Featured Anthology: Earth Shattering

We have reached 2008 and the ecological and environmental issues pressing upon us are more prevalent than ever. Don’t worry, this is not going to be another lecture about recycling and using your car less (although I do suggest that both of these things are good to do), it is simply a fact: man (and woman) are in conflict with nature. This is nothing new, of course. Throughout the history of mankind we have lived in both harmony with nature and also shown it a serious disrespect.

Towards the end of last year, Bloodaxe published an anthology of poems called Earth Shattering, a collection of work tackling not only the evident contemporary issues such as global warming, extinction of species and the felling of rainforests but also a retrospective look at ecological poems: from the wilderness poetry of ancient China to postcolonial and feminist perspectives, all addressing environmental destruction and ecological balance. The collection features a wide-variety of poets, from Blake, Wordsworth, Keats and Hardy to Plath, Levertov, Constantine and Zephaniah. It is a diverse collection, exposing the ways in which the very structure of our living earth is being torn apart and the detrimental position of a modern world that is increasingly cutting itself off from nature.

Each day next week we will bring you one poem from the collection, showing that although poems may be small and seemingly inconsequential, their power and force will have an effect on every reader. If your resolve is stirred, you’re adding your voice to a collective call for change – and that’s a good way to start the year.

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Posted by Jen Tomkins

Featured Poem: Frost at Midnight

Coleridge’s poem ‘Frost at Midnight’ was written 210 years ago in early 1798. It is a poem that embodies the Romantic sensibility: the cold, calm night, the sleeping child, and thoughts of future possibilities. For Coleridge the city and the country were contrasting places. They are more so now; the idea of a city in which the stars are visible is impossible in our time. Still the contrast between the poet’s solitude and calmness and the busy, repeated ‘Sea, hill, and wood,’ tells us that it is not only urban settings that distract us from thinking about our place in the world. I think in the end it is the sleeping child that intrigues me most about this poem, being a symbol of the future, a responsibility to attend and the key to Coleridge’s meditation. There is a close relationship I think between this poem and Wordsworth’s ‘Upon Westminster Bridge’ except that here the ‘mighty heart … sleeping still’ takes the form of a child:

Frost at Midnight, by S.T. Coleridge

The Frost performs its secret ministry,
Unhelped by any wind. The owlet’s cry
Came loud–and hark, again! loud as before.
The inmates of my cottage, all at rest,
Have left me to that solitude, which suits
Abstruser musings: save that at my side
My cradled infant slumbers peacefully.
‘Tis calm indeed! so calm, that it disturbs
And vexes meditation with its strange
And extreme silentness. Sea, hill, and wood,
This populous village! Sea, and hill, and wood,
With all the numberless goings-on of life,
Inaudible as dreams! the thin blue flame
Lies on my low-burnt fire, and quivers not ;
Only that film, which fluttered on the grate,
Still flutters there, the sole unquiet thing.
Methinks, its motion in this hush of nature
Gives it dim sympathies with me who live,
Making it a companionable form,
Whose puny flaps and freaks the idling Spirit
By its own moods interprets, every where
Echo or mirror seeking of itself,
And makes a toy of Thought.
But O ! how oft,
How oft, at school, with most believing mind,
Presageful, have I gazed upon the bars,
To watch that fluttering stranger! and as oft
With unclosed lids, already had I dreamt
Of my sweet birth-place, and the old church-tower,
Whose bells, the poor man’s only music, rang
From morn to evening, all the hot Fair-day,
So sweetly, that they stirred and haunted me
With a wild pleasure, falling on mine ear
Most like articulate sounds of things to come!
So gazed I, till the soothing things, I dreamt,
Lulled me to sleep, and sleep prolonged my dreams!
And so I brooded all the following morn,
Awed by the stern preceptor’s face, mine eye
Fixed with mock study on my swimming book:
Save if the door half opened, and I snatched
A hasty glance, and still my heart leaped up,
For still I hoped to see the stranger’s face,
Townsman, or aunt, or sister more beloved,
My play-mate when we both were clothed alike!

Dear Babe, that sleepest cradled by my side,
Whose gentle breathings, heard in this deep calm,
Fill up the intersperséd vacancies
And momentary pauses of the thought!
My babe so beautiful! it thrills my heart
With tender gladness, thus to look at thee,
And think that thou shalt learn far other lore,
And in far other scenes! For I was reared
In the great city, pent ‘mid cloisters dim,
And saw nought lovely but the sky and stars.
But thou, my babe! shalt wander like a breeze
By lakes and sandy shores, beneath the crags
Of ancient mountain, and beneath the clouds,
Which image in their bulk both lakes and shores
And mountain crags: so shalt thou see and hear
The lovely shapes and sounds intelligible
Of that eternal language, which thy God
Utters, who from eternity doth teach
Himself in all, and all things in himself.
Great universal Teacher! he shall mould
Thy spirit, and by giving make it ask.
Therefore all seasons shall be sweet to thee,
Whether the summer clothe the general earth
With greenness, or the redbreast sit and sing
Betwixt the tufts of snow on the bare branch
Of mossy apple-tree, while the nigh thatch
Smokes in the sun-thaw; whether the eave-drops fall
Heard only in the trances of the blast,
Or if the secret ministry of frost
Shall hang them up in silent icicles,
Quietly shining to the quiet Moon.

(1798)

Posted by Chris Routledge, Powered by Qumana

Featured Poem: The Franklin’s Tale

On the last day of December our featured poem is a wintry extract from the Franklin’s Tale, from Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales. Bitter frosts are forecast for next week and this New Year’s Eve is warm and overcast, but nevertheless it is a night to ‘drynketh of his bugle horn the wyn’:

Phebus wax old, and hewed lyk laton,
That in his hoote declynacion
Shoon as the burned gold with stremes brighte;
But now in Capricorn adoun he lighte,
Where as he shoon ful pale, I dar wel seyn.
The bittre frostes, with the sleet and reyn,
Destroyed hath the grene in every yerd.
Janus sit by the fyr, with double berd,
And drynketh of his bugle horn the wyn;
Biforn hym stant brawen of the tusked swyn,
And "Nowel" crieth every lusty man.

Read the whole Canterbury Tales, in the original and modern English ‘translation’ at canterburytales.org, presented by the Electronic Literature Foundation.

Posted by Chris Routledge, Powered by Qumana

Recommended Poem: In The Bleak Midwinter

By Siobhan Chapman

I walked down Bold Street in Liverpool late in the afternoon one day last week, passing the gaudy decorations and hearing the ubiquitous refrain of Slade’s ‘Merry Christmas Everyone’. As I approached Central Station a lone trumpeter, busking on the other side of the street, struck up the opening bars of the tune to which Christina Rossetti’s ‘In the Bleak Mid Winter’ is set as a carol. For that moment, the clear notes of the trumpet cut through the tinselly hubbub, just as Rossetti’s words cut through the hype of Christmas. Whether or not you share Rossetti’s religion conviction, you can’t fault her plea for simplicity and sincerity in the face of ostentatious excess.

In the Bleak Midwinter

In the bleak mid-winter
Frosty wind made moan,
Earth stood hard as iron,
Water like a stone;
Snow had fallen, snow on snow,
Snow on snow,
In the bleak mid-winter
Long ago.

Our God, Heaven cannot hold Him
Nor earth sustain;
Heaven and earth shall flee away
When He comes to reign:
In the bleak mid-winter
A stable-place sufficed
The Lord God Almighty,
Jesus Christ.

Enough for Him, whom cherubim
Worship night and day,
A breastful of milk
And a mangerful of hay;
Enough for Him, whom angels
Fall down before,
The ox and ass and camel
Which adore.

Angels and archangels
May have gathered there,
Cherubim and seraphim
Thronged the air,
But only His mother
In her maiden bliss,
Worshipped the Beloved
With a kiss.

What can I give Him,
Poor as I am?
If I were a shepherd
I would bring a lamb,
If I were a wise man
I would do my part,
Yet what I can I give Him,
Give my heart.

(1872)

Featured Poem: On Wenlock Edge

A.E. Houseman’s poem ‘On Wenlock Edge …’ (1896) is one of my favourite poems, not least for its description of submission to the weather and the ‘anger’ of the wind. That sensation is one of the most exhilarating. In this poem Houseman makes a point of connecting his own moment with a continuity of human life around the Wrekin, but he avoids soft-hearted sentimentalism, choosing instead to focus on transitoriness. The ‘wind through woods in riot’ is no less than life itself. After a weekend in which Britain has been battered by wind, rain and, in my case, pantomime, here is a poem that celebrates our need to be rooted in place, yet takes a clear-eyed view of what good it will do us. It also contains one of the best first lines in all of English poetry.

‘On Wenlock Edge the wood’s in trouble’

On Wenlock Edge the wood’s in trouble
His forest fleece the Wrekin heaves;
The gale, it plies the saplings double,
And thick on Severn snow the leaves.

‘Twould blow like this through holt and hanger
When Uricon the city stood:
‘Tis the old wind in the old anger,
But then it threshed another wood.

Then, ’twas before my time, the Roman
At yonder heaving hill would stare:
The blood that warms an English yeoman,
The thoughts that hurt him, they were there.

There, like the wind through woods in riot,
Through him the gale of life blew high;
The tree of man was never quiet:
Then ’twas the Roman, now ’tis I.

The gale, it plies the saplings double,
It blows so hard, ’twill soon be gone:
To-day the Roman and his trouble
Are ashes under Uricon.

___

Posted by Chris Routledge, Powered by Qumana

Featured Poem: William Blake, ‘I saw a chapel all of gold’

By Jonathan Roberts 

This poem is quintessential Blake.  It comes from one of his notebooks known as ‘The Rossetti Manuscript’ which was bought, twenty years after Blake’s death, by Dante Gabriel Rossetti from Samuel Palmer’s brother. The intellectual independence of the work in the notebook was an inspiration to the nascent Pre-Raphaelite movement.

‘I saw a chapel all of gold’ was probably written around the time of Songs of Experience (1794), and like ‘The Sick Rose’ explores the human impact of social and religious systems that simultaneously idealize and denigrate sexuality.  The narrative is brief: mourning worshippers stand outside a golden chapel.  Without announcement, a serpent bursts down the chapel doors, slides up the aisle, and vomits onto the altar, onto the sacramental bread and wine.  The narrator, appalled by this scene, turns away from it, preferring to lie down among the pigs in a sty – the abject state reached by the prodigal son (Luke 15:11-32).

What is Blake up to?  The genital symbolism of the poem is clear: the serpent is phallic, the chapel pristine and virginal.  The event is a figuration of a transgressive sexual encounter.  The ejaculation of the final stanza could harldy be more offensive given the context.  When female sexuality is idealized, the poem suggests, repression and denigration will follow.

To secular eyes, Blake’s concern with the religious idealization of female sexuality may seem a thing from another age.  Not so – the issues remain though the framework has changed: in terms of (principally female) sexuality, religious idealizations have simply been replaced with the idealizations of commodity culture.  Christianity, Blake argues, should mean human liberation, not dehumanizing repression. Idealization – his work asserts – is a dangerous abstraction that ultimately leads to the denigration of all those involved: subjects, agents, and spectators.

‘I saw a chapel all of gold’

I saw a chapel all of gold
That none did dare to enter in
And many weeping stood without
Weeping mourning worshipping

I saw a serpent rise between
The white pillars of the door
And he forcd & forcd & forcd
Down the golden hinges tore

And along the pavement sweet
Set with pearls & rubies bright
All his slimy length he drew
Till upon the altar white

Vomiting his poison out
On the bread & on the wine
So I turnd into a sty
And laid me down among the swine

__

Jonathan Roberts is Lecturer in Romantic Literature in the School of English, University of Liverpool. His book William Blake’s Poetry was published by Continuum in 2007.

Featured Poem: Sonnet to William Wilberforce, Esq.

On November 26, 1731 the English poet and hymnodist William Cowper was born. Cowper trained as a lawyer but became increasingly troubled. He suffered from several bouts of depression, attempted suicide more than once, and was declared insane for a short period in the 1760s. He is now best known for his hymns, which include some of the best-known lines in the English hymnal, including this from the Olney Hymns:

GOD moves in a mysterious way,
His wonders to perform;
He plants his footsteps in the sea,
And rides upon the storm.

Cowper was a fine poet and though he was often didactic to the point of sermonising, like many evangelicals of the time he was unafraid of confronting authority and siding with just causes. This sonnet to William Wilberforce demonstrates his non-conformist sympathies:

Sonnet to William Wilberforce, Esq.

Thy country, Wilberforce, with just disdain,
Hears thee, by cruel men and impious, call’d
Fanatic, for thy zeal to loose th’ enthrall’d
From exile, public sale, and slav’ry’s chain.
Friend of the poor, the wrong’d, the fetter-gall’d,
Fear not lest labour such as thine be vain!
Thou hast achiev’d a part; hast gain’d the ear
Of Britain’s senate to thy glorious cause;
Hope smiles, joy springs, and tho’ cold caution pause
And weave delay, the better hour is near,
That shall remunerate thy toils severe
By peace for Afric, fenc’d with British laws.
Enjoy what thou hast won, esteem and love
From all the just on earth, and all the blest above!

Posted by Chris Routledge, Powered by Qumana

Featured Anthology: Staying Alive – Brendan Kennelly

As the end of the week arrives and the last poem from our featured anthology Staying Alive is posted, it seems somehow appropriate to have a poem about new beginnings. Moving forever forward, not backwards. As ‘Begin’ by Brendan Kennelly, one of Ireland’s most distinguished poets, so eloquently captures. Kennelly has said of himself, “If I’m anything, it’s open” and this is sustained in his writing, which has space for the virtuous, the merciless, the beautiful and the hideous.

Begin

Begin again to the summoning birds
to the sight of light at the window,
begin to the roar of morning traffic
all along Pembroke Road.
Every beginning is a promise
born in light and dying in dark
determination and exaltation of springtime
flowering the way to work.
Begin to the pageant of queuing girls
the arrogant loneliness of swans in the canal
bridges linking the past and the future
old friends passing through with us still.
Begin to the loneliness that cannot end
since it perhaps is what makes us begin,
begin to wonder at unknown faces
at crying birds in the sudden rain
at branches stark in the willing sunlight
at seagulls foraging for bread
at couples sharing a sunny secret
alone together while making good.
Though we live in a world that dreams of ending
that always seems about to give in
something that will not acknowledge conclusion
insists that we forever begin.

(This poem is reproduced with permission from Staying Alive: Real Poems for Unreal Times (2002, Bloodaxe Books), edited by Neil Astley.)

Featured Anthology: Staying Alive – Miroslav Holub

The fourth poet to feature from Staying Alive is Miroslav Holub, who was one of the Czech Republic’s most important poets and also a leading scientist (specialising in immunology). He died in 1998, leaving behind a legacy of work in both the artistic and scientific worlds. The scientist’s logic undoubtedly informs his poetic work, sometimes mathematical in their analogies but maintaining a bond with humanity. It is also characteristic of his poetry not to rhyme, lending itself to be easily translated (his work has been translated into thirty languages).

Scientists and poets share a similar curiosity about the world around them. Holub expects his readers to be curious in every direction, to leave nothing unquestioned and take nothing for granted. ‘The Door’ is typical of Holub’s sense of irony, an openness and wit that is contrasted with ethical severity, his insistence that we learn humility and above all an awakening of ourselves.

The Door

Go and open the door.
    Maybe outside there’s 
    a tree, or a wood,
    a garden,
    or a magic city.

Go and open the door.
    Maybe a dog’s rummaging.
    Maybe you’ll see a face,
or an eye,
or the picture
                        of a picture.

Go and open the door.
    If there’s a fog
    it will clear.

Go and open the door.
    Even if there’s only
    the darkness ticking,
    even if there’s only
    the hollow wind,
    even if
                 nothing
                               is there,
go and open the door.

At least
there’ll be
a draught.

translated from the Czech by Ian Milner

(This poem is reproduced with permission from Staying Alive: Real Poems for Unreal Times (2002, Bloodaxe Books), edited by Neil Astley.)

Featured Anthology: Staying Alive – David Constantine

As well as being a regular contributor to The Reader, David Constantine is a freelance writer, poet and translator. Possessing self-aware sensuality and an ability to combine mythological and Biblical narratives with ordinary, understandable emotion, Constantine’s poetry voices urgent themes of our contemporary world with a sense of rich, human acceptance.

The third poem to feature from Staying Alive is ‘Watching for Dolphins’, a poem that looks at what people seek in dolphins and the ephinany when discovering them. It is one of his most admired poems, evoking in unadorned, chaste diction, the bittersweet nature of human experience for all its dreams and disappointments.

Watching for Dolphins

In the summer months on every crossing to Piraeus
One noticed that certain passengers soon rose
From seats in the packed saloon and with serious
Looks and no acknowledgment of a common purpose
Passed forward through the small door into the bows
To watch for dolphins. One saw them lose

Every other wish. Even the lovers
Turned their desires on the sea, and a fat man
Hung with equipment to photograph the occasion
Stared like a saint, through sad bi-focals; others,
Hopeless themselves, looked to the children for they
Would see dolphins if anyone would. Day after day

Or on their last opportunity all gazed
Undecided whether a flat calm were favourable
Or a sea the sun and the wind between them raised
To a likeness of dolphins. Were gulls a sign, that fell
Screeching from the sky or over an unremarkable place
Sat in a silent school? Every face

After its character implored the sea.
All, unaccustomed, wanted epiphany,
Praying the sky would clang and the abused Aegean
Reverberate with cymbal, gong and drum.
We could not imagine more prayer, and had they then
On the waves, on the climax of our longing come

Smiling, snub-nosed, domes like satyrs, oh
We should have laughed and lifted the children up
Stranger to stranger, pointing how with a leap
They left their element, three or four times, centred
On grace, and heavily and warm re-entered,
Looping the keel. We should have felt them go

Further and further into the deep parts. But soon
We were among the great tankers, under their chains
In black water. We had not seen the dolphins
But woke, blinking. Eyes cast down
With no admission of disappointment the company
Dispersed and prepared to land in the city.

(This poem is reproduced with permission from Staying Alive: Real Poems for Unreal Times (2002, Bloodaxe Books), edited by Neil Astley.)