Stride Magazine -


edited by PETER ABBS, 205pp, £9.95, Green Books Ltd, Foxhole, Dartington, Totnes, Devon TQ9 6EB, in association with Resurgence, Ford House, Hartland, Bideford, Devon EX39 6EE

My first reaction to this book was that it’s a great Christmas present for green friends, a book to dip into, a book with enough variety for them to find something they’ll enjoy. And it’s a book that both looks and feels a high quality production.

Like most themed anthologies, it may be directed less at poetry readers than at those whose main interest is the theme itself. Which doesn’t mean to say it pulls punches: with poems by David Constantine and Charles Tomlinson it’s no easy-read.

Unlike many themed anthologies, this isn’t a collection of old favourites. There’s none of Hopkins’s wildness and wet, none of Hughes’s crows, hares, swifts, calves and so on. One of the criteria Peter Abbs used in putting together this collection was that all the authors should still be living ­ and although he doesn’t say this, he has also sought out younger and less well-known writers. So while there’s a poem from Heaney (‘Gifts of Rain’) and three chosen from Mahon’s Selected
, there’s also work from writers whose names will probably be new. (Teaching an MA course, Peter Abbs is well-placed to find these.). ‘Intrinsic poetic merit’ was another of Abbs’s criteria, regardless of whether the writer is ‘known’.

Abbs has grouped his material into eight sections, some of which you might anticipate such as celebrating the cosmos or accounting for its desecration, or encounters with wildlife and landscape. Birds predominate in ‘The Living World’ and, pleasingly, a few insects as well. Not a whale in sight.

The last four sections are informed by Abbs’s (and perhaps Resurgence
’s) particular take on ecology: ‘The Ecology of Love’; ‘The Search for Enlightenment’. ‘Weaving the Symbolic Web’ brings together poems which keep ‘alive inherited symbols and myths’.

‘The Home of Experience’ is just that; and in this section are some of my own favourites ­ poems like Eavan Boland’s ‘This Moment’ (and it’s interesting to see the way a poem like this shifts its focus when taken out of the context of In a Time of Violence

         Things are getting ready
         to happen
         out of sight.
         Stars and moths.
         And rinds slanting around fruit.
         But not yet.

­ poems like Alice Oswald’s ‘Apple Shed’ with its litany of old varieties, Grevel Lindop’s ‘Lighting the First Fire of Autumn’ and Paul Matthews’s ‘Things’, whose first lines could open any volume of ecology:

         What I’ll miss most when I’m dead is
         things that the light shines on.
         If there aren’t wet leaves in heaven
         then almost I don’t want to go there.

The flora
which I’d been looking for in ‘The Living World’ are in this section too ­ Alice Oswald’s ‘Pruning in Frost’, Charles Tomlinson’s ‘The Beech’

Many, perhaps most, writers today will have written a poem which could sit happily in a collection about ecology. There are, as Abbs himself notes, ‘so many eco-poems and, indeed, so many eco-poets’ that another editor could have compiled a quite different book, and probably could have done so even using Abbs’s own criteria ­ because other, unspoken, criteria operate as well and not least financial ones.

I like the criterion ‘all the poets had to be alive’ but this may be underpinned by the fact that it’s probably more costly to reach copyright agreement with writers’ estates. And any editor will look first to the writers she knows, and whose work she enjoys, and again that makes for straightforward permissions. So we shouldn’t approach this anthology as if it’s a survey of ‘eco-poetry’ written in English; rather, it’s a particular collection with a particular slant.

And it’s quite distinctive in its own way, one that will be already familiar to those who read Resurgence
as well as Stride Magazine. Quite a few of the poets in Earth Songs have already been featured in Resurgence, where Peter Abbs edits what is very often an interesting poetry page. Under his editorship, I first encountered Jem Poster, four of whose poems appear in the anthology. Grevel Lindop (four) and Dana Gioia (six ­ another criterion is no more than six poems) have also been featured; oh, and several more now I come to browse through a few back issues. Resurgence has long carried work by Kathleen Raine, Gary Snyder and Wendell Berry, all of whom appear in Earth Songs.

In trying to define the nature of this particular collection, which does read coherently, I want to say that it seems very English. I mean two things by this: firstly just that most of the poets are themselves English. Scots (and mountains) are a bit thin on the ground. There are a few poems from America including four by Snyder and ‘Sabbaths’ and ‘A Vision’ by Wendell Berry, though not his ‘Mad Farmer’ poems. Which brings me to the other thing I mean by ‘English’­ restrained. Or perhaps refined. (I’m trying to get it in one word.)

I’ll make a short excursion into what isn’t here as another way of trying to identify the flavour of this collection. One of the first ‘eco-poets’ who comes to my mind is Pattiann Rogers, but here she’d have been out of place with the over-the-top

         Indecent, self-soiled, bilious
         reek of turnip and toadstool
         decay, dribbling the black oil
         of wilted succulents, the brown
         fester of rotting orchids

with which she opens the title poem of Geocentric
. There’s not a lot of mucking in (nor mucking out) or the sort of exuberance and energy (to stay with Rogers, whose stance reminds me of Hopkins) that would write:

         There are times when I want to be stained,
         marked all over by berry wine, baptized,
         mouth, fingers, chin and neck, between my toes,
         up my legs...
         [from ‘Berry Renaissance’]

I’d go for the gutsiness of Josephine Dickinson at shearing time, and Diana Syder’s absorption keeping track of comets. (And for all I know, they could have been asked and refused copyright permissions.) I’d have a bit more playing around. But that would be a different sort of book, altogether less urbane. And perhaps less worthy. Or maybe wholesome’s the word. It’s terribly hard not to be virtuous writing about ecology.

         © Jane Routh 2003