by NONA BLYTH CLOUD
O chestnut-tree, great-rooted blossomer,
Are you the leaf, the blossom or the bole?
O body swayed to music, O brightening glance,
How can we know the dancer from the dance?
– “Among School Children” by W. B. Yeats
William Butler Yeats has influenced many poets. Anne Stevenson writes of his strong pull for her younger self and other very different poets in her essay, The Unified Dance. As she says, “…poetry written for the ear speaks to the ear before it appeals to the mind or asks for an interpretation.”
I also like her definition of great poetry and her warning to modern poets from that essay:
The best poetry—great poetry—happens when sound, rhythm, and image bring about a mysterious feeling of wholeness that somehow draws mind, body, and spirit together into what both Yeats and Eliot envisioned as a unified dance. What we call “the power of the word” is really a pattern of words in a rhythm originating in heartbeat and footfall. Language, like the human mind, consists of a conscious and an unconscious element, and what “real” poetry can do, even when it looks like prose on the page, is to reproduce the hidden music we are all born hearing but lose as we grow up. The danger today lies in pursuing novelty beyond a point of no return, of technically “making it new” until we no longer hear anything but the virtual pulse of a spoiled, over-mechanized civilization that is destroying its childhood as it ages, boasting the while of its progress.
Anne Stevenson (1933 – ) was born to American parents in Cambridge, England, where her father, C.L. Stevenson, was studying philosophy under I. A. Richards and Ludwig Wittgenstein. The family returned to America when she was six months old. She grew up in New England, while her father taught at Harvard and Yale.
Stevenson played cello and piano, destined to be a professional musician. But while studying music and languages at the University of Michigan, at the age of 19 she began to lose her hearing, so she shifted to writing instead.
On Going Deaf
I’ve lost a sense. Why should I care?
Searching myself, I find a spare.
I keep that sixth sense in repair,
And set it deftly, like a snare.
‘You have to inhabit poetry
if you want to make it.’
And what’s to ‘inhabit ‘ ?
To be in the habit of, to wear
words, sitting in the plainest light,
in the silk of morning, in the shoe of night;
a feeling bare and frondish is surprising air;
And whats ‘to make’ ?
To be and to become words’ passing
weather ; to serve a girl on terrible
terms, embark on voyages over voices,
evade the ego-hill, the misery-well,
the siren-hiss of success, publish,
success, success, success.
And why inhabit, make, inherit poetry ?
Oh , it’s the shared comedy of the worst
blessed ; the sound leading the hand;
a worldlife running from mind to mind
through the washed rooms of the simple senses;
one of those haunted, undefendable, unpoetic
crosses we have to find.
Since 1962, she has lived and worked almost entirely in the U.K., including Cambridge, Scotland, Oxford, and, most recently, North Wales and Durham. While she considers herself an American, she says, “I belong to an America which no longer really exists.”
Constable Clouds and a Kestrel’s Feather
England still moulds them as Constable saw them.
We see them through his eyes –
loaves fresh kneaded for the oven,
veils of gauze,
flat-bottomed continents, creamy islands
floating on glass. As a child
did you never play the cloud-zoo game
in summer days like these?
Lie prone on grass,
Stalk in your mouth, face to the sun,
to let imagination run wild
in a sky full of camels and whales
where the air show today
features fish evolving into crocodiles
into little puffs of sheep grazing on air.
Now a tyrannosaur, chasing a bear…
or is it a white bull? Europa on his back,
panicking to disappear.
Here’s a cloud that Constable never knew.
Two chalk-white furrows are being ploughed
straight as rails across the high blue
hinterland of my childhood zoo –
a plane from somewhere, going somewhere,
leaving its spoor of vapour on the air.
As the trailing furrows widen,
waves form a lingering wake from a prow
in perfect rhythm, like a feather’s pattern.
And still you keep your head down,
eyes vacuuming the turf,
nose to the ground,
intent on ants and other centaurs
in their dragon world, their home
here thatched with a found
feather – evidence of hunger’s habits
in this summer field.
A kestrel’s, female you guess,
stroking the patterned vanes
locked to the shaft:
13 square bars, dark on the outer side;
13 wavy lines, woven on the inner side,
a russet, bow-shaped, undesigned design
perfectly aligned – not by craft,
but by a mathematics of its own –
proof that, undeterred by our millennium,
nature’s nature is to work in form.
You sleep with a dream of summer weather,
wake to the thrum of rain—roped down by rain.
Nothing out there but drop-heavy feathers of grass
and rainy air. The plastic table on the terrace
has shed three legs on its way to the garden fence.
The mountains have had the sense to disappear.
It’s the Celtic temperament—wind, then torrents, then remorse.
Glory rising like a curtain over distant water.
Old stonehouse, having steered us through the dark,
docks in a pool of shadow all its own.
That widening crack in the gloom is like good luck.
Luck, which neither you nor tomorrow can depend on.
by Anne Stevenson
(for Caroline Ireland)
They were to have been a love gift,
but when she slit the paper funnel,
they both saw they were fake; false flowers
he’d picked in haste from the store’s display,
handmade coloured stuff, stiff as crinoline.
Instantly she thought of women’s hands
cutting in grimy light by a sweatshop window;
rough plank tables strewn with cut-out
flower heads: lily, iris, primula, scentless
chrysanthemums, pistils rigged on wire
in crowns of sponge-tipped stamens,
sepals and petals perfect, perfectly
immune to menaces from the garden.
Why so wrong, so…flattening? Why not instead
symbols of unchanging love?
Yet pretty enough,
she considered, arranging them in a vase
with dry grass and last summer’s hydrangeas
whose deadness was still (how to put it?)
alive, or maybe the other side of life.
Two sides, really, of the same thing?
She laughed a little, such ideas were embarrassing
even when kept to oneself,
but her train of thought
carried her in its private tunnel through supper,
and at bedtime, brushing her teeth,
she happened to look up at the moon.
Its sunlit face was turned, as always, in her direction.
The full moon, she couldn’t help thinking,
though we see only half of it.
It was an insight she decided she could
share with him, but when he joined her
and together they lay in the dark,
there seemed no reason to say anything.
The words, in any case, would be wrong,
would escape or disfigure her meaning.
Good was the syllable she murmured to him,
fading into sleep. And just for a split second,
teetering on the verge of it, she believed
everything that had to be was understood.
Forgotten of the Foot
by Anne Stevenson
Equisetum, horsetail, railway weed
Laid down in the unconscious of the hills;
Three hundred million years still buried
In this hair-soft surviving growth that kills
Everything in the glorious garden except itself,
That thrives on starvation, and distils
Black diamonds, the carboniferous shelf —
That was life before our animals,
With trilobite and coelacanth,
A stratum of compressed time that tells
Truth without language and is the body store
Of fire, heat, night without intervals —
That becomes people’s living only when strange air
Fills out the folded lungs, the inert corpuscles.
Into the mute dark, light crawls once more.
So the hills must be pillaged and cored.
Such history as they hide must be hacked out
Urgent as money, the buried black seams uncovered.
Rows of stunted houses under the smoke,
Soot black houses pressed back hard against pit
By fog, by smoke, by a cobra hood of smouldering coke
Swayed from the nest of ovens huddled opposite.
Families, seven or ten to a household,
Growing up, breathing it, becoming it.
On winter mornings, grey capped men in the cold,
Clatter of boots on tarmac, sharp and empty,
First shift out in thick frost simple as gold
On the sulphurous roofs, on the stilted gantry,
Crossing to engine house and winding gear —
Helmet, pick, lamp, tin bottle of tea.
A Nan or Nora slave to each black grate.
Washing on Monday, the water grimed in its well.
Iron and clean on Tuesday, roll out and bake
Each Wednesday (that sweet bituminous smell
No child who grew up here forgets).
Thursdays, the Union and the Methodist Circle;
Fishday on Friday (fryday), a queue of kids,
Thin, squabbling by the chippy. Resurfaced quarrels
After pay day — hard drinking and broken heads.
Wheels within wheels, an England of working Ezekiels.
Between slag-heaps, coke-tarns and black sludgy leavings,
Forges roaring and reddening, hot irons glowing like jewels.
No more, no more. They’ve swept up the workings
As if they were never meant to be part of memory.
A once way of being. A dead place. Hard livings
That won’t return, grim tales forgot as soon as told,
Streaming from the roofs in smoke from a lost century —
A veil of breath in which to survive the cold.
When the mine’s shut down, habits prolong the story,
Habits and voices, till grandmothers’ old ways pass,
And the terraces fold into themselves, so black, ugly
And unloved that all but the saved (success
Has spared them, the angel of death-by-money) move away.
The town’s inhabited by alien, washed up innocents.
Children and animals, people too poor to stay
Anywhere else, stray, dazed, into this slum of Eden.
the church is without saints or statuary.
The memorial is a pick, a hammer, a shovel, given
By the men of Harvey Seam and Victoria Seam. May
Their good bones wake in the living seams of Heaven.
He breaketh open a shaft away from where men sojourn.
They are forgotten of the foot that passeth by.*
* Job 28.4: The inscription on the Miners’ Memorial in Durham Cathedral.
If there is such a thing as a Poet’s Credo, perhaps it is simply these lines from T.S. Eliot’s “Little Gidding”
We shall not cease from exploration
And the end of all our exploring
Will be to arrive where we started
And know the place for the first time.
Anne Stevenson’s poems make us hear the heartbeat and footfall of poetry anew.
- “On Going Deaf” from Poems 1955-2005, © 2005 by Anne Stevenson – Bloodaxe Books
- “Making Poetry” from Poems 1955-2005, © 2005 by Anne Stevenson – Bloodaxe Books
- “Constable Clouds and a Kestrel’s Feather” from Astonishment © 2013 by Anne Stevenson – Bloodaxe Books
- “Drench” from Poems 1955-2005, © 2005 by Anne Stevenson – Bloodaxe Books
- “False Flowers” from Poems 1955-2005, © 2005 by Anne Stevenson – Bloodaxe Books
- “Forgotten of the Foot” from Poems 1955-2005, © 2005 by Anne Stevenson – Bloodaxe Books
- Stone Milk, © 2014 by Anne Stevenson – Bloodaxe Books
- Astonishment, © 2013 by Anne Stevenson – Bloodaxe Books
- Poems 1955-2005, © 2005 by Anne Stevenson – Bloodaxe Books
- Granny Scarecrow, © 2001 by Anne Stevenson – Bloodaxe Book
- Collected Poems, 1955-1995, © 1995 by Anne Stevenson – Oxford U. Press
Studies of Other Poets
- Five Looks at Elizabeth Bishop (2015)
- Bitter Fame: A Life of Sylvia Plath (1989)
- Between the Iceberg and the Ship (1998)
- Xezo ‘Eternal Flame’ Fountain Pen
- Clouds painted by John Constable
- Rainstorm – uncredited photo
- Fake flowers
- Cwmdare Colliery, Treorchy Rhondda Valley, Wales – Ernest T Bush
Word Cloud photo by Larry Cloud