Growing up in the countryside, I suppose it was natural for me to be drawn to nature poetry. The first poetry book I owned was Ted Hughes’ Selected Poems. I still have most of it; the back cover is missing and many of the pages have been punctured or torn by canine teeth – of the dog variety.
It was this book that showed me how poetry can evoke a sense of wonder in the natural world. Hughes’ language can be huge and powerful, as it is in “The Horses”, or delicate as “the dew’s touch” in “Full Moon and Little Frieda”. Later, I discovered “Swifts”, a poem which captures the essence of the bird in the second line and then builds image on image until a whole screaming party flies right in front of you and out of your living room window.
Sometimes a single image in a poem can have a huge impact on me. It flares from the page and stays visible, like a sparkler trail, after the book is closed: Hughes’ otter which “re-enters the water by melting”, or the “earthed lightning” of swans from Seamus Heaney’s “Postscript”.
It is the clarity, precision and perfect aptness of this imagery that inspires. Of course, otters melt when they re-enter water! Of course, swans are earthed lightening! How could they ever be described otherwise? The challenge then becomes to find the perfect way to describe your own particular otter or swan.
As momentum gathers in the effort to address climate change and loss of bio-diversity, I’m excited about poetry’s role in bearing witness to the crisis and how, through language and imagery, it can prompt concern and compassion for the plight of endangered creatures.
The work being produced by talented eco-poets astonishes me – Susan Richardson’s “Words the Turtle Taught Me”, which focuses on endangered marine species; Jane Lovell’s “This Tilting Earth”, which explores humankind’s relationship with animals across millennia; and Helen Moore’s response to industrialisation, in Ecozoa.
A book that made me go “Wow”, when I saw it, and fills me with awe with every turn of the page, is a children’s book, The Lost Words. Beautifully illustrated by Jackie Morris, Robert Macfarlane’s acrostic poems are spells designed to bring back words, such as conker and newt, words which were once part of every child’s vocabulary, but are now in danger of vanishing from the language of childhood.
It is impossible to talk about nature poetry without mentioning John Clare’s work. So many of his poems have inspired me but the two that come to mind immediately are “The Yellowhammer’s Nest”, for its wonderful description of the “pen-scribbled” eggs; and “The Moors”, which expresses Clare’s deep connection to nature and his grief at its loss, a theme which has tremendous resonance today.
Before I go, a quick shout out for some of the books I’ve been reading lately that have surprised, uplifted and amazed me: The Art of Falling by Kim Moore – life-affirming, harrowing in parts, yet full of humour; Liz Berry’s Black Country – a celebration of the West Midlands, its dialect and those who live there; and Sally Goldsmith’s Are We There Yet? So many gems in this book, from the wonder of “Hare Ghazal” at the beginning, to the tenderness of “Thaw” at the end.