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!
A list has a pleasingly predictable form. It names things, and arranges these things on the page in a way that’s helpful. Words have their own space, can be ranked from first to last, from least important to important; there can be groupings and trajectories or no particular order. Lists contain what’s essential, often without the framework of grammar. They can be ticked, crossed off, thrown away. I found the one pictured on the street. It is functional but it could point to a story or many stories. Or not. It satisfies in its simplicity and in the simple connection it creates between writer and reader.
Within poems, lists of gorgeous words or lists of synonyms can be problematic. Each word needs to earn its place and if it doesn’t, the writer can be accused of indulgence, simply grandstanding a knowledge of synonyms or exuding a love of words themselves, for their own sakes but for little else but done well, lists generate their own energy with a forward movement which can be exhilarating for the reader.
The master of the poetic list is Walt Whitman. The whole of 'Leaves of Grass' is just one great list made of lots of little lists. It’s easy to suspect him of indulgence. You can feel that there are too many words. But then, that’s part of his point, and anyway it’s not the list itself but how the list of lists resolves that matters most:
The lists in the first two lines here create momentum and the resolution is a journey into outer space. The “circled and circled” indicates that you’re heading somewhere else; that odd “we two have” reaches too far, is drawn back to “We have” and the rest that follows heads at speed into the unknown. What does “voided” mean here? Who knows, but it’s the vehicle that’s takes us somewhere beyond where we might have thought we were heading.
A rush, an exuberance, a surfeit is part of the list poem. If you don’t like feeling overwhelmed, don’t read it, because once you’ve committed, you know you’re in for a certain kind of ride. You know the formal territory - the form brings along its good friend repetition, which, if handled well, can be soothing or exciting. But there’s also tension from the beginning: what does the writer have to say which requires a list, which implies a lot of something? Can the writer sustain it? Will the list get bogged down in its own sameness or will the weight of the list help the poem to take off? How much of it can you take? How will it end? A functional list, say a shopping list, doesn’t have a conclusion but a poem which is a list is racing towards revelation. It wants to be going somewhere, to a certain ending. The end of a list poem can be its best feature and the rest of it, the run up, needs to be carefully paced. And it doesn’t need to have, like Whitman’s lists, the noise of an engine. Madeleine Wurzberger’s 'The Keeping' takes us back to the Middle Ages and moves towards it’s ending with the grace of a gliding bird:
The movement here is a forward motion that folds back on itself, the last line an extension of all that came before but also a tucking in. The endings of list poems need to be conclusive but the ending isn’t everything. Linda France, in 'A Hundred Ways to Know Our Place', uses the “ways of” form, (notably employed by William Carlos Williams in his 'Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird'), to interrogate a single idea from a number of different, and formally different, angles. Here the voices of Victorian women echo through Ridley Hall in Northumberland, each entry shining a light on a different facet of the conventions and constraints of womanhood at a particular moment:
Lists make for good testimonies. Both Kai Miller and Terrance Hayes use lists of names as different kinds of roll call. Miller honours the dead found “in nearby bushes”:
Hayes lists the names of people among an alphabet of things that “kill me” (this phrase used both negatively and positively):
In all of these poems I like the balance of repetition and variation, within the line and from line to line, the sudden trip or skip or burst of surprise when you don’t expect it, usually when you’ve been lulled, and the ending, which in each is like that moment when the wheels of a plane lift from the runway and you know that something seemingly too heavy for flight has been so carefully constructed that it can defy gravity.
I wrote 'Summon the Object', a list poem, as an exercise in looking while walking through the street market in Deptford one Saturday morning. I wanted to really look, and to name everything I saw in plain language, without embellishment. On one level, it’s a straightforward things-you-see-in-a-market poem. I’m not sure it takes flight under its own volition – maybe a few attempts to head skyward in the sense that God keeps interjecting as the ordinary gets on with itself.
But this turned out to be the last Saturday before lockdown and there’s a sense of impending change, which I don’t think I consciously wrote in, it was just there, in the looking. And if the poem does achieve any kind of transcendence, I think this might be delivered by the context, some of which is in the poem, though presented, at the time, as no more important than anything else.
It began as a straightforward one-line-after-the-other list poem, then I put it in prose-poetry-like stanzas, then it settled into this final form, which I think I stole from my reading of either Ocean Vuong or Mary Jean Chan. Which is a reminder that if you don’t really know what you’re doing, it can help to look over the shoulder of someone who does.
Walt Whitman, 'You and I …', reprinted in What is the Grass, Walt Whitman in My Life, Mark Doty, Jonathan Cape 2020
Madeleine Wurzberger, 'The Keeping' from Only a Few Are Looking at the Sky at the Right Moment, Agnes Kirk Press, 2019
Linda France, 'A Hundred Ways to Know Our Place', The Knucklebone Floor, Hareshaw Press, 2020
Kei Miller, 'Here Where Once Lay the Bodies', in nearby bushes, Carcanet, 2019
Terrance Hayes, 'Aryans, Betty Crocker, Bettye LaVette', American Sonnet for My Past and Future Assassin,
Kate Ling and Jon Nicholls, 'Sumkon the Object', All of It, Agnes Kirk Press, 2020
If you’re writing formal verse, the shape of the poem is dictated by the form you have chosen. When writing free verse, where to make verse breaks is one of the choices you make for yourself and, before you are confident in your own voice, you might go through a series of drafts, making different choices about verse breaks, trying to anticipate the effect of each decision on the reader. There’s a lot of guesswork – what does it mean if a break a stanza here, or there or not at all? How do I want it to read?
Established poets, who know what they and other poets are about, can help.
Mark Doty, writing about Whitman (What is the Grass, Walt Whitman in My Life, Jonathan Cape 2020), argues that the relationship Whitman sets up with his reader is as much a function of the way the poem appears on the page as it is in the direct address, the language he uses or the subject matter.
“Having been a printer myself,” Whitman told Horace Traubel, “I have what may be called an anticipatory eye – know pretty well as I write how a thing will turn up in the type – appear – take form.” Whitman set the first dozen pages or so of his first edition in type himself, and this section (Section 6, “an inquiry into the nature of grass”) was among those pages. You can feel the hand of the printer in them: the physical arrangement of the words on the page mirrors the movement of thought. Each proffered possibility gets its own stanza: a single image is presented, considered, set down. In the white space of silence between stanzas the poet seems to be gathering himself, feeling his way towards his next assertion. The mind pauses, dwells, prepares to speak … In Whitman’s hands … the blank space between stanzas seems athrum with possibility; we pause and watch thought loom up out of silence.”
Doty, in discussion with Sharon Olds, and reflecting on his own work, suggests that form can work in counterpoint to the subject in the poem, adding layers of meaning:
“I love stanzas, partly because … my grandmother was a quilt maker and she liked arranging things in patterns and so you make these structures out of triangles and squares and something happens as you vary them. There’s something about stanzas - it’s a wonderful way about making a pattern which exists on top of whatever the content of the poem is so that you get one pattern on top of another …”
This remark was in response to an assertion by Sharon Olds that she has “an allergy to stanzas”. Asked how the structure of her work developed over the years, she says,
“My lines didn’t change in that they’ve always been 4 beat lines. I’m a formalist. My verse looks free because it ends up with a ragged appearance that in its formal appearance is kind of a fireworks-like look on the page or a tree with branches or a person with many arms. Four beats per line with variations. The biggest change that became conscious maybe three books ago is to have them all in one clump - what’s it called stichic? – there, formal words for it. I call it a clump. I think of it as a torso, an intact torso. Having been raised on Christian hymns, I have an allergy to stanzas and that torso with an irregular side - it just makes me - when I look at the poem I feel right about it, and at the beginning - I had the four beat lines - I had really the rhythm and the meter but I didn’t know the look I wanted yet.”
Olds talks frequently about the amount of work she puts into the shaping of her poems, a degree of control which might seem at odds with the way she describes the first draft, coming to her, or even through her, as an automatic writing process:
“I think one of the reasons that I write is that in the concentration - then similes come into the poem through my writing arm and my pen - I don’t make them up - they just occur from the brain I guess and into the page … something happens then from the unconscious and I never know what it’s going to be …”
The final draft of Olds’ poems which make it to print (she confesses to writing “a lot” and to throwing most of it away) retains that sense of automatic flow despite the fact that the poems have been “worked”.
So what can we learn from Doty, Whitman and Olds about the stanza? That where to make a break is in “your anticipatory eye”; that you have an instinct for “how a thing … will appear”; that patterning can add a layer of meaning, which is with or against, under or over the content and that you need to discover “the look” you want. I imagine those instincts become more accessible the more you publish and get feedback from readers. As Frank O’Hara famously said, “You go on your nerve.” He’s right, but for some of us that isn’t as easy as he makes it sound. As Olds suggests, it can take time to know what you’re looking for.
By way of example, I’ll end this post with versions of a short poem that took more work than any of the longer, seemingly more complex poems in All of it, where it appears. The fourth version is the final version and, as you can see, very similar to the first, though with less dramatic punctuation. I had to twist it out of shape to know what shape I wanted. Maybe this is true for all poets or maybe, as you become more familiar with your “anticipatory eye”, your “nerve”, you can afford to skip a few drafts before you understand the poem to be complete.
Version 1: Sparrowhawk Over Raja Tomb
My mother in a camel coat beside my father
laughing - now only sunlight, a pavement -
she seemed weightless - on the edge
of a joke my father had made -
the light alive - all of it -
Version 2: Sparrowhawk Over Raja Tomb
My mother laughing
now only sunlit pavement
on the edge of a joke my father made
the light alive - all of it
Version 3: Sparrowhawk
the edge of a
the light alive
- all of it
Version 4: Sparrowhawk
A photograph of my mother in a camel coat
beside my father laughing.
She seems weightless,
on the edge of a joke my father made,
the light alive, all of it.