Ecology and Poetry: Review of Michael McKimm’s ‘Fossil Sunshine’

I met Michael McKimm earlier this year – at the Free Verse Poetry Book Fair in September 2014. His chapbook, Fossil Sunshine (Worple Press, 2013) interested me because much has been said in the last few years about how poetry has embraced science. This is one plank of the argument that also declares poetry has embraced popular culture, or the world and language of IT, the law, or maybe banking. Yes, poetry is keen to annex what it can. And I would happily sign up to the general principle that poetry’s health can feasibly be measured by the range of experience it can encompass. In times of feebleness poems are stuntedly concerned with poetic subjects, poetic diction; in periods of strength, there is a great sense of traction and encompassment, that anything will give itself to the poet.

Perhaps we are on the cusp of one of these latter moments; reading Nathan Hamilton’s 2013 Bloodaxe anthology (note the wide embrace of the title) Dear World & Everyone In It you might get that feeling. And guess what: Michael McKimm appears on page 90 and Fossil Sunshine really is differently-angled to most of the collections you’ll have read recently. These poems are the result of a year-long collaboration with earth scientists, in a project funded by Arts Council England. Drawing on fieldwork with geologists, the poems explore the relationships between geology, the oil industry and climate change, and (Worple’s blurb says) they ask what the evidence held in the geological record can teach us. The blurb goes on: “From ice ages to landslides, oil spills to geo-engineering, Fossil Sunshine captures the language of geology, as well as the energy and drive of exploration and discovery”.

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Given its subject, the book inevitably has an admonitory tone. But one of the problems with poetry’s annexing more and still more was noted by Keats and his response was to loathe anything poetic that has a palpable, didactic design upon us. Indeed, the poetic and didactic are mutually exclusive for him. Poetry is a realm (perhaps unique) where life’s genuine truth and beauty (simply that it is full of shades and ambiguity) can be expressed and relished without any irritable reaching after clarity and fact. What I like so much about McKimm’s poems is that they would also have pleased Keats on this count. They are vigorous, ambiguous and even visionary. In them we see mankind’s power as much as our malign influence, the frailty of nature as much as its resilience. They want us to think about these issues, but will not do the thinking for us.

‘Tertiary Basalts’ describes its igneous subject as “Crow black, slick as onions, or walk-on-nails / tough”. It’s in part a child’s eye view (“A thick burnt red / running through like a layer of jam”) and the narrator admits that rock like this would give his earlier self “more pictures than the clouds”. But McKimm does not ironise the child’s vision but combines it with an adult understanding of the rock’s creation to make a more rounded celebration of the natural world. ‘Holderness Boulder Clay’ does something similar as it vigorously describes the sea’s biting away at the friable coastal reaches till “a fencepost hang[s] from a whip / of wire, and plastic drainage pipes / [are] like pillarbox guns”. Whatever warnings are here they are buried in the figurative language – the whip, the gun. The poem is a tour de force of minute particulars; I’ve never felt so close to the ebb and flow, the nibbling of erosion, the swirl of “gobstoppers of granite, sandstone, / Norwegian porphyry, carnelian”. Elsewhere (in prose this time), someone called Stuart takes a little hammer to a chunk of Yorkshire chalk and skilfully unearths a fossil sea sponge: “Laosciadia Planus. I weighed it in my hand.” And like a time machine, suddenly Bridlington with its Pitch and Putt course vanishes to be replaced by a vision of the past: “Sea conifers, angiosperms. The whole place electric with reptiles”.

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Only someone much concerned with the environment could bring the natural world – both present and past – so vividly into poetry. Someone like that could not fail to express concern at our interventions in the world. A scattered sequence of poems, each called ‘Abstract from a Conference’, expresses this concern. The first explains that coal, oil, gas are anciently stored sunshine that we have since “sought with our intelligence / and drive”. Our brilliance has long been to our benefit but . . . “Is it possible, a soft // landing for civilisation? We were smart. / How smart do we now want to be?” The ‘Abstract’ in the title to these poems perhaps permits more didacticism than elsewhere: abstract as summary, abstract as form of language. Yet even here there is an awed sense of ourselves: “Survivalists, stewards of the biosphere, / from nothing we grew”. Where did we go wrong? We “thought of ourselves”. Perhaps little else. And for a while, “where was the harm in that? – / as the mighty river’s arteries flowed past.” ‘Pipeline’ is another sustained performance, a description of the route of a North American oil pipeline. Detail is put to use to suggest both the varieties of landscape it passes through as well as the ingenuity of its builders: “without even a pit stop it’s pierced Manitoba, / steady trajectory, knows where it’s going”.

So McKimm’s images are often carefully laid down, alive, at the borders of ambiguity. Yet the descriptive drive of the book pulls no punches when it comes to the mess we have made of things. Here are “the basics: deforestation, fallow lands, / tilling, terracing, irrigation systems, subsurface // water extraction, mining, transportation systems, / waterway re-plumbing, reservoir interception, // groynes, jetties, seawalls, breakwaters, harbours, / warfare”. Even a small scale ‘Oil Field’, apparently landscaped into a natural environment, is regarded, or rather listened to, with suspicion: “the beam pump’s / gentle purr, like an antique Singer threaded / through with jet, working with a rhythm / you would never think so peaceful or so clean”. At the living room table, my mother would propel an old Singer like this, an image perhaps of technology taken so far, only to be wrenched further still (the thread through this machine not homely cotton, but the more sinister thread of an oil jet).

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Andrew McCulloch’s review in the TLS concluded: “Read these poems!” Penelope Shuttle has written: “The language employed by this poet is powerfully tactile.  These are strong and in every sense grounded poems”. ‘Grounded’ is a worthy pun, of course, as much about McKimm’s language and tone as about his rocky, muddy, sandy subject matter. I’d recommend these poems, for their grit and grain as much as their environmental concerns, for their humble belief in human ingenuity as much as their clear-eyed warning about where it seems to be taking us.

Autonomous Sensory Meridian Response – and Poetry

Something on early morning Radio Four this week sent me hurrying to the files of autobiographical notes I’ve been writing sporadically over the last few years. It was a discussion of an experience I have never heard spoken of, but felt often enough. It has a name these days: Autonomous Sensory Meridian Response: http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/magazine-30412358. I’ll put down my memories as I recall them but also with some of the surrounding context too as that may be relevant to the phenomenon itself:

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In the 1960s, in my second year at Parochial Junior School (I’m about 9 years old), we crocodile out the front door and occasionally turn right along Church Street towards St James’ Parish Church, Trowbridge (George Crabbe’s last posting). We cross the road for religious services like Easter, Harvest Festival and Christmas. We wheel and snake into the churchyard and follow the tilting, worn flagstone path, passing Thomas Helliker’s casket tomb to the church porch.

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But more usually we turn left along Church Street, passing Shanley’s the barbers and a low butcher’s window where our regimented pairings are disturbed by squeals and extraneous movement, by our fascination with red and pink slabs and cuts of meat, with creamy fat like curds laid out on plastic white trays. Most fascinating and least attractive are the lolling ox tongues, cut at the root, purple, stilled, obscene.

Then we turn left into Duke Street and left again through an almost hidden door that, even then, I would associate with those obscured entrances and exits in children’s stories. Through this door, we traipse down a passage into what we call Emmanuel, a kind of annex with a couple of extra classrooms. I don’t remember any separate play area. It’s in these classrooms that I remember adjusting to new spectacles from Carter and Harding after I had been diagnosed with short sight. I was straining to read the teacher’s scrawl on the blackboard.

Here too I remember the first incidents (though surely these could not have been the first) of a very peculiar sensation. It’s a prickling that runs up my back and shoulders, a sort of shiver moving upwards across my neck into my scalp when a teacher (not my usual one) writes on the blackboard. It’s a ripple of pleasure out of unfamiliarity (or the familiar defamiliarised), a kind of low level erotic shiver I still occasionally feel now when the college cleaner comes into my room – moving books, touching the table and chairs, my familiar items touched by another’s hand. I’ve never heard this described before . . .

Later, back in the main school building, moving to other rooms downstairs aware of girls talking, manoeuvring to walk alongside me, giggles, but I have no recognition of what this means, certainly no idea that it might be exploited. In fact, I don’t recall much sense of my own position in this little closed society at all. It is as if I moved through a mist of my own creating, barely self-aware. But I imagine myself proceeding quietly, studiously mostly, probably a pleasure to teach, though reports are already lamenting how deeply I live in myself. Already teachers are reaching for the old metaphor of the shell, the frustrating creature living within.

Wikipedia describes ASMR as a neologism for a perceptual phenomenon characterized as a distinct, pleasurable tingling sensation in the head, scalp, back, or peripheral regions of the body in response to visual, auditory, tactile, olfactory, or cognitive stimuli. The nature and classification of the ASMR phenomenon is controversial, with strong anecdotal evidence to support the phenomenon but little or no scientific explanation or verified data. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Autonomous_sensory_meridian_response

It has become a recent internet phenomenon. Online discussion groups such as the Society of Sensationalists formed in 2008 on Yahoo! and The Unnamed Feeling blog created in 2010 by Andrew MacMuiris aim to provide a community for learning more about the sensation by sharing ideas and personal experiences. Some earlier names for ASMR in these discussion groups included attention induced head orgasmattention induced euphoria, and attention induced observant euphoria.

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Inevitably my own thoughts about it revolve around poetry and its effects: the familiar defamiliarised, the frisson of the uncanny, Emily Dickinson talking about poems taking the top of your head off. ASMR seems linked to a particular quality of attention-giving which yields a rippling of pleasure, close to the erotic, but not the same as that. It is powerful yet undramatic; it is most common in quiet moments of observation. It is also in a neutral sense ‘bestial’, an animal shiver, like hackles rising, but not out of anger. It’s surely something reaching far back into our ancient past, linking body and mind, yielding pleasure, rooted in a mode of being predating language and conceptualisation. That interests me. Poetry is language deployed to circumvent the limits of language; these days I take that as a given. Yves Bonnefoy says: “poetry was not made to mean but to restore words to their full intensity, their integral capacity to designate fundamental things in our relationships with ourselves and others, here and now, amid those chances that one should never, as Mallarmé did, dream of abolishing” (2012 PN Review interview with Chris Miller: http://www.pnreview.co.uk/cgi-bin/scribe?item_id=8484). Even if just considered as metaphor, perhaps ASMR is what poetry taps into, invokes, rehearses, re-discovers.

Dan O’Brien’s ‘War Reporter’ and new poems

I sometimes think poets are of two kinds: those drawn to dramatic subjects which explicitly dramatise the writer’s concerns and those drawn to more everyday topics which come to reflect the writer’s concerns in the course of the poem. I think of Hardy and Edward Thomas in the latter camp, alongside Heaney’s reference to Katherine Mansfield in North (1975): “I will tell / How the laundry basket squeaked”. In the former camp, for sure, stands the American writer, Dan O’Brien, who is everywhere at the moment.

O’Brien sees himself as “a playwright who moonlights as a poet” and he has just won the Troubadour International Poetry prize and been shortlisted for the Evening Standard theatre awards (for his play The Body of an American). He also has poems included in the recent Magma issue discussed in my last blog (https://martyncrucefix.com/2014/12/01/the-launch-of-magma-60-at-lrb-bookshop/). O’Brien’s first book of poems, War Reporter, was published by Charles Boyle’s excellent CB Editions just a year ago and I reviewed it for Poetry London. The book went on to be shortlisted for the Forward First Collection Prize and to win the Fenton Aldeburgh First Collection prize (http://www.thepoetrytrust.org/news/fenton-aldeburgh-first-collection-prize-2013-winner-announced/)

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In discussion at Aldeburgh, O’Brien said War Reporter had been described as “docu-poetry” and that “sounds fair.” The war reporter in the book’s title is Canadian journalist, Paul Watson, and for seven years O’Brien has been in communication with him, “obsessively” recording and working on email conversations, as well as Watson’s recordings from conflict zones around the world. The two poems in Magma are part of new work in progress. ‘The War Reporter Paul Watson Has the Time’ is a good example of the complex webs of guilt and complicity that O’Brien poems weave at their best. The narrator has helped an “interpreter” escape from Kandahar and vengeance is taken against the interpreter’s extended family through an IED: “A bump in the road and / the usual denouement”. The poems never flinch from explicitness about physical harm (“his father, leg like broken / bricks in a bag”) or psychological damage (“a pistol for protection, against all / sense and provocation, only to suck it in his mouth and – blackout”). ‘The War Reporter Paul Watson Knows’ returns in part to the moral quandaries surrounding Watson’s 1994 Pulitzer prize-winning photograph of Staff Sgt. William Cleveland’s body being dragged from the wreck of a Black Hawk and through the streets of Mogadishu. It also alludes to Watson’s more recent eyewitness accounts from the conflict in Syria: “The West engaged / in self-soothing debates while mercenaries / penetrate the borders, tilting the board / in Assad’s favour”.

The Troubadour winning poem likewise derives from the Syrian conflict. Co-judging with Seren’s Amy Wack, Neil Astley said O’Brien submitted three poems, any one of which could have won first prize: “All three were so compelling that I found myself measuring all the other poems I read against them . . . I had no hesitation in putting forward one of them for first prize.” The eventual winner was ‘The War Reporter Paul Watson and the Barrel Bombs’: “basically pieces-of-shit / IEDs of TNT, nitrogen / -rich fertilizer, diesel, anything / likely to kindle after exploding”. This is a more brutal, less multi-dimensional poem than some of O’Brien’s but it possesses an undeniable power to shock: “A foot in a sock / sticks out of the mountain. They tickle her / to see if they should dig”.

O’Brien has just published a second collection of more personal poems with CB Editions: http://www.cbeditions.com/obrien2.html

And here is my review of War Reporter from last year:

Dan O’Brien’s book is big, brave, important and challenging even in its imperfections. It is an act of ventriloquism, hitching a desperate and often horrifying ride on the work and experiences of Canadian war reporter, Paul Watson. Watson took the 1994 Pulitzer prize-winning photograph of Staff Sgt. William Cleveland’s body being dragged from the wreck of a Black Hawk through the streets of Mogadishu. Without doubt, his work tapped something important for America; as well as Watson’s original book, Where War Lives, and these poems, there is also a play and an opera in preparation.

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The poems abound in speaking voices, dominated by Watson himself, but including the “Poet”. Each piece comes at the reader as a slab of blank, largely decasyllabic verse. Voices bleed into one another, partly under the pressure of war zone experiences but also because of an explicit similitude between author and reporter: “You’re like the writer / I’ve always wished I were [. . . ] your constant / returning to an underworld we can’t / look at” (‘The War Reporter Paul Watson Describes the Ghost’). Both men admit to the allure of war and death. Watson’s voice, telling of his Mogadishu photo, confesses “When / you take a picture the camera covers / your face, you shut the rest of the world out” (‘The War Reporter Paul Watson Hears the Voice’). The quieter, more reflective stretches of the sequence explore this idea and allude to Camus’ claim to have solved the mystery of where war lives; the answer is in each of us, in our loneliness and humiliation. Watson’s book pursues this and O’Brien does the same here, taking the idea to justify excursions into both men’s personal and family backgrounds. I’m not sure how effective this is (OK, both are drawn to war’s horror, but neither are warriors) and these episodes do sap the quite astonishing power of the more direct reportage.

The book has Watson recalling scenes from Somalia, Rwanda, the Balkans, Iraq, Afghanistan and Pakistan and it is art’s ability to contemplate such horrors that makes the book an important one. Tony Harrison (who always refers to himself as the man who reads the metre) insists that his formal artistry is vital to bring the poet through the fire he is intent on penetrating. O’Brien chooses to speak of man’s brutality by telling it slant, through another’s voice. Watson witnesses the stoning of a married rapist, but the initial possessive modifier ensures we cannot push the scene into the distance: “our audience cheers an elderly man / lifting a perfect cinder block above / his head, then smashing it down where a gash / jack knifes the rapist’s neck” (‘The War Reporter Paul Watson Attends a Stoning’). War lives in all of us and the collection is a hard read partly because of our reluctance to face this. The rigid consistency of form perhaps also adds some monotony, but I’d agree with Jay Parini, that O’Brien’s success is in finding words “sufficient” for our time, a form of speech adequate to the evil that persists.

Kei Miller’s ‘Cartographer’ and Friel’s ‘Translations’

Kei Miller’s third collection, The Cartographer Tries to Map a Way to Zion (Carcanet), recently carried off the Forward Prize for poetry and it struck me that it shares concerns about language, colonialism and map-making with Brian Friel’s play, Translations (1980) which has become something of a staple teaching text in recent years for several exam boards.

Miller’s poems explore knowledge of place. To begin with there are two opposing views. The cartographer of the title is schooled in “Babylon science” and seeks objective, timeless, abstracted knowledge of Jamaica, knowledge of worth (to his mind) because rid of all contingent distraction. The rastaman knows his island more subjectively, historically, full of local detail, more politically. For the rastaman the island is “unsettled . . . unsugared . . . unmapped”. It “fidget[s]” and slips from “your grip”, is full of what the objective gaze can “never see”. The cartographer arrives with the colonial mission to “untangle the tangled, / to unworry the concerned”, to set a nation and its people back on the right path from which they “may have wrongly turned”.

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The 27 sections of the title sequence then proceed to track the dialectic between these two viewpoints. But the book itself is less Ordnance Survey, more a full colour, illustrated map stuffed with half-sketched houses, trail signs, characters, places. This wonderful effect is achieved by Miller’s scattering, along the trail of the dialogue, poems that explore the etymology of place names as well as others that praise various aspects of Jamaica (especially its creatures). So the outcome of the dialogue – proceeding as it does as a pretty civilized skirmish – is loaded in the rastaman’s favour. It’s true that he is said to dismiss “too easily the cartographic view”, though even here the particular poem ends with an acknowledgement that the Eurocentric Mercator projections of the world (1569) misrepresent the size of Africa and have long “gripped like girdles / to make his people smaller than they were”. Rather, it is the position of the cartographer that shifts significantly. Though initially he too “dismisses too easily the rastaman’s view”, he soon begins to “lose himself” among the “I-drens & I-formants . . . smoking a chillum”. Eventually a question rises in his mind, “between his learning / and awakening: how does one map a place / that is not quite a place? How does one draw / towards the heart?”

It’s on this basis, in his more illumined state, that the cartographer begins to try to “map a way to Zion”. Of course, he needs the rastaman to point out that Zion is less a “where” than a “what” and that it cannot be plotted towards but rather must be waited for. Nevertheless, the book’s conclusion is comedic; the whole begins and ends with a “heartbless”. The brutal facts and bloody history of colonialism are conveyed more in the place name poems, many of which record displacement, floggings, shootings, “suspicion . . . centuries deep”. The brevity of most of the poems, the switching between standard voice and forms of Jamaican patois, the details of landscape and people, all combine to make a very enjoyable read, rewarded with a convincing up-lift at the end.

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Remarkably similar territory is explored in Brian Friel’s modern classic drama Translations, about the re-mapping of Ireland by British colonial forces around 1833. But Friel writes a tragedy, recording (with historical hindsight) the almost complete stamping out of Gaelic culture and language in the 19th century. The British sappers (like Miller’s cartographer) claim they are there to benefit the Irish people, to rationalize and clarify what they perceive/assume is a backward country in need of modernization. But Friel (like Miller) portrays the native culture as sophisticated, if different, so that with the British process of improvement comes inevitable loss. The hedge-school teacher, Hugh, closes the play, failing to recall lines from Virgil and Friel is implying, with dramatic economy, with the stage lights fading, the loss of knowledge, of language, of personal and national identity. In contrast, Miller’s book ends in peaceable benediction:

In leaving

The rastaman bids you

Mannaz and respeck

Izes and protecshun

Upfullness

He bids you

Guidance and healt

Inity and Strenth

Bids you, Trod Holy

To I-ly I-ly I-ly

Mount Zion-I

Trod Holy.

Michael Donaghy – 10 Years On

With the South Bank in London about to stage a celebration of Michael Donaghy’s work (http://www.southbankcentre.co.uk/whatson/michael-donaghy-a-celebratio-85980) and several new publications forthcoming, I remember reading with him around 1990 at that same venue. I’m sure the event was recorded but I’ve never heard it since. He was reading from Shibboleth (1988) and I must have been reading from Beneath Tremendous Rain (1990). I reviewed his posthumous book Safest (2005) for Poetry London (I think) and thought it might be appropriate to post it here unchanged. My intention was to review his work as a whole as well as commenting on the short collection that Picador had then produced.

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Michael Donaghy’s death in 2004 is rightly regarded as a great loss to English poetry. With the publication of Safest – poems he had been preparing for a fourth collection – we can see his work over 30 years forming a tragically curtailed, but significant whole. I wonder if he tired of the early ‘metaphysical’ label, so easily applied to a poem like ‘Machines’ which opened his first book and remarkable in 1988 for its elegance of form and delicate wit. What is really distinctive in the first two books is his pursuit of the dramatic lyric. Donaghy is a terrific storyteller and a key part of his success is the irresistable address of his narrators. This is usually combined with astonishingly fluid transitions from colloquialism to the complexly erudite (the metaphysical bit). Drama lies in Donaghy’s precision of voice, the accessibility of character and narrative and his superb, often comic, sense of timing. His deployment of these various devices results in the other distinctive property of a Donaghy poem – the sheer distance it can travel from start to finish and the surprises on the way. Particularly for those who saw him perform, these are the elements he triumphantly combined in feast-like poems such as ‘Smith’, ‘Letter’, ‘Cadenza’, ‘Liverpool’, ‘The Hunter’s Purse’ and ‘Erratum’.

In retrospect, the traditional nature of his subjects is clear: love, art, death, time. Perhaps the absence of politics will come to be seen as a bar to real greatness, though the opening 20 pages of Shibboleth and the first two sections of Errata are very powerful evidence in his favour. Perhaps all his concerns are subsumed in his continual meditation on the temporal – how identity is composed of past events, how the past can seem more real than the present, how “the past falls open anywhere” (‘Black Ice and Rain’ from Conjure). Always restless, Donaghy’s third book seemed significantly darker in tone and contained fewer stories. What the blurb referred to as his most “vulnerable” work is a series of heart-broken love lyrics and a number of poems on his relationship with his dead father. Of the latter, ‘Caliban’s Books’ is outstanding and need give no quarter to Plath’s ‘Full Fathom Five’ in the evocation of parent/child relationships and Donaghy’s poem is full of tenderness and astringent nostalgia for the lost man and his Irish childhood.

Now Safest gives us 24 new poems – barely half a full collection – and one can only wonder at what might have been. Maddy Paxman’s note on the contents suggests these were the pieces Donaghy had approved for publication, but even so the repetition of a brief passage in two quite different poems (page 21 and 27) suggests an inevitable lack of finish. The book seems to have been shaping up more to resemble Conjure than the early work. Vintage Donaghy can be found in poems like ‘A Darkoom’, an imagined/remembered portrait of Klein, a holocaust survivor and photographer, visited in the garrulous narrator’s youth but whose memories of the man are at risk of being forgotten. The opening poem’s image of a Claude Glass (an 18th century device for creating picturesque images of landscapes that lie at the viewer’s back) is a perfect vehicle to articulate Donaghy’s retrospective habit of  “squinting to recall some fading pleasure, / or [being] blinded by some private scrim of tears” (‘Upon a Claude Glass’).

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‘From the Safe House’ is another narrative tour de force, blurring the boundaries of memory and imagination, compacting time to an eternal instant in writing a letter from Reagan-era Chicago to send in the present day to a friend who has just died prematurely but imagining him a happily married father in Vera Cruz! Against all the odds this works – and is deeply moving. This is an almost baroque extension of earlier modes, but Donaghy’s bold re-writing of the original in ‘Akhmatova Variations’ looks like a new direction. As does ‘The Moko’, which reads as a hypnotic paean to some whale-like creature: “Muscles of silence are rolling miles offshore at night”. Such environmental concerns are new in Donaghy’s work and his lyricism invests these creatures with grace and nobility:

They knew the stars and steered by singing them

and when the stars were dark, by wind,

and when the winds died, by wave swell,

bird flight, swirled shoals of luminous algae,

by phosphorescence a fathom under the outrigger.

The fact that the moko turns out to be a Polynesian mythical beast of the sea only adds to the poem’s intrigue.

Donaghy’s art – as far as it was allowed to develop – owes its success to contradictory impulses. It thrives on tensions between fluid and formal, colloquial and erudite, humour and seriousness, personal and impersonal. It strikes me there was a movement over the years from the first of each of these contrasts towards the second – whether a permanent sea change or mere local turbulence we will never know. Of course, hindsight tempts us to see the darkening as prophetic but, as I have said, this was under way in his third book. Safest has its preponderance of troubled and troubling lyrics, less love-torn this time, more concerned with the dissolution of self. ‘Midriver’ is a bold language experiment in which the lyric voice is almost wholly stripped of its personal pronoun and identity seems lost in a swirl of the temporal and spatial: “so stops halfway and, neither there nor there, / but cold and rained on and intransitive”. Even more explicitly in ‘Exile’s End’ and ‘Disquietude’, it is death that lowers and Donaghy writes not with Larkin’s horror, nor Thomas’ raging, but from an intrigued distance: “No recording devices are allowed in this hall. / The lights dim . . . / for the next movement / which features no one and is silent”. (‘Disquietude’).

Teaching Edward Thomas’ ‘Adlestrop’

We teach the OCR exam board’s AS module F661, opting for Edward Thomas as the poet for close analysis. Oddly, the board do not include ‘Adlestrop’ in their selection of poems. So in the opening sessions, here’s a way of gentling students in to the processes of closely analysing a poem while also showing them Thomas’ most well-know piece.

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Discuss with the class the idea of syllable counting in a verse line. Get them to try it by asking students to write an 8 or 10 syllable line beginning “Yes. I remember . . .”. Perhaps one of each.

For the exercise that follows (for those who want more restrictions) suggest keeping to an 8 or 10 syllable per line. Others (possibly the less able) may prefer more freedom . . .

Now . . . tell them to imagine they are travelling – some form of transport, walking, bike, train, bus. Ask around to reveal what they are imagining. Try pushing it a bit further, for more details, the car, the time of day, the scenery . . .

Now write 4 lines – a quatrain – in which you describe travelling and arrival at a particular location, at a particular time of year. They stop there. Maybe suggest they might open with “Yes. I remember . . .”. again – but not compulsory  . . .

Yes. I remember Adlestrop —
The name, because one afternoon
Of heat the express-train drew up there
Unwontedly. It was late June.

Next, write 4 lines in which you have stopped at this place – you hear a variety of noises – describe them . . .

The steam hissed. Someone cleared his throat.
No one left and no one came
On the bare platform. What I saw
Was Adlestrop — only the name

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Next write 4 lines in which you give a description of what you see – first 2 lines things close by – second 2 lines things further off . . .

And willows, willow-herb, and grass,
And meadowsweet, and haycocks dry,
No whit less still and lonely fair
Than the high cloudlets in the sky.

Finally write 4 lines in which your attention continues to drift away into the distance, ever more remote from where you stopped; suggest it is wholly up to them where they stop with this one – attention may be drifting for miles, even for years . . .

And for that minute a blackbird sang
Close by, and round him, mistier,
Farther and farther, all the birds
Of Oxfordshire and Gloucestershire.

Very optional 4 lines depending on how well they are going – in which they may conclude the piece in any way they wish. Interestingly, Thomas does not make use of this option, does not conclude in any neat fashion; a point for discussion later perhaps. . .

Finally, show Thomas’ own poem. Give out copies. By this stage, students will be likely to have opinions and/or questions about the way the original piece deals with the same material they have just written about.

Homework: to type out the lines created during the lesson – taking any opportunity to alter or just tidy them up to be presented next lesson.

Next lesson – Take the poems they have typed up. Copy them and re-distribute them, one to each student (not their own poem though). Ask them to identify and annotate SIX items from the poem in front of them where they perceive the writer has made use of technical devices.

Ask each student to present and illustrate orally TWO of these devices to the rest of the class. These will range from the simple (a moment of alliteration perhaps) to the more complex (the way the writer develops over quatrain 2 and 3 a lexical field associated with illness)

The teacher might ‘mark’ the original creative piece; certainly a ‘mark’ might be derived from a student’s annotation of another student’s poem.

Re-packaging ‘percussive’ Ted Hughes

Anthologies are the reluctant poetry readers’ hedging bet. There’s a good chance that something good will turn up and prove a winner. They sell well – they are the infrequent poetry buyer’s punt for a gift that will please at least in parts. So Alice Oswald’s compilation of Ted Hughes’ animal poems into a Bestiary will certainly put more cash into the Faber vault. But few complaints – anything to get more people reading any poetry cannot be bad.

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Oswald discusses her approach to the selection in The Guardian: 

http://www.theguardian.com/books/2014/aug/29/ted-hughes-alice-oswald-animal-poetry-bestiary

She picks up Hughes’ own early image of his poems as creatures with a “vivid life” of their own. He condemns poems which fail to possess this coherent vitality as likely to walk with a pronounced limp – a wonderful way, I’ve found, of imaging that elusive ‘rightness’ of a poem for students and workshoppers. Interestingly though, there is a shimmering, vacillatory quality to others things Oswald writes and this comes directly from Hughes himself. His animals are very much themselves yet they are expressive of human qualities too. Oswald quotes from Moortown Diary; Hughes on the poet “getting close to what is going on, and staying close, and of excluding everything else that might be pressing to interfere with the watching eye”. Held in tension with this are other Hughes’ statements such as this, in a letter, warning of the dangers of mere observation: “When a man becomes a mirror, he just ceases to be interesting to men.”

Oswald goes on to suggest that it is the “percussion” of Hughes’ language that instills such vivid life into his poems, quoting from ‘Skylarks’:

The lark begins to go up
Like a warning
As if the globe were uneasy –

Barrel-chested for heights,
Like an Indian of the high Andes,

A whippet head, barbed like

a hunting arrow,

But leaden
With muscle
For the struggle
Against
Earth’s centre.

And leaden
For ballast
In the rocketing storms of the breath.

Leaden
Like a bullet
To supplant
Life from its centre.

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If it is a percussive effect that is critical here it is more Mozart than Stomp. Oswald has precious little space to develop her argument, but what I find in such a passage is Hughes’ distinctive manipulation of scale and perspective, not unrelated to his paradoxical comments above. Microcosm and macrocosm are continually leant against each other here, or – it being a more metamorphic, high-pressured process – they are spun about each other till it’s hard to pick one from the other. The tiny body of the lark is a warning to the globe; its braced, needle-thin ribs conjure images of Andean mountains; its crested, whippet head seems to speed lethally through remote forests. The three stanzas focusing on the “leaden” nature of the bird – less weight it seems to me, more loaded with quiddity, self-ness – provoke the reader to focus closely on its body, only again for our attention to be spun outwards to “Earth’s centre . . . rocketing storms”, vulnerable life beating at its “centre”.

In part, what Hughes achieves is a sense of interconnectedness – which he would have intended in both spiritual and environmental terms. What the reader experiences is a sudden inflation or deflation of scale and perspective, a magical effect, an effect created through language, an effect achieved so skillfully and instantaneously that one might well have some sense of a percussive, explosive or implosive quality. I don’t hear or feel a noise as such – my sense of the world pulses, is stretched or compressed in the most exciting fashion. An effect with a moral dimension to it as well – a serious, ludic experience, in which we see and re-see our own place in the world.