Saturday, 31 August 2013

Landscape and poetry: 'an anthology open in the sun'

I seem to be increasingly immersing myself in sounds and words that my younger, more culturally timid self, would have eschewed. It strikes me that getting older allows you to choose, perhaps unconsciously, between one of two paths: either slowly turning full circle and elegaically retreading old familiar ways (music collection mummified in yer 20s; a narrowing of the ways, living a life of incrementally reduced wonder) or striking out for new ground, ascending unfamiliar heights to see whats over the horizon, giddy and expectant. No contest I would have thought. And following the latter trail is liberating, shedding the constraints of earlier years and conservative youth (perhaps those who strike out on a more bohemian course too early end up having nowhere to go but right-wards; the opposite direction of travel, from left field free-thinkers to Boden-wearing Telegraph supplement readers). 

One manifestation of this period of enlightenment is tuning on to Radio 3 and classical music in general (OK, maybe not exactly the cutting edge, which was long ago blunted anyway, but more radical territory than the re-formers, landfill indie or safe singer-songwriter fodder that targets my demographic, like a stultifying smog); on surveying a rack of second hand records (for there is no magic or mystery in the grim and colourless efficiency of iTunes, Spotify et al) I'm now as likely to go for Bach as Black Sabbath, the Byrds or Burial. But the more unexpected meander has been into the world of poetry, previously subconsciously dismissed as the pretentious stuff of studied dilettantism. More specifically, and less surprisingly, I have been drawn to the carefully hewn and richly crafted words of poets who use landscape, place, nature and the elements - however tangentially - as their theme or motif.
As with classical music, my starting point for poetry has been an almost laughable level of ignorance; but this year zero baseline of knowledge and exposure has meant that the last few years have been a joyous drift into new territory. Yes, I was lazily aware of Burns, Ted Hughes and Wordsworth, but only hazily familiar with John Clare and Edward Thomas, the two titans of poetry that is rooted in a sense of place (but in no way safely and sentimentally so). As with music, discovery of one artist leads on to another and before long a labyrinth has been entered, with a lifetime of exploration exposed. So, I gorge on the Oxfam bookshop's selections of archaic texts, classics and the works of pioneers: Beowulf  (the sadly recently deceased Seamus Heaney's excellent 1999 translation), Sir Garwain and the Green Knight, Piers the Ploughman, Dante, Poly-Olbion, Milton, Wordsworth and Coleridge's Lyrical Ballads, Gerard Manley Hopkins, Housman's A Shropshire Lad and on and on

Treasures all, but there is also a vibrant contemporary strain of poetry - perhaps echoing the outpouring of prose writing on themes of place, the natural world and our relationship to it in recent years. Much of this output feels radical and non-conformist, in the best traditions of the poetry of the past that has weathered well. For instance, new poetry figures large in EarthLines magazine, the journal Terrain and the Dark Mountain network of 'writers, artists and thinkers in search of new stories for troubled times'. The web and new media have also opened up opportunities for poets to share their work more easily. Collectives such as Longbarrow Press ('poetry from the edgelands') utilise on-line audio channels like SoundCloud  to give voice to their output; neat symmetry with the oral traditions of poetry, which is generally best appreciated aloud.

Now that I have belatedly 'found' John Clare and Edward Thomas, their work is a touchstone that I keep going back to; recently given further depth by the excellent Now All Roads Lead to France: The Last Years of Edward Thomas by Matthew Hollis, which documents how Thomas, through the seasons leading up to his death at Arras on the Western Front in 1917, realised the latent poetry that had been in his prose writing all along.

There are many works that I have found thought-provoking or just a joy to read but here are extracts from a few that have particularly seared themselves into my imagination; all, in some way, topographical or concerned with the interplay between humanity and environment. 

Cock-Crows, Ted Hughes 
I stood on a dark summit, amongst dark summits -
Tidal dawn was splitting heaven from earth.
The oyster
Opening to taste gold.

And I heard the cock-crows kindling in the valley
Under the mist - 
They were sleepy,
Bubbling deep in the valley cauldron...

Dart, Alice Oswald
...Dartmeet - a mob of waters
where East Dart smashes into West Dart

two wills gnarling and recoiling
and finally knuckling into balance...

Kidland, Paul Kingsnorth
He came when the summer was high
to the dark false forest of the Kidland
where light does not go and people do not go
and trees are without branches because it suits us
that they should go naked...

Solnhofen, W.G. Sebald
...Overtaken by ruin
a Wilhelmine artisan mill
reflects the breadlessness
of the passing trains

Deposited between layers
lie the winged
of prehistory.

Speak of the North, Charlotte Bronte

Speak of the North! A lonely moor
Silent and dark and trackless swells,
The waves of some wild streamlet pour
Hurriedly through its ferny dells...

The Combe, Edward Thomas
The Combe was ever dark, ancient and dark.
Its mouth is stopped with bramble, thorn and briar;
And no one scrambles over the sliding chalk
By beech and yew and perishing juniper...

The Land of Dreams, William Blake

...Oh what Land is the Land of Dreams?
What are its Mountains and what are its Streams?

...Father, oh father! what do we here

In this Land of unbelief & fear?
The Land of Dreams is better far,
Above the light of the Morning Star.

The Mores, John Clare
...Unbounded freedom ruled the wandering scene
Nor fence of ownership crept inbetween
To hide the prospect of the following eye
Its only bondage was the circling sky
One mighty flat undwarfed by bush and tree
Spread its faint shadow of immensity
And lost itself, which seemed to eke its bounds
In the blue mist the horizon's edge surrounds...

The Reader Looks Up, Arthur Freeman

See now how the English landscape lies
like an anthology open in the sun - 
a rock-bound book, of even leaves
thumbed and unthumbed, of parts begun

and left undone, uncut, unread...

The Ruin, Anonymous
Wondrous is the stone-wall, wrecked by fate;
the city-buildings crumble, the works of the giants decay.
Roofs have caved in, towers collapsed,
barred gates are broken, hoar frost clings to mortar,
houses are gaping, tottering and fallen,
undermined by age. The earth's embrace,
its fierce grip, holds the mighty craftsmen;
they are perished and gone...

V, Tony Harrison
...This graveyard on the brink of Beeston Hill's
the place I may well rest if there's a spot
under the rose roots and the daffodils
by which dad dignified the family plot.

If buried ashes saw then I'd survey
the places I learned Latin, and learned Greek,
and left, the ground where Leeds United play
but disappoint their fans week after week...

Welsh Landscape, R.S. Thomas
To live in Wales is to be conscious
At dusk of the spilled blood
That went to the making of the wild sky.
Dyeing the immaculate rivers
In all their courses,
It is to be aware,
Above the noisy tractor
And hum of the machine
Of strife in the strung woods,
Vibrant with sprung arrows.
You cannot live in the present,
At least not in Wales.

You can't keep an inveterate list-maker down, and there is a wider selection of the poems and collections that I have journeyed through as, in the words of Edward Thomas, 'I passed the horizon ridge to a new country' (Over the Hills) in the Reading the Landscape pages of this blog. 

As a footnote, it is not just the poetry of landscape that I find fascinating, but also the landscape of poetry; the morphology of the word-hoard itself. The subject matter and imagery may well be the starting point to draw in your interest but, in a way that prose cannot match, a poem makes you consider every word and often uses words, phrases and syntax in surprising and unusual ways. There is something about the sparse and elastic structure of poetry that encourages the reader to linger and reflect, to allow the type on the page to take flight. Even the lexicon of terms to describe the form and structure of poetry has a lyrical quality: cadence, coda, metre, stanza, timbre etc; though the technical terminology can still baffle me somewhat: blank verse (verse that does not employ a rhyme scheme, though not the same as free verse); iambic pentameter (a line of poetry comprising of five metrical 'feet', with an end stressed two syllable foot?); and I'm still not entirely sure what characterises a Haiku (the aim, apparently, is to create something greater than the sum of the parts).

The Murder of Maria Marten - Shirley Collins and the Albion Country Band

Tuesday, 13 August 2013

Saltmarsh, Ile de Noirmoutier

A circling plain, bleached flat in wide-screen by sun and overcoming sky;
lonely home to hunting heron, bird-call and clearing thoughts.
Hum of wind-washed grasses, bent in rhythm, amplifying the calm.

An old channel, guided by memories of flow, glistens its approach; 
drifting a lazy course,
now one with my own.
Two rabbits disturb this marsh stupor:
fen-land exile from beach-side camp.

Latent yet elemental, this low place - Marais Salants - exists for salt: sluice gates alone keep out the sea's patient intent; and for these short hours, a care-less hideaway is found here.
Ile de Noirmoutier, Vendee, France