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"Creating a miniature anthology"

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Edited by Steven Oliver, Sunday, 29 Jan 2023, 10:23

The 'Reading Poetry' chapter of A111 has an online activity to select our own tiny anthology of poems from 'The Faber Book of Beasts', this was my attempt - with a few added photos.

This mini-anthology was prompted by reading one of the poems, Les Murray's 'Pigs'; a startling attempt at creating a distinct animal voice, one in which we also face square on to the process of routine animal slaughter. I decided to trawl 'The Faber Book of Beasts' for other (inevitably livestock) farming poems and explore briefly what poets may have to say about this relationship between humans and the natural world. To be included I thought that there should be at least some indication of a farm or farmer somewhere in the poem (so room for Craig Raine's 'Lamb', but not for Blake's). I found about thirteen poems in total and having decided that Heaney and Hughes could be allowed only one apiece I ended up with the following ‘collection’. A number make for quite tough reading, particularly all in one sitting - but with global livestock now outweighing wild mammals and birds by a factor of ten it feels a relationship we (particularly meat-eaters like me) should work at understanding.

 

1.Craig Raine, 'Pretty Baa Lamb' (pp. 208-9)

It seems right to start off the anthology with new life. The title deliberately infantilises, using the 'dream' language we keep for our own young as we talk about the farm. However, the poet is quick to detail the mechanics of tail docking and castration and despite the vigour of the lamb's suckling reflex we know its end is already in its beginning. 'Its life a death/exact in every detail,/the lamb belongs here/ in the improbable dream/we tell each other,/day after day, before it fades.'

Image of sheep in field


2.Richard Wilbur 'A Black November Turkey' (pp. 37-8)

The poem gives a beautifully observed portrait of the turkey in its prime, but one literally 'foreshadowed' in dark plumes 'Himself his own cortège/And puffed with the pomp of death,' It may have a 'timeless look', but the clock is running and late November will bring Thanksgiving Day.

  Image of turkey

3.Norman Maccaig 'Fetching Cows' (p. 89)

I love this simple account of gathering in cattle, perfect in taking me to the time and place - the swaying ABA rhyming pattern occasionally disappearing in the enjambment of stanzas three and four then sounding out again. The final metaphor is a perfect descriptor of that burdened swinging walk, 'The black cow is two native carriers/Bringing its belly home, slung from a pole.', but I struggled with those 'natives' for quite a while. I was going to have to leave it as just 'of its time' (and nothing wrong with that) but then I was struck by the thought, what could be more 'colonised', more 'enslaved' by man than nature? Suddenly a wholly different view point opened up.

 Inage of cows

4.Seamus Heaney 'Cow in Calf' (p. 62)

A real sense of 'contact' in this poem, Heaney absolutely takes me into the stall with this cow - I can feel the stinging in my hand as we try and move her on. Three stanzas of free verse, but finishing in a flourish of repetition and internal rhyme, 'The udder grows. Windbags/of bagpipes are crammed there/to drone in her lowing.' 'Windbags/bagpipes' 'her.../her.../her...' 'drone/lowing/going'. Yet again the farming cycle of birth and death is emphasised, this calf, like all the others, is part of a process.

 

5.Les Murray 'Pigs' (p. 206)

This reminded me of another one of Les Murray's frequently anthologised poems 'The Cows on Killing Day' (https://griffinpoetryprize.com/poem/the-cows-on-killing-day/), in particular with the 'herd-speak' of 'Us’ and ‘we'. Here, verbally and syntactically it tries to shock us in to animal eyes, both when talking of an ancestral dream-time, 'Us back in cool god-shit. We ate crisp./We nosed up good rank in the tunnelled bush.' or when brought up cold against the image of hung carcasses, '...This gone-already feeling/here in no place with our heads on upside down.' Of course, human language, however twisted, constrains it to the anthropomorphic - but it is at least exciting to even try and meet animals on their own terms. 

 

6. Ted Hughes 'View of a Pig' (pp.275-6)

To end the anthology we have most definitely moved here from life to meat, the recurring words are 'dead/death' and 'weight/weigh/poundage'. 'Such weight and thick pink bulk/Set in death seemed not just dead./It was less than lifeless, further off./It was like a sack of wheat.' This was one of the less violent Hughes poems in the overall anthology, but even here when the slaughter is complete and conducted by someone else, he seems compelled to engage us in some form of assault, 'I thumped it...'. The poem invites us to imagine the living pig '...its life, din, stronghold/ Of earthly pleasure...' but also asks us to acknowledge that if we want 'lard and pork' then pity is really 'off the point.'

Image of pig

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Steven Oliver

Birds, Beasts and Flowers

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Edited by Steven Oliver, Sunday, 29 Jan 2023, 10:26

Very excited today to have a look at a rare copy of a poetry collection which includes one of the poems I'm studying in A111, DH Lawrence's 'Bat'. Looking through my local university library catalogue (the SCONUL scheme is just such an excellent thing if you can get to a local library) I'd found a reference to a book in their 'rare books collection', the Cresset Press 'Birds, Beasts and Flowers' published in May 1930 - just two months after Lawrence died of tuberculosis.

The book was a limited edition of 530 copies illustrated with wood engravings by Blair Hughes-Stanton, and it is a beautiful thing.

An open book

There's an excellent account of the book, with lots of detail about both the illustrations and the artist at the following reference.

Keith Cushman, “Lawrence, Blair Hughes-Stanton, and the Cresset Press Birds, Beasts and Flowers”, Études Lawrenciennes [Online], 41 | 2010, 

Online since 28 January 2014, connection on 04 January 2023. URL: http://journals.openedition.org/lawrence/151; DOI: https://doi.org/10.4000/lawrence.151

The book contains a full-page frontispiece which I've shown above and nine full-page engravings before each section of the poetry collection, there are two smaller engravings as head- and tailpieces. 

'Bat' is one of four poems in the section 'Creatures', but perhaps sadly only 'Fish' and 'Mosquito' make it into the accompanying illustration. As the article explains, Lawrence was persuaded by Hughes-Stanton to contribute short 'prefaces' to each section and these were often the focus for the illustration. The texts Lawrence added are cryptic to say the least and seem to sometimes have only tangential contacts with the original poems (written nearly a decade earlier) so not sure they particularly 'help' in thinking about the poems. (The only link to 'Bat' is probably in the preface text that talks of how the sun's rays 'hurt the creatures that live by night', although that really speaks more to Lawrence's poem 'Man and Bat' in which the poet is trapped in his bedroom with a lost bat.) However, certainly made me think about the examples in A111 from William Blake's work and the comment made in the learning materials about taking image and text as an 'artistic totality'.

Open book

One final point was the discovery that the text of 'Bat' in this edition differs from that in the 'The Faber Book of Beasts' - the penultimate line in the latter edition, 'In China the bat is symbol of happiness.' is missing. I have to say I prefer the poem without it, a challenge for another day to discover which version of the poem originally included that extra line!

Poem Bat Poem Bat

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