Yesterday I went to an exhibition of patchwork quilts. Beautiful, intricate work, many hours in the making. The quilts reminded me of Margaret Atwood's brilliant novel Alias Grace where each section is named from a patchwork design.
In one room was a demonstration of needle felting with skeins of Texel wool. I thought of a poetry discussion I led last week in which the subject of sheep poems came up - rather as an aside. The only sheep poetry I could think of on the spur of the moment was by David Scott. Anyone who has seen our native Cumbrian sheep will recognise them in "Herdwick" - "their Quaker grey heads", sheep who travel "at a tinker's pace, their wagon of rags / splashed with ochre". In his companion poem, "Flanking Sheep in Mosedale" he writes of the sheep "strewn like crumbs / across the fell".
I turned to R S Thomas, a poet who spent much of his life amongst sheep farmers. I found his early "The Welsh Hill Country" where the sheep are "arranged romantically in the usual manner / On a bleak background of bald stone" but to get that far in the poem you must first encounter "The fluke and the foot-rot and the fat maggot."
Sheep poems tend to be more about sheep husbandry than sheep - for example Norman MacCaig's "Sheep dipping" in which a man ticks (note the pun) "in a glossy book / the tally of the just baptised".
Gillian Clarke is a sheep farmer as well as a poet. She has a short sequence of sheep poems in Five Fields from "Flesh" ("the wethers walk to their death") to the new life of "A Difficult Birth Easter 1998" (juxtaposed with the news of the Northern Irish peace negotiations) and "A Very Cold Lamb". My sheep farming friends can identify that moment when lambs start "warming to the idea of staying alive".
The foot and mouth epidemic hit Cumbria particularly hard. Another shepherd poet, Josephine Dickinson, devoted much of The Voice to chronicling the outbreak. "Good Friday 2001" juxtaposes - to devastating effect - Biblical phrases about the paschal lamb with descriptions of the sheep cull.
A lighter touch (but not light-weight - she has a Simone Weil epigraph) is Kerry Hardie's "Sheep Fair Day" with its arresting opening sentence: "I took God with me to the sheep fair." I found the poem in the popular anthology Being Alive.
In midwinter I am often wake before dawn (not difficult this far north!). On a frosty mornings I notice the sheep next to our house huddled together in a flock in the middle of the field. I assume this is some instinct to avoid hedges where foxes might lurk. Also safety in numbers - closing ranks against possible predators. Michael Longley notices a similar phenomenon in "The Fold" (from A Hundred Doors):
"Why would the ewes and their lambs
Assemble as though hypnotised
Around the cottage?"
In the poem the "darkness and quiet" are "folding / All the sheep of Carrigskeewaun", and their wool provides a comfort blanket for his granddaughter, Catherine, "asleep in her crib / This midnight, our lambing time." (My favourite sheep poem)
But, despite a long tradition of the Pastoral in English literature, I don't think any writer has quite captured the sheepness of sheep. By contrast Thom Gunn writes convincingly from a dog's viewpoint in his "Yoko" and Les Murray from the point of view of cattle in "The Cows on Killing Day" (you can find this poem at www.poetryfoundation.org).
After writing this post I discovered that Candlestick Press had published Ten Poems about Sheep. It includes two of the poems I mention and confirms my suspicions - "very few poets actually write about sheep" (Neil Astley in the introduction). There is scope for more sheep poems.