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The creatures & their words

In folklore and folktale, and in the many kinds of writing which have their roots in that realm, animals help to figure human beings. Those creatures may speak, surprisingly or as a matter of course: the words of Balaam’s ass, in the Book of Numbers, are a once-in-a-lifetime occurrence, while Swift’s Houyhnhnms are at it all the time, for the instruction of Gulliver, their crazed convert. But loquacious or not, from Aesop to Orwell, literature’s birds and beasts have been chosen as beings from whom we may take our bearings. What Coleridge calls the ‘shaping spirit of imagination’ often takes its own shape from that other kingdom.

When I try to think about why poetry matters to me, individual lines present themselves, if not as touchstones, at least as striking pieces of evidence: they sing themselves up as claimants. No doubt they take some of their force not only from the whole poems in which they occur but also from the circumstances of their being read or their being remembered, but unless one believes that literature is cordoned off from the rest of experience by a ring of fire, that is exactly what one would expect. And the same is true of entire poems; I do not understand completely why it should be that ‘animal’ poems often have a special appeal, even a special authority, for me, but they do; and they also seem to incorporate much of what I do understand about poetry. So here are three of them, with some reflections on them, and on that incorporation.

The first, by William Matthews, is called


‘What do you want to be when you grow up?’
         What child cries out, ‘An exterminator!’?
         One diligent student in Mrs. Taylor’s
class will get an ant farm for Christmas, but
         he’ll not see industry; he’ll see dither.
         ‘The ant sets an example for us all,’
         wrote Max Beerbohm, a master of dawdle,
         ‘but it is not a good one.’ These children
         don’t hope to outlast the doldrums of school
         only to heft great weights and work in squads
         and die for their queen. Well, neither did we.
         And we knew what we didn’t want to be:
         the ones we looked down on, the lambs of God,
         blander than snow and slow to be cruel.

This is one of the many thousands of modern poems which either are sonnets or are haunted by the ghosts of sonnets. ‘Vermin’ is in fact a good deal more formally organised than its casual air might suggest: a few minutes spent, for instance, on seeing how either the first or the last words in the lines either rhyme or chime in with one another would bear this out.

Matthews, in some notes on poetry as an art, remarks that ‘The purpose of the forms is to raise talk above babble, and the purpose of the “talk” is to tether the severities of the forms to the mess of emotional life. It’s a two-party system, and each party needs a loyal opposition.’ He is singing my song, I must say, a song which prizes poetry’s ability to negotiate between the different kinds of demeanour which come the way of most human beings. It is inhuman never to be casual, and it is selfish never to be formal; poetry is a tribute, a contribution, to a more rounded state of mind and heart.

It was claimed in a military assessment of a particular officer that ‘the men follow him into
battle out of curiosity’. This seems improbable: but it is certainly true that, above all as writer but also as reader, one follows an initial phrase into the action of a poem out of curiosity; people write poems in order to see how they will turn out. There is another poem by Matthews which is triggered by the same question as forms the first line of ‘Vermin’, and there things turn out differently. Poets live in the hope that their minds will not simply fly by automatic pilot—as very properly the mind does much of the time in other contexts—but will have some of the power and vivacity implied in Dante’s image of the mind moving as a beast does in its skin.

The most obvious and universal example of this is the asking of questions. Every question, even the most banal—like, ‘how long is this essay I am reading?’—is dramatic. Questions hold up the policeman’s lighted wand in the darkness, and demand reaction; for good or ill, they intervene. ‘Vermin’ begins with a brace of questions—which do not work in the same way, incidentally—and then suffuses the rest of the poem with an ethos of question. We know by the end of it what the children didn’t want, and what the poet’s contemporaries didn’t want, but that astonishing shift in register to ‘the lambs of God,/ blander than snow and slow to be cruel’ raises a whole set of questions about those Christmas-framed beings, and about their despisers, who look down on them, as the diligent student would look down on the ants.

That title ‘Vermin’ could hardly ever be without an emotional freighting, and anyone who remembers how often in the 20th century the archons of left or right characterised their victims in just that way will find their shadow falling over this poem: ours is the species which can attempt to disqualify some of its own members not only from life but even from identity—the ultimate ‘ex-termination’. Matthews’ poem knows this, but doesn’t have to go on about it. His sorrowful insight is, in effect, one element in the 14 lines, able to pad along in the whole, beside Beerbohm’s knowing urbanity and the rejected theatricality
of laborious and self-sacrificing children, as creatures of many kinds coexist on a savannah.

Matthews, in another place, notes a remark of Saki’s—‘Romance at short notice was her speciality.’ Insight at short notice is one of his, and the ants, the lambs, Mrs Taylor, Beerbohm, the children, and the ever-supple ‘we’, are all there in the poem to foster it. This provision of insight is one thing which can, variously, be hoped for or feared in poets, and over the centuries they have accordingly been awarded the garland or the noose. But I think that ‘Vermin’ also bears out another remark of Matthews: ‘one of the primary reasons for being alive is to experience the pleasure of being alive.’ The creatures in ‘Vermin’ are all there in part to be the vectors of a kind of joy—a joy at that interplay between form and mess mentioned earlier, between economy and outreach. One medieval characterisation of eternity was ‘nunc stans’—‘a perpetuated now.’ Every poem is a creature of time, but like the creature who conceives it, it dreams of another condition, and styles itself to show that dream and its pleasure.

Speaking of pleasure, here is Amy Clampitt watching a bird. The poem is called, ‘The Cormorant in Its Element’:

That bony potbellied arrow, wing-pumping along
implacably, with a ramrod’s rigid adherence,
airborne, to the horizontal, discloses talents
one would never have guessed at. Plummeting

waterward, big black feet splayed for a landing
gear, slim head turning and turning, vermilion-
strapped, this way and that, with a lightning glance
over the shoulder, the cormorant astounding-

ly, in one sleek involuted arabesque, a vertical
turn on a dime, goes into that inimitable

deep act which, unlike the works of Homo Houdini,
is performed for reasons having nothing at all
to do with ego, guilt, ambition, or even money.

Yes, it’s a sonnet again, that form of which Charles Simic wrote recently that it ‘is a literary equivalent of an endgame in chess. It is about a series of quick-witted and unforeseen moves within the confines of rigorous rules against an unknown opponent who can be anything or anyone from God to a case of unrequited love. Because we are at our best as poets and philosophers when we are cornered, sonnets continue to be written.’ I suppose that the cormorant of Amy Clampitt’s poem might judge such a performance as prompted by ego, or guilt, or  ambition, though there’s rarely any money in it. But whatever of that, Clampitt’s own performance is clearly one in which she’s gone to town on behalf at once of the bird and of the language which is, comprehensively, the bird’s element.

Clampitt came late to writing poetry in a persistent way, and said once that she mightn’t have done so at all if it had not been for Gerard Manley Hopkins. Apart from some relationship between her cormorant and Hopkins’ windhover, she clearly shares his sense that language is an electric element, flaming from point to point, empowering insight and luminous with delight. In this and in many other of her poems, she sounds like a cross between Noah and Charles Darwin, eager to shepherd the vulnerable and determined to characterise the transient.

Her poem’s first four words serve notice that our standard terms of appraisal are up for revision, since potbellied arrows will not usually go anywhere. For most of my life I have been a lover of Jonathan Swift’s writing, and the best short description I know of what he is up to is the one which claims that he is saying, ‘It is not as you think: look!’ Swift does indeed want us to think again, and part of his genius is to help us to look again—Gulliver’s Travels is only the most spectacular example of this. Clampitt has the same confidence that to re-see and to re-think are part of the same gesture. Her poem takes the cormorant into our family from the first—bony like all, potbellied like some, that arrow which comes only from human hands—and characterises it in dozens of ways derived from the human sphere, before liberating it into a wild otherness in the last two and a half lines.

Gulliver preens himself on loathing falsehood and rendering things truthfully, but the book which encases him shows how inept he is at getting things straight. Clampitt, like Swift, is a dealer in wonders, in talents ‘one would never have guessed at’, and like him too in her starbursts of lingo, the tipped horn of verbal plenty. Touchingly, I think she is also like him in her intuitive sense that language is as frail as it is formidable. Swift, God knows, could be moralist enough, and so, as the last line of her poem displays, can Clampitt be: but Swift was as much ironist as moralist, eloquent often about the fact that words failed him in the face of what other words had made clear. ‘Homo Houdini’, also known as Adam or as Eve, is the one who brings off performances whose motives may in part be named in the poem’s last words, but who is likely in the end to be a mystery to himself or herself.

Marianne Moore said that we were the ones who write ‘error’ with four ‘r’s, and so we do: but from such crooked sketchings a lean-to house for meaning still emerges. One might think of the oceanic element into which the cormorant dives as being the equivalent of the silence into which the poet dips or dives, in hopes of bringing up the fish of significance. As a matter of fact, in her poem, Clampitt’s bird is not said to return with any quarry—the deed is all, with no other yield. And some poetry mainly has this to say, that the poet has gone into that boundless ocean which preceded and will succeed all words: the words flag the element which has nothing to give them. This too is a way of telling the truth; perhaps it is the cleanest, as it is one of the most onerous, forms of testimony to all that one is not, oneself. Silence is the strangest creature of all.

But most of the time poetry is in dialogue with silence, doing the one thing it can. Matthews said that for a writer language is the sixth sense, and this is true: it comes from us, probes beyond us, and sends messages back to us, at least when it is being used respectfully. One famous version of the opposite to this is Ring Lardner’s, ‘ “Shut up”, he explained.’ Poetry, even when it is being conducted with evident panache, is asking reality to speak up, and is doing so on the assumption that reality will never run out of new things to say about itself. Aquinas, speaking for many, observes that we proceed from the known to the unknown; I do not think that he stresses the fact that gainsaying, ‘naysaying’, is itself a door into the unknown, but so it proves to be, very often, at least in poetry. It is as if the mind, in order to know things well, is hinged or folded back from a point of negativity. In Clampitt’s poem, ‘implacably’, ‘discloses’, ‘never’, ‘inimitable’, ‘unlike’ and ‘nothing’ are all words which do particular local jobs, but they also mark freshness of attention in the poem as a whole, and a consequent surprise. If questions, in Matthews’ poem, make for intellectual and emotional drama, ‘The Cormorant in Its Element’ is in effect one long exclamation, whose own drama is heightened by gainsaying.

After the ants and the birds, which are old enough, here comes a fish. It is lodged in Richard Wilbur’s ‘Trolling for Blues’, dedicated ‘for John and Barbara’:

As with the dapper terns, or that sole cloud
Which like a slow-evolving embryo
Moils in the sky, we make of this keen fish
Whom fight and beauty have endeared to us
A mirror of our kind. Setting aside

His unreflectiveness, his flings in air,
The aberration of his flocking swerve
To spawning-grounds a hundred miles at sea,
How clearly, musing to the engine’s thrum,
Do we conceive him as he waits below:

Blue in the water’s blue, which is the shade
Of thought, and in that scintillating flux
Poised weightless, all attention, yet on edge
To lunge and seize with sure incisiveness,
He is a type of coolest intellect,

Or is so to the mind’s blue eye until
He strikes and runs unseen beneath the rip,
Yanking imagination back and down
Past recognition to the unlit deep
Of the glass sponges, of chiasmodon,

Of the old darkness of Devonian dream,
Phase of a meditation not our own,
That long mêlée where selves were not, that life
Merciless, painless, sleepless, unaware,
From which, in time, unthinkably we rose.

The ‘blues’ of the title refers to the Atlantic bluefish, which is migratory, pelagic, and a voracious predator. It can be a metre in length, can weigh 14 kilograms, and may be as old as 12 years. It is fished intensively for commercial reasons, and also as a game fish: between 1979 and 1997, American recreational fishers caught an average of about 70 million pounds of bluefish each year. The most famous of the Chiasmodon band is the one called the ‘black swallower’, which feeds on whole fish, often individuals larger than itself—it has greatly enlarged fangs in its jaws, from which it takes its Greek title of ‘cross-tooth’. It lives typically in pitch black water which is very cold, at a depth of up to 3000 metres, and it does indeed date from about 375 million years ago, in the Devonian period. Glass sponges have been retrieved from 1400 feet down, and boast among them the Venus’ Flower-Basket, which houses shrimps destined one day to become trapped by its lattice of spicules.

To know such things is relevant to one’s understanding of the poem—not only of its points of reference, but of its pitch of the imagination. Wilbur is an old man now, and this poem was written well on in his career, but some of his earliest and most brilliant poems were already establishing negotiations between those familiar foreigners, the birds and beasts, on the one hand, and ourselves on the other. He knows of course that none of us can think like a beast, but he also knows that it is part of our privilege to press at the borders of our present construings, and to take some steps into what is for us a present darkness, but is in effect another being’s light. After all, each of us, with greater or less success, has re-guised herself or himself from infancy to childhood to adolescence to young adulthood to middle age and perhaps beyond: and whether or not the books said so, or our elders or peers or juniors noticed, we were somewhat different creatures as we went: Ovid wrote the Metamorphoses, but each of us has lived them.

In one philosophical truism, ‘man is the measure of all things’—a sentiment revisited, glancingly, in this poem’s dedication. I have no idea whether John and Barbara were once-met fellow fishers, or (for example) Wilbur’s grandchildren: but a dedication always marks recipients both as readers-to-be, and as the sponsors or the  mentors of attention, and in this poem the male and the female, ‘our kind’, preside in a degree over the conditions and the fortunes of other kinds. When Wilbur acknowledges in the first stanza that we have made the bluefish ‘a mirror of our kind’, this takes place in their company.

Wilbur has always been concerned with just that—with ‘company’, whose other rendition is ‘conviviality’. It is not that he neglects solitudes: there stalk through his large body of poetry one solitaire after another—a wolf, one of Giacometti’s attenuated male figures, a boyish soldier at dawn in a combat zone, a woman deranged by fury, and so on. It is rather that by contrast with many poets—I suspect as many ancient as modern—he finds language and all that it mediates colleagual. That he is a Christian may be (as it should be) a help in this regard, and it is appropriate that he brings a virtuoso piece to its conclusion by referring to the comradely finesse of Francis of Assisi, but we are probably dealing here with something which precedes, though it undergirds, a religious allegiance.
And yet those solitaires will never go away. Auden has a short poem of beguiling simplicity whose refrain is, ‘In solitude, for company’. There we all are, after all—each unprecedented and without sequel, scarcely commanding the alphabet of personal identity on even our few adept days, and often looking at those we love best as if each were the Rosetta Stone: but contriving too, or at least accepting, one degree of solidarity after another.

Wilbur knows this in his bones, and always has. A witty friend of mine said to me once, with a view to lunching, ‘let’s go over to University House and see whether the creatures have turned into people.’ So far as I can remember, they had, but of course the people were still creatures, every self a someone else. Wilbur, who I would guess has never written an informal poem in his life, is a great fashioner (as here) of stanzas, and a great worker from one stanza to another. ‘Stanza’ is the Italian word for a room, and a poem by Wilbur is a well-built house in which each room has its own identity and integrity, but in which there is free but measured transition from one room to another: formally, there is solitude, and formally, there is company.

This formal fact about the poem is not incidental to it: as someone said a long time ago, ‘the form is on the inside’, and in art, as in many other important areas of life, to find the right form is indispensable if one is to find such truth as is available. And so it is appropriate that ‘Trolling for Blues’ is steeped in the language of being mindful—‘make a mirror’, ‘conceive him’, ‘the mind’s blue eye’, ‘meditation’, and so forth. But this is not a poem about the dapper terns in their stylish performance, nor only about the bestiarial spirit in which ‘our kind’ has made lion and otter and pelican and phoenix its own. It is about the immense tension between, on the one hand, the realm of the comprehensible and the convivial, and on the other, ‘that long mêlée’ not only of a geological and an evolutionary past, but of incomprehension and the incomprehensible in our present. It is in fact a poem attended not only by Darwin, but by Freud, and Socrates, and the author of the first verses of Genesis.

And now I find, glancing back at these three poems, that for all their differences they have this in common: that they end with the bestial world made stranger to us, and with us made stranger too. It is language which makes this possible—language, whose raison d’être is to bridge our solitudes in a more than material fashion, but which, so the savants tell us, no two people speak in exactly the same way. Perhaps the best emblem of what happens among us when we speak with care is still the zodiac—that wheel of the creatures, domestic and exotic, who are supposed both to prompt and to yield to one another, beings eloquent in their foreignness as in their familiarity. One thing is sure: a good poem always says that there is a good way still to go. 

Peter Steele sj has a personal chair at the University of Melbourne.



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