Sunday, 21 April 2013

WORKING THE FURROWS

Cullivoe Harbour, Isle of Yell, Shetland – I watched a large flock of seabirds approaching.  At first they were just a white cloud on the horizon, but as they came nearer I could see the outline of the fishing trawler they were pursuing, gorging on discards. 
Recently I was reminded of that holiday memory when I saw a flock of gulls following a tractor which was ploughing the field opposite my house.  The birds were constantly on the move, swooping and wheeling in flight, their tails white vanes against the sun.  Often I see one or two or at most half a dozen flying over but where had all the extras come from?  How did they know to come here?  Where would they commute back to in the evening?
I thought of Philip Gross’s “Betweenland VI” poem in The Water Table where he describes “The gulls going home from the city, / from a day’s work at the landfill”.  The word gull also means to trick and the poem has its own trick at the end – a pun on home and holm. 
Gulls are not the most poetic of birds.  It’s the smaller birds that vie for the top of the lyrical charts – skylarks, nightingales, blackbirds.  Norman MacCaig, an enthusiastic author of bird poems, wrote “Gulls on a hill loch” in which he describes disturbing a colony which reacts in mad, defiant “Gothic scritches and yells”.   Kathleen Jamie’s “sea maws” are Scottish too: in “The Whale-Watcher” the poet envisages spending a cold summer holed up in a battered caravan at the end of the road where there is nothing but “harsh grass, sea-maws, / lichen encrusted bedrock”.  Then there is the solitary bird trying to fly against the gale in Ted Hughes’ early masterpiece “Wind”:
“ ... a black-
back gull bent like an iron bar slowly”.  

A perfect line break re-inforces the sense of the words.

But none of these gulls are linked with ploughing.  I thought of two famous plough poems, Edward Thomas’s “As the Team’s Head-Brass” and Paul Muldoon’s “Why Brownlee Left”.  No gulls - but neither of these is really about ploughing.  Thomas’s is about war, time, loss and love.  Muldoon’s is a mystery but you would expect that Mrs Brownlee (assuming there was one) might have noticed the absence of gulls a few hours after Brownlee abandoned the rig.   
It’s R S Thomas who captures the combination of birds and plough with a beautiful economy of words in “The Dark Well”.  He describes
                “A poor farmer with no name,
                  Ploughing cloudward, sowing the wind
                  With squalls of gulls at the day’s end”.

Sunday, 7 April 2013

THE BIG SUBJECT

“Don’t write poems about big subjects” (advice to students on a creative writing MA course). 

I heard this repeated last week at a poetry workshop – quoted by someone who had been on the course and had just read out a poem on – a big subject (the Holocaust).  But she approached the subject obliquely through a conversation between two people during a chance meeting on a journey.

Poetry’s way-in to big subjects is often through individuals and details – I think of that tender and poignant passage in the Iliad when Hector, saying farewell to Andromache and his baby son, takes off his plumed helmet because the child is frightened by it.  Frances Cornford did a moving four-line version of this episode updated to the Second World War and Euston waiting-room.  It’s “Parting in War-Time” (in Travelling Home) with a pen and ink illustration by Christopher Cornford.  It was one of the Poems for Peace on the Underground.    

Patricia McCarthy writes about the First World War in her fine poem “Clothes that escaped the Great War”.  She focuses on the horse and cart which took the young men off to war.  The poem is based on her mother’s childhood memory.

It won the National Poetry Competition recently and it’s brilliant.  Congratulations, Patricia.  You can read the poem here http://www.poetrysociety.org.uk/content/competitions/npc/npc2012winners

Meanwhile the afterlife of the Mirehouse Prize continues – follow the link to hear a reading of “Beech Trees” complete with a photo montage.  Digital credits and thanks due to Mike Smith and James Fryer-Spedding.   
It is also on You Tube at http://youtu.be/pHgxU86Q-dc