We are delighted to share this guest post by Madeleine Wurzburger which explores the theme of animals in poetry and makes reference to her poem 'Boast' from Only a Few are Looking at the Sky at the Right Moment.
What is it about animals in poems? For the poet, there is something mystical, other-worldly, elusive: ‘out there’ might be the sea, where we cannot easily follow. But even animals standing in front of us remain distant; all humans can really do is watch, wonder, feel an imprint: ‘the grassy form of the hare...the warmth it leaves behind’ (‘Form’, Michael Longley). If we are lucky, we may have the privilege of briefly being inside an animal’s head. Here is Japanese poet Shinjiro Kurahara’s evocative ‘A Footprint’, worth quoting in full:
A reviewer, writing about the work of American poet Robert Wrigley said: ‘Wrigley ponders what it is that we have that animals lack, and what animals have that we can only long for: their perfect fit with the cosmos...’
Is it the ‘perfect fit’ or is it the mystery, the longing? We may want to imitate animal serenity (Wrigley aspiring to the ‘stillness/of the great blue heron’ in ‘The Afterlife’) but we also require the unearthly quality animals possess to remain undiscovered. We need to decode what the barking dogs are saying (Latin American poet Eduardo Chirinos’ ‘Dogs in the Night’), to believe in the dog that ‘carries galaxies on its back’ - not to discover that ‘dogs bark simply/because they can’t do anything else’. The magical element might rub off on us; there is a possibility that we too can be wonderful.
As meta-beings, animals take on a sacred significance, at times becoming divinities themselves. Thanks to the owl in the wood, Alice Oswald is ‘straight through to God’ (‘Owl’). Michael Longley talks of an owl’s ‘otherworldliness’, that its hoot is ‘the voice of God’ (‘Owl Cases’) while his poem ‘Lost’ offers ideas of Christianity, loss, sacrifice and grief all in one line:
Sometimes, creatures appear as fallen angels. In Paul Muldoon’s ‘Mules’, it is impossible to believe that the mule foal ‘sprang from earth’ due to ‘the afterbirth/Trailed like some fine, silk parachute,/That we would know from what heights it fell.’ At the other end of the Christian scale, Tua Forsström’s fieldmouse recognises its place in the scheme of things, and no human prayer could be more expressive, wistful or appreciative:
More often, animals are relied on to explain the mysteries of the world, acting as oracles that untangle life’s complexities: ‘Where does the world begin and end?’ a stork is asked in Zoltán Zelk’s ‘Storks’: ‘The pond is all. The world’s the pond.’ Tomas Tranströmer’s moths themselves are the message: ‘small pale telegrams from the world.’ (‘Lament’). Moles, in John Burnside’s ‘Epistemology’ are busy ‘decoding a muffled existence they would guess/was music...’
If animals act as spiritual guide, they are also present in a physical sense: they simply live. In Whitman’s view, animals are just more skilled at this than humans. He lists reasons in ‘Song of Myself’ to explain why he spends so much time in their company:
The human ego, full of insecurities and self-pity, is dismantled; greed and consumerism ridiculed. This was in 1855... By contrast, animals have managed to retain their uncorrupted natures.
‘Animals cannot reach the bottom of their innocence’ is the extraordinary line in Edvard Kocbek’s ‘Landscape’ and it is clear that innocence here is prelapsarian, what we once had and lost; the thing ‘we can only long for.’ Similarly, Theodore Roethke (master of the animal poem) finds freedom and a childlike delight in being ‘with the fish, the blackening salmon, and the mad lemmings...’, shucking off cares and hatreds (‘The Longing’) and imagining reincarnation: ‘I’ll return again,/As a snake or a raucous bird,/Or, with luck, as a lion.’ (‘The Far Field’). In all ways, animals hold the key to a bearable existence. If we can uncover what song the robin is singing, we might know ourselves. Or live better. If in our ‘botched’ existence ‘there’s hardly a vocabulary left to wonder’ (‘A Hermit Thrush’, Amy Clampitt), we can at least be open to ‘that moment when the bird sings very close/To the music of what happens.’ (‘Song’, Seamus Heaney)
In a primal sense, we seem to need the approval of animals, as if they serve as parent, devoted friend, the gods we used to worship. What do you think? We ask them. What do you make of our bizarre world? Here is Czesław Miłosz’s wonderful solution in ‘Throughout Our Lands’:
The humid snout is perfect!
Animal as guiding light is a well-used trope. But other writers tap into our darker, primeval selves. Humans are also animals and we live more truthfully when listening to those instincts: ‘do not forget/to be animal, fit and sinuous,/torrid in violence, wanting everything here/on earth...’ Quasimodo tells us in ‘Only if Love Should Pierce You’. More humorously (but with bite), Erich Kästner reminds us that for all our technological advances and pretensions, we are ‘still the same old monkeys.’ (‘The Development of Mankind’)
Animals are a supreme example of how to seize the moment. Never is this clearer than in Hermann Hesse’s ‘A Swarm of Gnats’; the whole astonishing poem glitters with the life-force of the insects ‘carousing’ against death. It’s the last dance before the apocalypse, and the gnats out-perform any decadent royal court: ‘Whole kingdoms, sunk into ruin,/...Have never known of so fierce a dancing.’ Surely Zaffar Kunial had this in mind when he wrote in ‘Early Draft’: ‘Gnats/ were storming through the grass, swerving death, jittery/ for wisdom.’ Nobody better than short-lived insects to tell us that ‘life passes in a smudge.’ Miroslav Holub’s fly might witness the whole brutal battle of Crécy, apparently impervious to death though the violence is all around, but she, too, is gone in a moment: ‘And thus it was/that she was eaten by a swift/fleeing/from the fires of Estrées.’ (‘The Fly’).
That vulnerability means human care and protection is vital. Sharon Olds hopes her bee, after being rescued from a city pavement, put into a floral hankie and shaken out of a taxi window, will ‘hear/and feel huge rushes of tread and wind/like flight, like the bee-god’s escape.’ Freedom is always uncertain. In Christopher Reid’s ‘Fly’ ‘a gap of air/waits, but this has/not yet been vouchsafed to the fly.’ It is always ourselves that we hope to rescue, that we pity; uncertain whether we will be ‘vouchsafed’ liberty or captivity; life or death. James Wright’s brown cricket is luckier than some, protected by the poet’s shadow that is sent back ‘to stand guard’ while the poet himself remains ‘shadowless/At the small golden door of your body till you wake/In a book that is shining.’ (‘Poems To A Brown Cricket’). Here, human is friend and guardian. Vigilance is necessary; an understanding between animal and human can always be begun: in ‘Birds, at Random’ Jacques Prévert writes ‘I learned very late to love birds/...we understand each other’. The connection seems reciprocal but it is the birds who ‘set an example/...the example of the heart of birds/the light of birds.’ Perhaps the most extraordinary depiction of tenderness towards animals is in Jon Silkin’s ‘Caring for Animals’. Why should we care for ‘small animals/with bitter eyes’ he asks, and answers ‘Yet the animals, our ghosts, need tending to./Take in the whipped cat and the blinded owl;’ by doing so, we learn love for each other. In fact, we are these damaged, put-upon creatures; lashing out at ourselves and fellow humans. At our best, we might aspire to the symbiotic relationship between bull and nightjar in José Watanabe’s ‘The Arrangement’: beast and bird enjoy ‘a vast tenderness’ that we could do well to copy.
More familiarly, humans are pointlessly destructive. Man’s cruelty to animals is a kind of cliched sub-heading of poetry: William Blake’s ‘hunted hare’,‘starv’d’ dog and ‘wanton Boy that kills the Fly’ ‘The Marriage of Heaven and Hell’ (though Blake presents a strong sense of outrage and implied comeuppance for such behaviour). This same cruelty is shown when we tamper with the earth’s fragile ecosystem, the ‘quivering green music of animals’ (Natalie Diaz’s ‘Wolf OR-7’). Such poems, speaking out against injustices inflicted on any kind of life, are not afraid to carry a strong moral message. By our casual destruction of animals and their habitats, we destroy ourselves and our planet. David Harsent mourns the hen harrier, a bird on the verge of extinction, and here shot before she can breed: ‘her skydance went for nothing.’ (‘Bowland Beth’). If we are talking about ‘extinction’ poems (and how can that be ignored in our current age?) there are plenty. Poets have been facing reality for decades. W.S.Merwin in ‘For A Coming Extinction’ (1967), ‘Gray whale/Now that we are sending you to The End/...’ and Hans Magnus Enzensberger in ‘The End of the Owls’ (2002) both consider the possible extinction of certain species with a mix of anger, sadness and bewilderment. Paul Farley in ‘For the House Sparrow, in Decline’ misses how the sparrow ‘once supplied/the incidental music of our lives.’ Our obliviousness is part of the problem. Jorie Graham reminds us that ‘we live beneath the geese/as if beneath the passage of time’ in ‘The Geese’ but most of us are too busy to notice; finely-tuning our senses in order to locate our place in the natural world, suggest these poets, would be a start.
Even the demise of an individual animal erodes us. In Jon Silkin’s ‘Death of a Bird’ the burial of the bird means that in the poet’s mind ‘a space is taken away.’ W.S Merwin’s life is inextricably bound up with his visiting fox; something that man and fox were together ends when the fox is ‘no longer anything’ and words must find their own place in ‘the silence after the animals.’ (‘Vixen’)
Birds have a special significance for poets. Wings, feathers, birdsong, flight offer irresistible metaphors for human endeavour, hope (‘“Hope” is the thing with feathers - /That perches in the soul -’, Emily Dickinson), freedom, joy, the brevity of life (Bede’s sparrow in the meadhall, used by Gillian Allnutt among others). It would be tempting to venture into Emily Dickinson’s strange and magical birdworld (or Dickinson’s world generally) but for now, Finnish poet Gösta Ågren’s aphoristic ‘Life and death are wings of the same bird.’ (‘Thesis’) tells us all we need to know.
I am spoilt for choice in picking a single animal that is meaningful for poets. Possibly every kind of creature, real and mythical, has made its way into somebody’s work. Hares are popular (mystical). Birds, as mentioned, have everything to say about life. Sheep seem to inspire humour and are often found grazing (sorry) in children’s poetry (’Sheep Don’t Go to School’, Sándor Weöres). But it is the horse that seems the most emblematic and magical (’All horses are spells’, Camargues, David Morley). The mysterious creatures emerging from mist in Rutger Kopland’s ‘Horses’ who have ‘come out of a past,/hesitated, and turned back into it’; the animals in Eiléan Ní Chuilleanáin’s ‘The Horses of Meaning’ who foretell our (possibly dark) future: ‘Let their hooves print the next bit of the story/...Can this be the end of their flight?’ Pablo Neruda will not forget ‘the light of the horses’ (‘Horses’); James Wright’s encounter with two Indian ponies provokes an ecstatic, out-of-body experience: ‘Suddenly I realise/That if I stepped out of my body I would break/Into blossom.’ ‘(A blessing’). Robert Wrigley’s gelding allows a kiss ‘so that I could smell/the long way his breath had come from the rain/and the sun, the lungs and the heart,/from a world that meant no harm.’ (‘Kissing a Horse’). David Morley’s Camargues offer even more succour, becoming shelter for humans: ‘Some horses are caves.../You can walk inside horses/and sense their walls trembling around you.’ Somehow, this seems possible. More than magical, these horses are ‘myth’ that we can ‘catch...on horseback.’ (‘Camargues’). Morley prefixes the poem with a line from Les Murray: ‘I will wake up in a world that hooves have led to.’ If horses are dark and mysterious, they also lead us to light; the implication is that we can get there if we travel with these animals, catching their backs ‘like luck.’
Let’s hold on, imitate and wonder while we can.
‘Boast’; a Brief Background
‘Boast’ was inspired by a whale fable in the medieval Bestiary, a popular compendium using real and mythical creatures to teach a moral lesson. In a 13th century version, unwary sailors land their boat on a vast whale, believing it to be an island, and light a fire on its back. Angrily, the whale thrashes its tail, plunging the men to their deaths. As a typical Christian allegory, the whale represents the Devil, luring the weak of faith to their doom:
Who listens to the Devil’s lore
At last shall find it grieves him sore:
Who hopes by it to prosper well
Shall follow him to darkest hell.
A colourful medieval illustration on the British Library website was equally fascinating. The whale is actually a giant scaly fish! And the whale has stayed still for so long that greenery has grown on its back. There is a delicious naivety in these depictions. Probably the artist had never set eyes on a whale. And does it matter? It’s all about invention and perception. These sailors are so desperate for land, they see a fertile island in their imaginations: ‘a tree had sprouted’. Having found ‘land’, the mariners now want to impress one another with their superior seamanship; boastfulness, male rivalry and complete obliviousness to their natural surroundings brings them down. I wanted the message in my poem to be not religious or moral but environmental: look what happens when we behave thoughtlessly. Nature always wins. Despite man’s interference, the sea will survive, though we may not. Here, the whale, a natural ship, survives, too: ‘and after this breaking, the whale sailed on.’
I couldn’t resist a kind of homage to ‘Sir Patrick Spens’ a traditional Scottish ballad that I’ve loved since childhood. In the story, the king sends the hero out to sea in a fierce storm; the ship soon founders and the sea comes rushing in: ‘the salt sea’s in at our coat neck/And out at the left arm.’ The specificity of this image as well as the direct speech makes the horror all the more agonising and pathetic. I hoped for a similar effect at the end of ‘Boast’: ‘the sea came in at our sleeves/the sea did not run out again.’
Ballads traditionally use factual, unadorned language and have a strong, often tragic, narrative conveying a moral message; all elements that seemed appropriate for my poem. And I love ballads!