October’s Poems

As we will see over the course of this month, animals feature heavily in literature and poetry is no exception.  We write about animals, about animals and us and use animals as metaphors to say things which otherwise would be very difficult.

Phillip Larkin, 1977, The Little Lives Of Earth And Form

The little lives of earth and form,
Of finding food, and keeping warm,
Are not like ours, and yet
A kinship lingers nonetheless:
We hanker for the homeliness
Of den, and hole, and set.

And this identity we feel
– Perhaps not right, perhaps not real –
Will link us constantly;
I see the rock, the clay, the chalk,
The flattened grass, the swaying stalk,
And it is you I see.

This ties in nicely with the question about whether humans are animals, in this case Larkin is looking more broadly and declaring that humans are a part of nature, not apart.

It has a nice lyrical feel to it and shares a similar message to that of Wordsworth, both valuing nature and seeing humans within nature. It also places value on a simpler way of life, one that is concerned with day to day needs.  Like Wordsworth, Larkin draws the readers attention to the little, every day things – the rock, the clay, the chalk – and imbues them with greater significance and meaning.

If nature erected walls, Tanya Cliff

I enjoyed this poem alongside some of the themes I’ve looked at this month.  In particular it chimes strongly with one of the articles I read about humans and nature.

It casts nature in the role of an artist and asks what she would chose to leave out of her masterpiece.  Inevitably, whilst Cliff doesn’t answer the question explicitly, the message is that humans would be the ones kept out.

This poem also reminded me of the dingo fence.  It is a huge fence in Australia which is designed to keep dingoes out of certain areas.  Work on it was started when British arrived and started trying to control the world they found themselves in.  Up until that point, Australians had been living alongside dingo and whilst I’m not saying it was an easy relationship, it was one which accepted other lifeforms.

The Fox, Simon Armitage, 1996

The discussion around the poem in the Independent article probably says most of what I was going to so I won’t!  When I first read the poem, I didn’t know that there is a constellation called the fox and that knowledge really helped.  It actually features in a collection that is focused on the stars so reading it in context probably adds a lot.

I like the honest humanness to this poem.  The starry, sky fox comes down to the earth and so close to our own lives that we could “hit it…with a stone”.  But instead of revering it or romanticising it, Armitage tells of the damage the fox has done whilst also emphasising the physical proximity of man and fox.  The violent, unforgiving ending, harsh as it may seem to the reader is one which echoes our wider feelings of nature and our impact.  We seem to be emotionally disconnected and apathetic towards death of animals and even extinctions pass us by, mostly unnoted or uncared about, with the exception of those animals we deem particularly cute.

What we lose, Kate Tempest

This is one of those apparently simple poets which I return to over and over.  The premise is that as we get older, the gulf between humans and animals grows wider.  As I’ve already mentioned a bit, children’s books are filled with animals and we befriend these characters and they help us navigate the world as we grow up.  And then, one day we turn around and find ourselves disconnected from nature.

I read Tempest’s poem with an air of sadness but as I said, it’s deceptively simple, so I can’t point to any words or images which show this, it is just a feeling that comes through the poem.  It leaves me with a heavy, regretful feeling.  And a longing to return as much as possible to that childhood state.

On being eaten by a snake, Susan Wicks, 1994

I don’t really like sharing poems when I don’t have copyright so where possible I try to link to the poem (except where they’re older poems which are absolutely everywhere).  Normally I can find a version somewhere but not this one…

Knowing they are not poisonous
I kneel on the path to watch it
Between poppies by a crown of nasturtiums,
The grey-stripe body almost half as long
As my own body. The formless black head
Rearing, swaying, the wide black lips seeming
To smile at me. And I see
That the head is not a head,
The slit I have seen as mouth
Is not a mouth, the frilled black under-lips
Not lips, but another creature dying; I see
How the snake’s own head is narrow and delicate,
How it slides its mouth up and then back
With love, stretched to this shapelessness
As if with love.  The sun stroking
The slug’s wet skin as it hangs
In the light, resting so that even the victim
Must surely feel pleasures, the dark ripple
Of neck that is not neck lovely
As the slug is sucked backwards
To the belly that is not belly, the head
That is merely head
Shrinking to nameable proportions.

This is one poem in a collection about Wicks’s illness and was written during a reprieve, something which I feel really adds to the reading of it.  We start with the declaration that the snake is not poisonous, perhaps a statement about the respite from her illness?  The start of the poem talks of bodies; she kneels, there is the grey-stripe body, her own body and a formless black head.  As someone who has chronic illness, I enjoyed this last image in particular.  Illness can certainly feel like a formless thing.  Especially if it is undiagnosed or unpredictable or unreliable – you cannot manage or fight with something formless.

And then, the poem pivots.  The midline sentence end takes us from what she sees to her realising that what she sees is not how things are. Another parallel with illness – I regularly doubt my own health, thinking I’m not as bad as I am, or seeing through the eyes of depression which do the opposite of rose tinted glasses.

From here, we discover nothing is as it first seemed.  She also shapes this image of a snake eating a slug into something sensual and dreamy.  There are a lot of s sounds – “slides it’s mouth”, “slugs wet skin”, “slug is sucked” – which add to this sexuality and echo the hissing sound of the snake.  The event ends with the “dark ripple of the neck” which feels to me like a metaphor for an orgasm which is followed by the “head shrinking to nameable proportions”.  Obviously this has one particular sexual interpretation.  But returning to the running symbolism of illness, to be able to name your illness is powerful and to have it in suitable proportions makes a huge difference.  The formless, intangible, overwhelming beast has become something you can handle and label.

I found the snake in this poem a fascinating metaphor.  Snakes are associated with the medical profession and with healing as well as with change and transformation.  There is also an element of the unknown, most of us in the UK don’t regularly see snakes or interact with them.

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September Poems: My poetry

To get me started again, I’ve used a few tools and exercises to warm up the poetry part of my mind and soul.

Playing with form

Mslexia has a regular column for specific poetry forms and the back issues I was catching up on looked at triolets and palidromes.

Triolet

A triolet is made up of 8 lines, each 8 syllables, with the rhyming pattern ABAAABAB. The first line reoccurs as the fourth and seventh, the second line as the eighth.  It’s been a long time since I wrote poetry and much longer since I used any sort of structure so this was quite the challenge!  I didn’t expect it to be as hard as it was though.

Seasons rolled over as I slept;
Autumn golds, heavy skies roll on
From lazy days; I mourned, I wept.
Seasons rolled over as I slept.
I grieved for dreams that went undreamt
Under hazy skies now long gone.
Seasons rolled over as I slept
Autumn golds, heavy skies, roll on…

Palindrome

A palindrome is a a poem which has a pivot point and then reverses itself, both words and lines are reversed.  And wow is that tough.  I think just the lines reversed would be hard but reversing the words as well!  Eek!

The Turn of The Year

Autumn and
Leaves falling
Reaching
Outstretched arms
Twirling, twisting
Like turning year

Rising and falling
Falling and rising

Year turning like
Twisting, twirling
Arms outstretched
Reaching
Falling leaves
And autumn

Jam jar poetry

There may be an actual name for this but basically, I have written a collection of words, mostly but not all about nature, and put them in a jar. Every so often I sit and pull out one or two, or a handful, and see what poems arise.

In the event of my death,
Take a pilgrimage to the secluded
Decaying bench;

Weathered, overgrown and black as pitch.
Hunt out the fallen stones with
Pounding breath.

I am here.

I am not fluttering candle light.
I am not silken eggshell.
I am not the wishes from shooting stars.

I am heart broken bones.
I am gnarled, discarded antlers.
I am the echo from a forest of dead wood.

In the event of my death,
Take a pilgrimage to the secluded
Decaying bench;

I am here.

It has also produced fragments which I hope to develop at some stage:

The winter magic twists sunbeams to night

The image of roadkill scratches and scritches like a grain of sand in a wound.

Twisted dead wood rusts away to powder

September’s Poems

So having established what nature writing is, I wanted to do some of my own.  I’ve been gathering prompts and ideas for a few weeks and have decided to focus mostly on poetry.  As such, I’ve read a number of nature poems and decided on a handful to look at more closely:

I’ve chosen poems from a range of dates since the Romanticism era so that I can consider a range of styles and contents.  I don’t intend to write long critques of these poems but in order to help me consider them more careful, I have written down some thoughts.

Derry Derry Down, Seamus Heaney

I love the use of syllables in this poem. We have the one syllable rhyming words – lush, blush, bush – which are interspersed with words which linger on the tongue a little longer – gooseberry, unforbidden. This primal, lustful part contrasts with the fairytale-esque depiction in the remainder of the poem; storybook, sleeping beauty.

All Nature Has a Feeling, John Clare

All nature has a feeling: woods, fields, brooks
Are life eternal: and in silence they
Speak happiness beyond the reach of books;
There’s nothing mortal in them; their decay
Is the green life of change; to pass away
And come again in blooms revivified.
Its birth was heaven, eternal it its stay,
And with the sun and moon shall still abide
Beneath their day and night and heaven wide.

Apparently this is quite a popular funeral poem… I haven’t yet found a date for the poem but Clare was alive between 1793-1864 and for context William Wordsworth was born in 1770 and died in 1850. The poem echoes the themes from The Tables Turned, opening up the reader to the natural world and guiding them away from books. However, unlike Wordsworth, Clare was not an educated man and thus his call to nature instead of learning feels more accessible to the common person and does not have the irony of The Tables Turned.

Clare talks of nature as a sentient being, one which is always changing but will never die. This theme of cycles and rebirth is one which comes up in a lot of nature writing and one which most of us can relate to or feel inspired or comforted by.

“Nature” is What We See, Emily Dickinson

“Nature” is what we see—
The Hill—the Afternoon—
Squirrel—Eclipse— the Bumble bee—
Nay—Nature is Heaven—
Nature is what we hear—
The Bobolink—the Sea—
Thunder—the Cricket—
Nay—Nature is Harmony—
Nature is what we know—
Yet have no art to say—
So impotent Our Wisdom is
To her Simplicity.

NB, A bobolink is a type of bird with a lovely tune.

Defining nature was one of my key aims this month so it was only appropriate that I included this poem. I really like the way that Dickinson plucks at definitions and discards them as being unsuitable. There is a quality about it that, even though it is more than a list, reads as a list. A ticking off of things which nature is not. Finding she cannot use that particular sense to find nature, she moves on to a new list. And eventually gives up. The poem itself appears simple but Dickinson’s use of language means it is more than what it first seems, like many good poems. The ordering of her images means we are constantly moving between small and large and thus she cleverly illustrates the vast diversity of nature. The delicate twinkle of the Bobolink contrasts with the strong and powerful sound of the sea.

The Causeway, Lindesfarne, Emily Dee

I love the texture in this poem, the crisp frost, the gritty sand, the soft, slithery snail. They really help me feel part of the place, and they focus me in on the detail and then the tearful seals raising their heads to the sky throw me wide.

The last two lines of this poem stunned me. The moon as a silent engine, how powerful and how Dee has taken this incredibly natural, almost untouchable, entity and turned it on its head with the use of the word engine, a word which summons up man made, functionality.

Dee was 17 when she was one of the winners of the Foyle Young Poets of the Year Award 2016.

William Wordsworth: Poetry, People and Place (Week 2)

See also Week One of  Future Learn: William Wordsworth, Poetry, People and Place

Week two

This week is looking at the Prelude.  It is a long, autobiographical poem which Wordsworth worked on for a lot of his life, revising, editing and changing as he changed.  Because it spanned a significant part of his life, it can show us how Wordsworth evolved and how his writing developed over time.  As part of the course, in addition to looking at the poems, we’ve been able to look at the manuscripts which provide interesting insight into Wordsworth’s writing process.

In particular we’ve been looking at three extracts; Was It For This, Spots of Time and Boat Stealing.

Spots of time

This extract is Wordsworth telling us his theory about life, that there are “spots of time” which may seem insignificant but which will turn out to be important. These might be intense emotional experiences which can be recalled and bring strength and relief and restoration to the mind.  They bring together our past and our present. The moments themselves will turn out to bear fruit and have value later down the line.

My spots of time

Sitting on roughly poured concrete,
now set. Soil leaks from the strawberry patch
and baby hands reach out.

…ten years on, same spot,
no strawberries, concrete replaced by paving slabs.
A butterfly flutters and lands and rests
on a teenage hand.

Connection for the unconnected.

***

Dead fox. Oldest sister.
Duty calls a soldier.

Stand guard.

Youngest sister released.
Fetch back up. (Please hurry).

Eerie. Uncomfortable.
There is no protocol.

No training has prepared
or taught how best to act.

Stand guard.

Watch over russet corpse.

Stand guard.

Watch over the dead fox.

Stand guard.

(Please hurry).

And when it blinks, do not scream.
There is no instruction guide.
And no one told this small child
that death moves within the dead.

Boat Stealing

DSC_0492
Boats on Derwent Water

In Boat Stealing, Wordsworth is describing one of his own spots of time.  At this point in the course, having already engaged in discussion and creative exercises, we are asked to write a short piece, 250-500 words about this extract.  These will be marked by our peers and in turn we will provide feedback to others.  Here is mine:

Boat stealing is written in blank verse and this reflects the sense of Wordsworth telling us about the incident. The form echoes a stream of consciousness, like that of a dream or a recalled memory. It is conversational and story like, even starting with “one evening I went…”. This helps the reader to feel like they are there and makes it come alive. This line also suggests that the speaker is the adult Wordsworth retelling the incident.

The first part of the extract uses a lot of images about light eg “the moon was up, the lake was shining clear… small circles glittering…”. Despite it being night time, these bring to mind a sense of safety – it is dark but the boy can see and that light helps him to feel safe. He uses similes to describe the boat, “like a man who walks with stately step…” which help the reader to get a sense of the boy’s mindset and emotional landscape. He seems fairly confident, proud even despite knowing what he is doing is wrong. This “troubled pleasure” is one familiar to most people, that of pushing the boundaries in youth and feeling sure that even though what you’re doing is wrong, you’ll be ok. As this is a relatable feeling, the reader is drawn in and feels connected to the incident. The language all suggests a knowledge of the nature that surrounds him and this adds to the sense of surety.

About half way through the extract, emotions turn from confidence to something more lustful and potentially sexual:

She was an elfin pinnace; twenty tomes
I dipped my oars into the silent lake,
And, as I rose upon the stroke, my Boat
Went heaving through the water like a swan.

Then suddenly, everything changes. What he thought was the horizon no longer is. “A huge Cliff, As if with voluntary power instinct, Upreared its head.” The descriptive, suggestive language is now replaced with more simple language showing a boy rendered almost speechless with shock. The contrast between the language of the first and second part make the image of the cliff as a dangerous being more powerful. Wordsworth personifies the cliff, suggesting it is alive and the boy no longer proudly rows but instead he paddles in a hurried way, with trembling hands. The urgency of the situation is reflected in the long sentence structure and repetition of “struck and struck again”. These images help the reader understand his fear. What the boy thought was the horizon, suddenly wasn’t. What he thought was a landscape and nature that he knew and felt safe in was suddenly unfamiliar and terrifying.

The extract ends with Wordsworth explaining how he was haunted by guilt and an uneasiness for many days. At this stage, I think we are hearing Wordsworth as a boy, but we know that since he is writing as a man the incident has stayed with him for many years.

William Wordsworth: Poetry, People and Place

I’m doing an online course, Future Learn: William Wordsworth, Poetry, People and Place, which has been helping me look at poetry alongside my research into nature writing.  I’ve really been enjoying it and have raced ahead.  One of the things I’ve found very interesting is how I react differently to unseen poetry when I read it and when it is read to me.  As an avid reader of fiction, I tend to skim read and my eyes are darting ahead and providing clues as to where the words are headed.  When poetry, or anything, is read aloud to you, you can’t do this.  This has allowed me to focus more on the words being said and also led to some surprise twists in where the poem is going.

Week 1

This week has been an introduction to Wordsworth and looking at two of his poems; The Tables Turned and Old Man Travelling, neither of which I’d read before.

To help me slow down and ingest the poem, as opposed to my usual fast reading, I’ve been making notes and have written down some of my thoughts and reactions to the poem.  This has also created space for me to play with the ideas that Wordsworth touches on.

The Tables Turned was my favourite of the two.  It is helpful to know that this poem was published alongside a second poem, Expostulation and Reply. In this, Wordsworth depicts a scene where his friend Matthew was imploring him to read and be purposeful instead of sitting on an old grey stone dreaming his time away. Whilst that poem does contain a response, as the title suggests, it is in The Tables Turned that Wordsworth truly expresses himself.

The Tables Turned begins with lighthearted rhyme and a friendly rhythm. It is a jolly start to a poem and suggests that he is not preaching to his friend, indeed within the first three lines he says “my friend” twice. He gentle teases his friend whilst still encouraging him to rise from his books and step out into nature.

This poem has a very clear message, written explicitly in stanza four:

Come forth into the light of things
Let nature be your teacher

But like most poems, there is more to it than that. Throughout the poem, Wordsworth uses metaphor and imagery to weave three ideas of education; that of scholarly learning, that of religions preaching and that of nature as teacher. In the 18th century, when this poem was written, the idea of acquiring knowledge through reading was considered a superior way of learning. It was also an exclusionary one and, as we know from Wordsworth’s prelude, he wanted to write in such a way that his work was open to everyone. In the same way, learning from nature was much more accessible for most people that more formal methods of education. With this in mind, we can see Matthew as old fashioned, as having more traditional views and Wordsworth being on the cusp of new thinking. The use of form and language in The Tables Turned also reflects this idea of seeking to be understood by all.

Yet, and this is perhaps my favourite aspect of the poem, the lines are filled with irony. Whilst claiming to want all to read his poetry and suggesting that nature is the universal teacher, accessible to everyone, it was within books that his own work could be found. This irony is most deliciously expressed in the penultimate stanza:

Sweet is the lore which nature brings:
Our meddling intellect
Mishapes the beauteous forms of things:
– We murder to dissect.

And in analysing this poem, as so many people have, we are dissecting it ourselves.  Other examples of irony in the poem include Wordsworth begging his friend to quit his books (penned by writers such as himself) and declaring enough of science and of art, of which nature is both.

We were asked to consider which lines were our favourite and whilst many people chose the lines arguing that nature should be your teacher, I loved the image of murder, which contrasts strongly with the rest of the images.  I also really like the final stanza:

Enough of science and of art;
Close up these barren leaves;
come forth, and bring with you a heart
That watches and receives

It is the image of the leaves which chimes so strongly with me. It feels like this stanza is the poem in miniature with the leaves pivoting the reader from books to nature. On the one hand we have dry, brittle leaves of books, dead and crumbling (could this also be the old approach to learning?) and on the other we have the fresh, verdant, life filled leaves of the woodland. It could also be saying to the reader that books, as bits of nature which have been written on, can only contain a fraction of the wisdom that nature itself can teach. It begs the reader to question why they are spending time, and toil and trouble, in their books, dead snatches of nature, when they could be outside experiencing the true wonder of the living nature.

I found the gendered language in this poem interesting. It is not unusual for nature to be spoken of using feminine pronouns (a topic for another day) and in Expostulation and Reply, nature is referred to as feminine, as mother earth. But in The Tables Turned we have masculine birds and a masculine sun until half way through when we see Nature as feminine. From a factual perspective, Wordsworth is correct in talking of male birds singing but this is not normally something poets trouble themselves with. And in today’s convention, in many cultures, the sun is masculine with the moon as feminine. However the change being half way through the poem makes it feel like it could be something more significant than that. It feels like an interesting mirroring of the traditionally masculine book learning and the feminine emotional/experiential learning, or the polarity of scholarly or religious learning and learning from nature, that is to say learning from men vs learning from mother nature.

World Enough and Time Part 1

I’ve just come back from an amazing adventure to a tiny island off the North West of Scotland.  My purpose in this rather long journey on our public transport system was to attend ‘A week of art-making, writing, poetry and reflection on Tanera Mor‘.

It was a really enjoyable week, I cobbled together some words, made some books (this is currently my favourite thing ever – it’s a lot of fun) and got myself covered in paint.

In case you’ve never thought about it, it’s a long way from York to Ullapool (where I was staying before I got my lift to the pier).  The first train was York to Edinburgh then a train to Perth followed by a train through the Cairngorms to Inverness.  Here I stopped to visit Leakey’s (a great treasure trove of second hand books) before getting a bus to Strathpeffer and then finally getting a bus to Ullapool.

York to Edinburgh

Nostalgic autumn haze

Hangs over golden fields

 

The sun punctuates

Revealing dusty purple heather

 

The vast tall sky

Is squashed by heavy grey clouds

 

Edinburgh to Perth

A flask full of coffee – still warm

And a list of train stations

To wrap your tongue around;

Haymarket

Inverkeithing

Kirkcaldy

Markinch

And

Ladybank

 

Perth to Inverness

Suspended raindrops

Blur land and sky. Wispy clouds

Cling to highland rocks

 

Scottish Highlands

Purple and gold hills

White houses, green forest

Grey rivers cut through

A texture infused landscape;

Soft ferns, prickling pines

Hills dipping, overlapping

Rocks protrude and ruins

Pull you into memories

A year on

WordPress has just kindly pointed out that this blog has been around for a year.

My first post included a poem I had written based on my tweets which makes for interesting reflection.  The blog was started primarily as a way of getting back into writing but also because I was sinking further into a hellish pit of depression and destructive coping mechanisms.  My eating disorder was starting to take hold and I had done a good job of self silencing.  I had attempted to seek help from my GP and through work and hadn’t been successful.

Written last year:

Elusive words

Choke
(Bindweed)

Metaphors
Stuck
In the dark

Peaceful/painful silence
(Delete as applicable)

Battle ready
(Battle vulnerable?)

Overstep
Reclaim

By a strange coincidence I wrote another poem based on my tweets today:

pretence at sanity guides through
disturbed moments
a reminder of lost feelings
sharing imaginings of gifts

fight back with uncomfortable defiance

A year on and I’ve managed to speak and I’ve finally managed to get some help.  It’s a huge relief but in order to recover I know I have to struggle back through the hell of depression.  Anorexia has numbed me and eating releases the feelings but anorexia is not sustainable.  I face the depression or I die.  They are my choices.  I choose to face it.

I don’t want to be sitting here, wasting my life to anorexia, when wordpress tells me it’s been two years.