternity’. The poet seeks to escape the natural world and the aging process by moving to Byzantium where he will be transformed into a singing golden bird.  This resolution is obviously faulty since the equation of artifice with eternity is false. In the story of The Emperor and the Nightingale by Hans Christian Anderson, the artificial singing bird breaks, and we know that works of art are subject to decay, even if the process is slower than in nature. Behind this desire to be transformed into a work of art, we hear the demands of Soul to survive the body it is shackled to: ‘An aged man is but a paltry thing…unless/Soul clap its hands and sing’. However, the real quarrel the poet has with himself in this poem is revealed in the phrase where he describes his heart as ‘sick with desire’.  The sickness of desire is produced from the powerful conflict between desiring and desiring not to desire. Despite conjuring the sages to ‘consume [his] heart away’, the strength of desire and the poet’s longing to be able to fulfil his desires are displayed in the gorgeous lines of the first stanza:

 

That is no country for old men. The young

In one another’s arms, birds in the trees,

—Those dying generations—at their song,

The salmon-falls, the mackerel-crowded seas,

Fish, flesh, or fowl, commend all summer long

Whatever is begotten, born, and dies.

Caught in that sensual music all neglect

Monuments of unageing intellect.

 

Compared to the abundant list of living things, the monuments of intellect seem stony and unappealing even when, as if for reassurance, they are referred to again in the next stanza. Yet, as the poem proceeds, it enacts itself as a ‘monument of magnificence’. From his quarrel with his own mortality and the effects of age, Yeats creates a splendid fiction. We do not need to believe in Byzantium, the golden bird, or the poet’s elaborately constructed philosophical system; the bird of ‘hammered gold and gold enamelling’ is the metaphor for what the poem becomes.

 

‘Nineteen Hundred and Nineteen’ is a difficult poem on whose interpretation no two critics seem to agree[3]. Although it reflects feelings of disappointment, anger and horror in its “Thoughts upon the Present State of the World’ (the original title), it may be regarded as rhetorical in that the poet’s quarrel here is more with the times than with himself. It is significant that the dominant personal pronoun is ‘we’ as he places himself alongside his peers who, in the days before World War 1, before the Eastern Rising, before the Civil War, hoped and planned for a better world, ‘but now/ That winds of winter blow/ Learn that we were crack-pated when we dreamed’. Set against these regrets is Yeats’ belief in historical repetition which he expresses elsewhere in his theory of the gyres and alludes to here with his reference to ‘the Platonic year’ which ‘Whirls out new right and wrong,/Whirls in the old instead’.  This poem has much in common with ‘The Second Coming’ with which it shares the expectation of the end of an era and the advent of a new barbarism, but it would be wrong to call either apocalyptic since they do not anticipate the end of time but its continuation, albeit in unwelcome ways.

 

The first person singular ‘I’ only appears in the third section of the poem; the poet declares his satisfaction with the comparison of the solitary soul to a swan, describing the image he would choose:

The wings half spread for flight,

The breast thrust out in pride

Whether to play, or to ride

Those winds that clamour of approaching night.

This is an odd image for the soul, in that it seems both egotistical and supremely physical. The reader cannot but be reminded of ‘Leda and the Swan’ which appears in the same volume. This is perhaps where the quarrels with himself re-emerge, in the conflict between the spiritual and intellectual search to divest selfhood and the temporal in the journey towards death: ‘if our works could/But vanish with our breath/That were a lucky death’, an idea which seems at variance with the assertive image of the swan. The poet switches from the quietist idea of ‘ghostly solitude’ to an annihilating rage ‘to end all things’. In the same way, we feel the pull between public and private: this poem is a public statement, a verdict on the times, made by someone who has been involved in public life; at the same time, it is private, even esoteric.  The end of the poem is prophetic and rhetorical but filled with references to Yeats’ own elaborate and almost hermetic system of symbols. The last five lines seem to undermine their threat by the obscure reference to Robert Artisson and Lady Kyteler[4], so that the poem is simultaneously public and private. The final line, with its suggestion of perverted sexuality and black magic, evokes a brutal return of barbarism and irrationality, but through symbols of male beauty. Is this another way of saying the noble will be sacrificed to the rogues and rascals, that ‘ingenious and lovely things’ will be lost? If so, it is revelatory of the cast of Yeats’ mind rather than the conclusion to his argument.

Helen Vendler says that where ‘Sailing to Byzantium’ is philosophical, ‘Among School Children’ is autobiographic. Certainly, it is a poem where Yeats looks back over his life, although the autobiographical elements have been scripted for dramatic effect. I find Vendler’s reading of the poem convincing, so I will hold back from extended comment. In the first stanza Yeats seems self-conscious and ill at ease in his skin as he presents himself from the outside, ‘A sixty-year-old smiling public man’. The ‘comfortable kind of old scarecrow’ which the world sees is at odds with the poet’s passionate and self-tormenting memories and reflections. The increasing sense of the futility of all human endeavour and activity is arrested in the final stanza where in Vendler’s words there is

a massive re-conceiving of life. Hitherto, life has been indexed by its two determining points- its promising inception and its betrayed close. Now, with a mighty effort, Yeats begins to think of life in two new ways.[5]

The two images he turns to in celebration of creativity and the life force are the chestnut tree and the dancer.

O chestnut tree, great rooted blossomer,

Are you the leaf, the blossom or the bole?

O body swayed to music, O brightening glance,

How can we know the dancer from the dance?

Although these lines are famous as an affirmation of life, they are almost disjunct from the rest of the poem and the fact that they are framed as questions suggests that they represent a hope or an aspiration rather than a certainty. The struggle and disillusion, the bruised body, the beauty born out of despair, the blear-eyed wisdom, all survive into the last stanza.

 

There is a recording on You Tube[6] of Yeats reading his own poetry where he refuses to read his work as if it were prose, because it took him ‘a devil of a lot of trouble’ to get it into verse.  I don’t think he was just talking about versification. What I value in Yeats is the sense that a resolution like that in ‘Among School Children’ has been hard fought for in a battle to shape his disparate and messy realities into an art which is the product of life, not distinct from it.

 

 

[1] ‘Anima Hominis’ in Per Amica Silentia Lunae, 1918.

[2] Poem of the Week, The Guardian, Monday, 11th February, 2008

[3] See, for example, Eamonn Dunne in J.Hillis Miller and the Possibilities of Reading: Literature after Deconstruction,(Bloomsbury ,USA, 2010) and Foshay, Toby A., and Toby A. Forshay. “Yeats’s ‘Nineteen Hundred and Nineteen’: Chronology, Chronography and Chronic Misreading.” The Journal of Narrative Technique, vol. 13, no. 2, 1983, pp. 100–108. JSTOR, http://www.jstor.org/stable/30225063. Accessed 13 July 2020.

 

[4] Yeats did provide an explanatory note when the collection first appeared, but the last lines remain vague in their menace, although they seem eerily prescient in the present trepidatious times:

There lurches past, his great eyes without thought

Under the shadow of stupid straw-pale locks,

That insolent fiend…’

[5] Helen Vendler, ‘The Later Poetry’ in The Cambridge Companion to W.B. Yeats edited by Marjorie Howes and John Kelly, C.U.P., 2006.

[6] https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=u2FT4_UUa4I

Changing my mind about Fothermather

 

In the most recent edition of the poetry magazine, Acumen, Patricia Oxley comments in her editorial on the nature of the submissions she had been receiving since the outbreak of Covid-19. She contrasts “‘clever-clever’ poems which needed the cryptic brain of The Times crossword solver” and “poems of warmth and contact”.  Although this is a very blunt distinction, we know instinctively what she means, and we can shuffle much of contemporary poetry into one pack or the other. Reducing the categorisation to an even more basic level, we could describe this as the difference between poets who prioritise form and those who prioritise content.  At this point, the distinction reveals itself as false, since, in Robert Creeley’s adage, ‘form is never more than an extension of content.’ Creeley modified this statement in a radio interview in 2003:

What I meant, whatever that means, is that what’s coming to be said — it’s like William Carlos Williams’ wonderful insistence, “How to get said what must be said…” — that need, that impulse, that demand, is what I would call the content’s finding a form for its own realization, recognition, substantiation.[1]

 

For some contemporary writers, form or language have themselves become content because they have recognised that neither language nor the form in which it is organised can be transparent windows on content.  However, sometimes the preoccupation with language will have an alienating effect if the reader is unable to perceive a shared experience. A number of very successful contemporary poets have pursued their interest to language to a point where, although neither their intelligence nor their skills are in doubt, their audiences may lose patience, feeling they are being asked merely to solve riddles rather than engage with a perception of the world.

 

This long preamble is an attempt to express my own contradictory feelings about the poetry I read and how I feel poetry should be written.  I have been drawn to experimental and avant-garde writing and endorse the exploration of new ways of saying. However, sometimes it seems that poems become so concerned with the mechanisms of language as to become almost totally self-reflexive and therefore impenetrable. The concepts may be interesting but often the poems are not. Nevertheless, I find this kind of formalism more interesting than another contemporary trend which is the production of poems in traditional European, more exotic or even invented forms where success is often measured in obedience to strict rules.  The first time I read a specular poem, which was Julia Copus’ ‘Miss Jenkins’,[2] I thought it ingenious and intriguing.  Now, I simply find these poems irritating. And why, I ask myself, except as an exercise, would anyone want to write a sestina? The very best of these contemporary efforts disguise their form or offer variations of it, as Paul Muldoon has, over a poetic lifetime, offered variations on the sonnet.

 

While I may be frustrated by my failure to grasp or appreciate some of the more linguistically experimental poets, the poems of  warmth and contact’ are often worthy but dull, exploring relationships with humans and often with nature but in language which is unironically clichéd. The best, or at least the most interesting, poets continue to push formal and linguistic boundaries but at the same time they do have something to say.

 

Perhaps you need to have time on your hands to give difficult poetry the attention it deserves. Since I retired, I have revisited the work of Paul Muldoon and Medbh McGuckian, reading them with much more enjoyment and appreciation. Muldoon’s poetry, in particular, has been a revelation as I have gone from considering him an irritating clever-clogs to a deeply serious poet who uses his huge range of reference and idiosyncratic sense of humour to present poems which are (often, not always) intellectually and emotionally profound.

 

I was intrigued, therefore, when I read a brief notice of Fothermather, a pamphlet-length poem, by Gail McConnell.(Ink Sweat and Tears, 2019)  It seemed that this was a poet who, like Muldoon and McGuckian, had something to say but who was choosing new ways of saying it.  When I read the blurb on the back of the book, I became slightly apprehensive. There was the endorsement from Vahni Capildeo, currently the darling of the poetry establishment and herself highly experimental[3]. There were the references to concrete forms and erasure which warned that this was not going to be straightforward to read.

My first reaction to the work was disappointment. It seemed too elitist, too self-indulgent, too based on the writer’s own range of reference devoid of explication. However, when I picked up the book again, I felt I had been wrong. Certainly, there is much in it which eludes me; at the same time, I became aware of strength of feeling and a refusal to compromise on the difficult, either emotionally or intellectually.

 

McConnell experiments with form in the struggle to discover or create her identity in relation to her son of whom she is neither the biological father or mother through a series of reflections on his gestation and birth. At times she resorts to traditional forms such as the sonnet and the villanelle, both of which she executes with great skill. Here, the difficulty of the formal task is matched by the difficulty of what is trying to be said, so that the poems go far beyond mere technical fireworks. Her sonnet “Shell Notes’ derives from a poem by Francis Ponge, a recurrent presence in the sequence, but the poem is self-sufficient and does not require knowledge of the French poet.[4] In it, McConnell explores ideas about form and substance in the context of her own efforts to reimagine forms and create names for new relationships. She takes the image of a skull ‘at sea’ which recalls Shakespeare’s ‘Full fathom five’ and another idea of the father; the skull adapts to become a shell, or shelter for a ‘not-too-social mollusk’, thus becoming a mother rather than a father. Shell as womb occurs in other poems.  The fluidity of form signalled in the octave gives rise to ‘uneasiness’, so the sestet proceeds to demonstrate how all form is taken or adapted from somewhere else: ‘Adjustment is true/genius. Less man from ape, than boy from body.’ The final line is an image of physical childbirth, but it is also a linguistic parturition which may reflect the poet’s ambition to establish a non-biological way of parenting her son which grows out of language and through this sequence of poems.

The Freud erasure poem is also extremely successful, partly because it is so very much a willed and authored piece.  Some erasure poems employ randomising rules for how the rubber is used, but in this one McConnell is clearly challenging a statement by Freud that she finds troubling and problematic: ‘I cannot think of any need in childhood as strong as the need for a father’s protection.’ The poem appears in two versions on facing pages; in the first, erasure is employed to explore a relationship with a missing father, and it is relevant to know that McConnell’s own father was murdered in front of her when she was three years old.  The erasures are skilfully chosen to create a moving sense of loss which manages to subvert itself:

 

I                       a                                                                                  father

need

 

da

da

 

 

Sigmund Freud

 

The double meaning of dada is unlikely to be coincidental.[5] The poem continues, on the second page, to offer an entirely different version of gender, based on the curious example of the male seahorse who gestates his partner’s eggs.  The seahorse, which is the image on the front cover, is an emblem of range in gender roles and in parenting. This section of the poem begins and ends with a series of bubbles or non-verbal ‘o’s in upper and lower case which are visually extremely effective.

 

The aim of McConnell’s sequence is to celebrate the arrival of her son, ‘Finn, the brilliantist’ and to discover or establish a way of being towards that son which adapts, reshapes and challenges received ideas about parenthood. It is not, however, a propaganda poem for same sex parents, but the deeply felt quest of an individual to work out her relationship with the child of whom she is neither father nor mother in any traditional sense, yet with whom she clearly feels a very strong bond, to an extent where I felt slightly sorry for the partner and biological mother who is barely addressed and almost excluded. The poet creates linguistic links based on poems, on etymological explorations of words, including the child’s name, ‘Finn’, which imitate the absent DNA inheritance.

 

The poem convinces because it is not propaganda and because it deals with the difficult and in so dealing it pushes the limits of traditional and more avant-garde poetic conventions. The poet wants to bring into words something that has not yet been said and my own initial reaction was most probably a defensive one. McConnell has made me confront ideas that I find difficult and unsettling and along the way she has forced me to find out more about a lot of things, from Ponge to the sex life of cuttlefish. (I already knew Captain Calamari!)

 

[1] https://jacket2.org/commentary/robert-creeley-conversation-leonard-schwartz

[2] The World’s Two Smallest Humans, Julia Copus, Faber, 2012

[3] Capildeo is also a poet who definitely has things to say, but whose work may have encouraged a shoal of poetasters who do not.

[4] Incidentally, Ponge also appears in Still Life, the valedictory collection by Ciaran Carson, a more senior Belfast poet and colleague of McConnell. Still Life is a wonderful book, which I recommend without qualification.

[5] The lineation is difficult to reproduce accurately.