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
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
‘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
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
things that the light shines
If there aren’t wet leaves in
then almost I don’t want to
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
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,
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.