‘Even when poetry has a meaning, as it usually has,’ wrote the twentieth-century English poet A. E. Housman in a letter to a friend, ‘it may be inadvisable to draw it out … perfect understanding will sometimes almost extinguish pleasure.’ W. B. Yeats, his Irish contemporary agreed and put the case more succinctly. ‘What can be explained’, he stated, ‘is not poetry.’
Poetry, like all the best things in life, makes sense but can’t necessarily be explained. This is not because it has no structure, form or meaning. It is because whatever the essence of a real poem is, it does not really operate at the level of the rational, calculative, reasoning mind. This is why analysis can so often kill a poem, as it can kill any piece of art. Dissection, with a poem as with a butterfly, is the surest way to reduce the curious, brittle essence of life to a slide-full of dead cells and hinged, hollow limbs.
Poetry is like love, or myth, or the sound of the rain in a primeval forest at dusk. Inherent in it is some power, some mystery. If constructed correctly, it can even be a form of incantation; of magic. When it works, the indications are physical: the hairs on your neck, as Housman also suggested, may bristle if you think of a good poem while shaving. If you don’t shave your neck, there may be a tingle in your guts or fingertips. Word-magic operates beyond the mental plane. Auden’s claim that ‘poetry changes nothing’ has never been true. Poetry changes everything, so thoroughly that it can be hard to see that anything has changed at all.
I wouldn’t claim that my poems have any of these qualities, though it’s good to have something to aspire to. I think there is another quality that a poem can have, though: one to which I also aspire, and one which a good myth or a serious fairytale has – it can be a form of communication between the world of humanity and the rest of life on earth.
‘Man’s half-dream’, wrote the Californian poet Robinson Jeffers in The Beauty of Things, ‘Man, you might say, is nature dreaming…’ As he so often liked to do, Jeffers ended this poem with a statement, which also doubled as his manifesto:
Greatly, and understand greatly, and express greatly, the natural
Beauty, is the sole business of poetry.
The rest’s diversion …
Call me a Romantic (I’d take it as a compliment), but I believe the world is more alive than we can currently understand, and that our society’s project of de-souling and de-animating it is the root cause of the sense of loss, the great ache, that seems to underlie so much of the modern project. Theologian and ecologist Thomas Berry presented the modern dilemma as a break in age-old speech:
We are talking to ourselves. We are not talking to the river, we are not listening to the river. We have broken the great conversation. By breaking the conversation we have shattered the universe.
When humans talk only to themselves, they shatter the universe. It is quite a claim, but it is the claim that Jeffers too was writing of when he warned the human-centric Modernist poets a century ago about that ‘diversion’. The diversion is an act of forgetting, and not just for poets. Forgetting that, in the words of conservationist Aldo Leopold, ‘mountains have secret opinions.’ Mountains, hawks, hares, great diving beetles, tardigrades, walnut trees, cloud banks. What else? We have to write to find out.
Seven years ago, in the empty places of Chilean Patagonia, I saw rivers and forests as I had never really seen them before: cold and wild and untamed. I have spent time in tropical forests and on Himalayan plateaus, but I had never before been in a wild, temperate environment where the climate and the species resembled those of my homeland. I walked in the great forests of Patagonia and felt as if I had stepped back 30,000 years into Europe as it was before the axe. It was a strange, haunting feeling: as if my animal body had returned home to a place it had never been.
The rivers had the same impact: they were wild and blue, raging and unchannelled. Threatened, too, by a giant mega-dam project which the Chilean government, in a predictable quest for ‘development’ was planning to impose upon the waters (but which, in a rare and beautiful piece of good news, they have since ditched, in response to widespread protest). I had never seen anything like this before. A poem is inadequate in the face of a river, but poems came roaring out of me then like water through a sluice. Wild places tend to have that effect on me.
It’s taken me more than half a decade to prepare those poems for publication, but my new collection, Songs from the Blue River, now seems like an experiment in trying to re-start the long-stalled conversation that nobody ever taught me how to have. In the central poem of the collection, the narrator hears the river’s secret opinion about him:
I was not sleeping when it rose manlike
from the Blue River and approached me on the shore.
This beast of water this column of spray
and foam blue in the early light
of a southern dawn.
It said I have been watching
and I am here to remind you
that you are animal and you kill
you are animal and you eat
you are animal and you run
you are animal and you grip
the unfleet land until its shape is your own.
I am river and I flow I will flow over you
if I can I will destroy you
if you can you will dam and harvest me
if I can I will break your dam and drown your cities.
You know we are only doing what we do
you know I do not need to be saved
you know there is no shame there is only being
you know that all of us are water
It’s hard to know how to reply when a river speaks to you, but he does his best:
I said I try to imagine you but I imagine me
I try to step out of me but I find myself returned
I try to unflex these ape claws
damp down these ape thoughts I aim
my arrow at the concept but it flies through and past
I say you are water not man I am man not water
we should come to an agreement
and the water says nothing because it is water
The world will not speak to me
because the world is not thinking
only I am thinking only my tribe is thinking
we are billions of us thinking
strung along this line we call time
thinking we are tracing it to its end
believing in ends
Thinking about rivers like we think about money
opening the veins of the world and drinking its heat
telling stories around the cooling ashes
we were made to be free we were made
There is an ache in all of my fingers
something is pulling at my tendons from within
There is nowhere to go but on.
I don’t know what the river would think of this, but I like to think the invertebrate kingdom would approve of my attempt to imagine an earthworm’s opinion about agriculture. ‘The cut worm’, suggest William Blake, ‘forgives the plough.’ Wondering whether a worm would agree with this opinion was the jumping-off point for my poem ‘Wretched of the Earth’. If nothing else, this fills a gap in the poetry market as it currently exists. There are surely not enough poems out there written from the point of view of earthworms.
This thing, forgiveness, it is no thing of ours.
Pull back the share, the steel, your eager weapon
blooded in mulch and crumb.
That was the war that changed everything.
The daggers, the rifles, we approve of these.
The scuds and the sidewinders, the bat-dark drones,
the robot suits and the self-healing minefields:
we encourage your work in these areas.
But the plough, the harrow, the tractor wheel,
the horse’s shoe that makes a pan of our place:
we defy them. We will live in the gaps
in your dominion. We will wait you out
here, beneath, the wretched
of the Earth you tricked to float like seabirds,
moored to nothing but your words.
Where will you roost when the plough
is stilled, rusts over, comes to soil again?
We have been patient.
We will bury you.
Humans – modern humans, anyway – often enjoy listing the qualities that make them ‘unique’; different from ‘the animals.’ This list has been shrinking enjoyably for the last century or so, as scientific discoveries force us to remove qualities or activities – language, song, art, agriculture, tool use, group mourning, slavery, war, genocide – which we had previously imagined only Homo sapiens indulged in. We still have a few features which are looking fairly safe from encroachment though. Clothing, for instance. Fire. Writing.
Now, as I write this, I suddenly wonder if these are all words for the same thing.
The twined legs and the roaring blood
and the shade of the elms I have never seen
in my flat place by the river
where the still pool is overhung with osiers
and the time is always June before the war.
We move together where nothing has fallen
and beyond the trees there is only white
and the calling of the birds who have gone now
but who one day will come back.
One day, it will all come back.
Songs from the Blue River, by Paul Kingsnorth, is published by Salmon Poetry, and can be ordered directly from their website.