Saturday, 31 January 2015

In praise of an unlikely poem

I’ve been rereading Wild Reckoning since quoting from it in my last post - the anthology inspired by Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring, edited by Maurice Riordan and John Burnside.  It’s a commonplace that a pleasure of poetry anthologies is discovering poems one would never have read otherwise.  A variation on this is the discovery of poems one would never have considered reading.  This one is by Joseph Campbell.  The title is Latin for ‘To the Threshold’.

Ad Limina

The ewes and lambs, loving the far hillplaces,
Cropping by choice the succulent tops of heather,
Drinking the pure water of cloudborn lochlands,
Resting under erratics fostered with Abel –
Come to my haggard gate, my very doorstep.

The birds of freest will and strongest wingbeat,
Sad curlew, garrulous stonechat, hawk and coaltit,
Haunting lone bog or scalp or broken ruin,
Poising the rough thrust of air’s excesses –
Come to my haggard gate, my very doorstep.

The trout in the river, below the hanging marllot,
Swift, with ancestral fear of hook and shadow,
The elvers of cold drain and slough, remembering
The warm tangles of Caribbee and Sargasso –
Come to my haggard gate, my very doorstep.

Even the stoats and rats, who know a possessor
Of the rare sixth sense, the bardic insight,
Match, and more, for their devilish perversions,
And the deer, shyest of shy at autumn rutting –
Come to my haggard gate, my very doorstep.

Am I not a lucky man, trusted, Franciscan,
That these spacious things, gentle or hostile,
Following God’s urge, denying their nature,
Harbingers of high thoughts and fathers of poems –
Come to my haggard gate, my very doorstep.

It’s the rhythm that makes this poem, a strong five-beat rhythm that prevails despite many oddities of stress.  It gives a rugged feel (to go with “haggard”) and sends us lurching through the rough landscape that’s invoked.  Every line thumps to its end in a trochee.  Despite the title there are few Latinate words.  The author was a Gaelic speaker interested in Irish folklore and I wonder how much the rhythm and other aspects of this poem take from that. 

I’m up high with the sheep straight off, and the birds, and down with the elvers in their cold drain.  Relishable, now-unthinkable phrases such as “cloudborn lochlands” and “poising the rough thrust of air’s excesses” somehow create a space, a landscape in which others such as “sad curlew” become acceptable. (“Marllot”, by the way, isn’t in the Shorter OED; I assume it’s a lot of land whose soil is marl.  And I think the Abel reference must be to his job as a shepherd.) 

This magical space seems to dissolve in the last two verses, and I can’t defend the shy deer or the second last line of the poem.  But I like the way that the refrain can be either a summons or a statement, until the last verse; and the speaker’s wild-man / St Francis persona.  By invoking the various creatures, “spacious things” in their landscape, he celebrates them all – and draws the reader in with the beat of the words. 

Alongside all this, I like it that the poem challenges my deeply contemporary tastes and prejudices.

Joseph Campbell (unatrributed)
“Prolific poet and committed republican” is how Joseph Campbell is summarised in his short page on  “His several volumes of poems have not worn well”, says  He was born in Belfast in 1879, took part in the Easter rising and was on the Republican side in the Irish civil war, moved to the US after being interned, and finally “lived in seclusion at a farmstead in Glencree, Co Wicklow, until his death” in 1944.   

Wild Reckoning doesn’t have notes on poets and doesn’t credit any particular collection for ‘Ad Limina’ or give a date.  No link for the anthology, because it’s not easily available.  There are a few used copies from sellers via Amazon for around £25… and one new copy, for £3,878.39 (plus £2.80 postage).  How on earth…? 

Friday, 16 January 2015

The Rialto Nature Poetry Competition; eco-anthologies. Green(s) in politics - how to respond to Ofcom

“The term ‘Nature Poetry’ will be given a very wide interpretation by the judge.”  That’s the first thing you’ll read if you look up the Rialto/RSPB Nature Poetry Competition.  I think it’s code for: abandon all prejudice against the words ‘nature’ and ‘poetry’ next to each other.  By now we should have outgrown that.  We are living in a post-post-post Wordsworth era (and anyway think of his ecstasies of mountain and lake, the walking, the crag-scrambling**, the skating).  

From loss of biodiversity to climate change there isn’t a more urgent subject to write about.  It’s also very challenging, to do well: how does poetry find its own space among all the other discourse, whether political, scientific or psychogeographical?  One poem that moves between detail and universality is ‘The Assault on the Fields’ by Alabama-born poet Rodney Jones, which from the opening lines creates a sort of magnificence of horror:

It was like snow, if snow could blend with air and hover,
   making, at first,
A rolling boil, mottling the pine thickets behind the fields,
   but then flattening

As it spread above the fenceposts and the whiteface cattle,
   an enormous, luminous tablet,
A shimmering, an efflorescence, through which my father
   rode on his tractor,

Masked like a Martian or a god to create the cloud where
   he kept vanishing;

The whole poem is here and Rodney Jones reads some shorter poems here. It’s in Wild Reckoning, a hard-to-find anthology inspired by Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring, edited by Maurice Riordan and John Burnside.  Another good anthology is Neil Astley’s Earth Shattering (Bloodaxe), a near-square slab of a book with interesting background and context on the authors.  Another is The Ground Aslant (Shearsman) edited by Harriet Tarlo and reviewed on Displacement here, which contains a selection of contemporary British writers from Peter Riley to Helen Macdonald of H is for Hawk fame.   

Closing date for the Rialto/RSPB competition is 1 March.  It’s becoming an annual fixture: this one, judged by long-distance walker and bird anthology compiler Simon Armitage, is the third.  You can enter here…

The state of the planet is a constant thought track at the back of the mind. Sometimes it’s good to take other action about it, however small, as some sort of compensation for writing failure. 

Lots of people have been angered by Ofcom’s refusal to allow the Green Party the status of a major political party, which means that broadcasters are legally entitled to leave them out of live pre-election leadership debates.  I’m also infuriated by Miliband’s refusal to address the issue (Cameron’s position that the Greens must be included if he’s to take part is preferable, however cynical the motivation).  It seems counter-productive: under our broken electoral system won’t Miliband & co need to persuade Green supporters to vote Labour in marginal constituencies, to keep out the Tories?

It is actually possible to do something about Ofcom: they are running a consultation on their document containing the decision.  You can respond online here.  Deadline 5 February.  If you feel like doing so, here are some of the arguments. 
  • The report places too much weight on looking back at past elections, rather than at current trends. 
  • Ofcom’s own figures (p36) show that support for the Greens throughout Great Britain has risen from 2% to almost 6% in the last two years
  • Green Party membership is now nearly 45,000, overtaking the Lib Dems and Ukip.  [This figure will soon be out of date because there’s been a 2,000-a-day membership surge in the last couple of days.]
  • Over 275,000 people have signed a petition asking the major broadcasters to include the Greens in election debates. 
  • In the last Euro elections, the Lib Dems got 1 seat and the Greens 3.
  • An ICM poll last month showed 79% of respondents supported Green inclusion.
  • High numbers of young people support the Green Party.  A December YouGov poll showed 25% of under 25s supporting the Greens, compared to 11% for UKIP and 6% for the Lib Dems - thus putting the Greens into third place in this age group.  A YouthSight poll of students last month showed Green supporters at 24%, in second place to Labour.
  • Young people are less likely to vote anyway, and we should be addressing both actual disenfranchisement and negative attitudes to political participation.  Why should a quarter of under 25's bother if their preferred party is excluded from debates? 
I’ve also joined the Green Party today, as part of the surge.  Have been thinking about it for a while.  This may be an exasperating experience.  Feel free to bet on how long I’ll last.   

**In pursuit of birds’ eggs…

Nor less, when spring had warmed the cultured Vale,
Moved we as plunderers where the mother-bird
Had in high places built her lodge; though mean
Our object and inglorious, yet the end
Was not ignoble. Oh! when I have hung                     
Above the raven's nest, by knots of grass
And half-inch fissures in the slippery rock
But ill sustained, and almost (so it seemed)
Suspended by the blast that blew amain,
Shouldering the naked crag, oh, at that time
While on the perilous ridge I hung alone,
With what strange utterance did the loud dry wind
Blow through my ear! the sky seemed not a sky
Of earth and with what motion moved the clouds!

Wordsworth, Prelude book one.