Happy New Year. Can it be the 8th already? Here’s hoping that 2022 will be better than its two predecessors. It’s more than two years since I have been to a poetry reading and I really miss those in person encounters with the art of the poem.
Today I am looking at a few stanzas from some favourite works because sometimes only poetry will do.
Starting with Sylvia Plath. This extract from her poem ‘Wuthering Heights’ based on her experiences in Yorkshire where Ted Hughes family lived. This poem was composed in 1961 and published in Crossing the Water (1971). In this stanza, I feel, lies poetic sheep made manifest.
The sheep know where they are,
browsing in their dirty wool clouds,
gray as the weather
The black slots of their pupils take me in.
It is like being mailed into space,
a thin, silly message.
They stand about in grandmotherly disguise,
all wig curls and yellow teeth
and hard, marbly baas.
From ‘Wuthering Heights’, Sylvia Plath, Collected Poems. Faber.
I especially love the image of being ‘mailed into space’. So redolent of the sort of vacuum you feel when you look at a sheep and it looks back at you but seems to see nothing.
Human beings have a sense of purpose, a mission, or at least wish for one. This sense of knowing where , how and what we should be doing with out lives, animals don’t – as far as we know – have the same sense of mission. But they have something else instead – a survival instinct or something deeper and purer?
Walt Whitman knew this.
I think I could turn and live awhile with the animals, they are so placid and self-contained,
I stand and look at them sometimes half the day long.
They do not sweat and whine about their condition,
They do not lie awake in the dark and weep for their sins,
They do not make me sick discussing their duty to God,
Not one is dissatisfied… not one is demented with the mania of owning things…
Extract from Leaves of Grass (150th Anniversary Ed. OUP 2005)
Few poets understand the natural world the way that Mary Oliver does. Here is an extract from her poem ‘The Turtle’.
……and you think
Of her patience, her fortitude
Her determination to complete
What she was born to do –
And then you realise a greater thing –
She doesn’t consider
what she was born to do.
She’s only filled
with an old, blind wish.
It isn’t even hers but came to her
In the rain or soft wind
Which is a gate through which her life keeps walking.
Mary Oliver. New and Selected Poems (Vol 1 Beacon Press).
I love that line ‘she doesn’t consider what she was born to do’ and the natural instinct to survive and procreate described as ‘an old, blind wish’. Could there be a more apt description?
It must be five years or more since I heard Alice Oswald read at the Southbank. She read her long poem Tithonus (46 Minutes in the Life of a Dawn), intended to be experienced in performance over 46 minutes, as in the period of a sunrise in her native Devon. This poem was subsequently published in her collection Falling Awake (Cape, 2016). A spellbinding reading which everyone present would surely remember. I certainly do. Oswald was so exhausted afterwards she could barely sign the copies of her books for which hundreds of us enthusiastically queued.
Here is an extract from ‘Thrift, from her collection Weeds and Wildflowers (Faber 2009) which is only partially about flowers:
But she worked she worked
To the factory rhythm
Of the sea’s boredom.
Its bouts of atheism.
And by the weekend
Set up a stall
Of paper flowers
And sold them all.
So she made substance out of
Lack of substance.
Hard of hearing
She thrived on silence.
Finally, if the thought of another plague year and the appalling weather and the eco-crisis are proving a little too much
here is some advice from John Keats, less on how to cope, more on how to hope.
Therefore on every morrow, are we wreathing
A flowery band to bind us to the earth
Spite of despondence, of the inhuman dearth
Of noble natures, of the gloomy days
Of all the unhealthy and o-er darkened ways
made for our searching: yes, in spite of all
Some shape of beauty moves way the pall
From our dark spirits….
Endymion, Book 1. John Keats, Selected by Andrew Motion (Faber, 2000)