Saturday, 27 February 2016

The Earth Will Feed Her Own (Poetry in an environmental context, being a comparison of poems by Freda Davis and Samuel Taylor Colderidge).

January's monthly  Sowerby Bridge poetry event Puzzle Hall Poets Live, was the first in its temporary home of The Blind Pig, and the highlight of the evening for me was a trio of poems by co-founder, and established Calder Valley poet, Freda Davis, who concluded her reading with one of my personal favourites of her powerful poems - Harvest Song, from her 2003 collection Well Woman Poems.

Fibre from the leaf mould, begins the poem, Minerals from the stone / Potassium and nitrogen / the earth will feed her own.

Harvest Song reads like a Pantheistic paean to the planet, and its lyrical quality is underpinned by a sense of narrative, which begins with the informative but develops into something very different. The poem is at its heart both defensive and  celebratory toward the earth, which its author characterises beautifully as

The mother of the mother
Of she who gave you birth. 

There is a great tradition of environmental poetry internationally and, as a theme for poets, concern and care for the earth is surely among the oldest inspirations. Almost every culture can point to defining poetic voices in their history who have highlighted the plight of ecology, animals, and the protection of the planet.  It is not my intention to attempt to document these traditions here, but I want to look closely at Freda's marvellously constructed poem, which melds an urgent passion and anger with a sparing precision, and at times restraint - and to draw a comparison between Harvest Song and a poem  almost two centuries older, Samuel Taylor Coleridge's Hymn to the Earth.  Both pieces emanate from the same motivation, both embrace the theme of earthly splendour with the same degree of reverence, and both are magnificent pieces of writing.  As we shall see, though, the poems are distinctly shaped by the contexts of the periods in which they were composed.

Freda Davis, who was born in the South of England and has been living in the Ryburn Valley, Yorkshire, since the early 1980's, first published poetry in the summer of 1963, in the Merseyside magazine Phoenix 9, alongside Roger McGough and Brian Patten.  She is one of the organisers of Sowerby Bridge's Puzzle Hall Poets Live, With a background in teaching, her writing is inspired by nature and the seasons, mind and body, and its themes often explore pagan and feminist ideas.  Freda is also a talented visual artist, whose annual Moon Calendars emphasize the essence of her beautiful poetry, which sometimes feels tinged with magic, and which has been released in two collections - Sympathetic Magic (1990) and Well Woman Poems.

Harvest Song appears half way through Well Woman Poems, and is powerfully contextualized among pieces both extolling the magnificence of nature, and addressing the difficulties of friendships, the human struggle of maintaining an equilibrium in a changing world, and the problems of religion and war.  The book's first poem is inspired by the work of American writer Tillie Olsen, and begins

Stillness, frost, a clear sky before dawn.
All sleeping.
A small finch settles, lifts its tail, begins to sing
a brief note,
repeating it
like a heartbeat, the rising falling rhythm of a distant train
lays down a base.

These early morning scenes, and their skilful depiction in this quiet, mindful poem, might be compared to images of creation, of a planet's awakening, of the first dawn, or the earliest, pre-historic times, succeeded by the growing chug of life, progress and unrest.  The poem All The Rage lambasts stinking inhsospitable civilisation ... news of the endless crushing of humanity and the clash of nations bringing a rush to warThe succeeding poems expand on this thematic base, aiming at corruption, lost innocence and guilt, and on reaching Harvest Song we have encountered a range of distinct and yet connected voices, urging us along a road of survival and discovery.  The poem's first lines, with their fibres, minerals and leaves, their potassium and nitrogen and replenishing earth, are life-affirming and emboldening, portraying a world of savage beauty, a beauty of wind and snow and calm, a cloud's fantastic landscape.  It is a world of furious seas, of the lightning's fearful harm, and yet

... tides still come and go.
It is the earth's sister moon
Who makes them come and go.

This portrait of a planet wholly self-sufficient and beneficent carries echoes in my mind of Bob Dylan's Father of Night, with its obvious distinction being the focus not on a traditionalist, Biblical Father-figure God, but on a feminine Mother Earth.  Freda Davis has spoken of Dylan as an influence, and I will approach the significance of this shortly, but at this juncture the poem is joyous, its recurring quadruplet has a reassuring quality whose rhyme only increases the sense of safety and warm, loving certainty:

All the life around us
Springs from mother earth
The mother of the mother
of she who gave you birth.
This chorus is, considering the levity of its subject, remarkably understated, but glistens with sincerity and reverence.  In terms of self-restraint, it could hardly be more different to Samuel Taylor Coleridge's Hymn to the Earth, a sweeping deluge of Romanticism where much praise is bestowed upon an earth resplendent with green meadows, a rejoicing sun, and whose author professes to be
Thrilled with thy beauty and love in the wooded slope of the mountain.  And yet, the two poems rebound with a similarity of instinct which unites their authors as kindred spirits.

First published in 1834, in the journal Friendship's Offering, Coleridge's poem may have been written some years earlier, for its appearance in the journal was presaged by a heading where the poet describes it, along with several other poems featured, as a fragment of "Portions of Poems Composed in Early Manhood."  Coleridge follows this heading with a long and very boring explanation about his choice of meter - the Hexameter - and all its various and tedious restrictions and particulars.  He does not venture to explain why the poem was subjected to this obscure verse form, but does concede that he has granted himself several poetic licenses in order to extricate himself from the syllabic straight-jackets such experiments impose.  One might wonder why the poet bothered with Hexameters at all, especially if he was to junk several of their precepts in order to produce a readable poem, but it is noteworthy that, having condemned himself to struggle through this poetic predicament, Coleridge's instinct is to employ it in a celebration of the earth - a hymn, to use the poet's own term.  Often, when as poets we try to pit our wits against different linguistic forms and games, it is to our favoured themes or arguments on which we might rely, and our innermost priorities and inclinations we return.  Hymn to the Earth could not begin more passionately:

Earth!  thou mother of numberless children, the nurse and the mother,
Hail! O Goddess, thrice hail!  Blest be thou! 

The same profound powers with which Freda Davis credits the earth, those of giving rise to and sustaining life, are conjured by the worshipful Coleridge in musical and rhythmic terms:

Forth, ye sweet sounds!  from my harp, and my voice shall float on your surges -
Soar thou aloft, O my soul! and bear up my song on thy pinions.

And later -

Fill the pause of my harp, or sustain it with musical murmurs.
Into my being thou murmurest joy, and tenderest sadness
Shedd'st thou, like dew, on my heart, till the joy and the heavenly sadness
Pour themselves forth from my heart in tears, and the hymn of thanksgiving.

The poem differs from Freda's in its intensely personalised response to the Green-haired goddess, and its metaphorical showcasing of the qualities outlined more factually in Harvest Song, but occupies the same territory in its ecologically rooted opening premise. Indeed, while Freda Davis characterises the earth and moon as sisters, and Coleridge aligns the planet as the moon's Guardian and friend, the earth's restorative prowess is depicted in not dissimilar lights by both poets. Coleridge, Travelling the vale with mine eyes, discerns:

green meadows and lake with green island,
Dark in its basin of rock, and the bare stream flowing in brightness,

and while Freda illustrates the natural world's enduring planetary symbiosis in the following terms:

The sun lights up our darkness
And warms up the living land.
He ripens fruit to harvest
And dries the earth to sand
But deep within the rock face
The earth has springs that run.
The trees have roots to reach them.
They shade us from the sun.

And it is "the living earth" with which both poems are fundamentally concerned.  Harvest Song's maternal evocations are the basis of the poem, yet it is on this subject that Coleridge, for once departing from the implicative abstraction with which his poem's essence has been spiritually distilled, expresses the idea in more concrete words - choosing to focus not only on the earth's bringing forth of life, but sharpening the lens on the dawning of life its self.  Earth, he writes, is Bride and consort of Heaven, and upon the consummation of the marriage Myriad myriads of lives teemed forth, impelling Thousand-fold tribes of dwellers, impelled by thousand-fold instincts:

Young life lowed through the meadows, the woods, and the echoing mountains,
Wandered bleating in valleys, and warbled on blossoming branches.

Hymn to the Earth, its inception taking place some years before its 1834 publication, was thus written when the Industrial Revolution was in its infancy.  Although the destructive impact of human "progress" on the planet had been and was being documented angrily by poets such as John Clare, this was a theme as yet largely untouched by most well known poets, and few could have guessed, in Coleridge's age, the horrors waiting to unfold.  And it is to this dreadful chapter in the history of the Green-haired Goddess that we now turn.


The poem's fourth stanza commences with a rather bucolic line: You plough the fields and scatter. However, in the next line we learn precisely what is being scattered: Your poisons on the land.  Now, having been apprised of the earth's life-giving and preserving powers, we are told of the deplorable manner in which these gifts have been repaid.  Pulling no punches, the poem does not merely reflect regret at environmental degradation, it places humanity - or, one supposes, those sections which guiding the pride and greed and anger of our governmental systems, and the attendant negligence and corporate plunder of a society seemingly Hell-bent on allowing them to do so - squarely in the frame.  The second two of the poem's four stanzas focus much of their attention of the profiteering of warring men manipulating the earth's bounteous harvest in order to forge the fire of weapons of destruction, in order to fatten the profit in your hand, lines echoing the emotive disgust of Bob Dylan's Masters of War.  In another poem, written in the 1960's, Freda Davis recorded the sense of doomsday drear fearfully encapsulated in the darkest days of the Cold War, and told me she had been listening to Dylan regularly at the time.  But in Harvest Song, this sense of helpless anger, this fury at spiteful selfishness and destruction burns just as lividly from the pyres of Man's inhumanity to his own environment, to the earthly forces which have enabled his existence, and which are fatally abused in the name of politics and profit. 

The Anthropocene - the name given to the period since the Industrial Revolution's onset by scientists concerned with Man's impact on his eco-system - has seen the jaws of consumerism chew up the planet and spit it out, half-extincted and genetically mutilated, battered by rapacious over-use, its resources sucked dry, its natural fuels and foods needlessly depleted by massively expanding populations, waste and a "throw away" mentality in which mass-production is foisted on us by an unethical corporate imperialism.  The Anthropocene has imposed the widest levels of extinction since the Cretaceous-Paleogene extinctions of more than sixty million years ago.  Each year, as many as fifty thousand animal species go extinct - a figure which comprises Heaven knows how many individual animals, and brings shame upon the human race, with its ocean-acidifying chemicals, its fracking and its mindless agricultural waste, in which swathes of land are saturated in mono-crop production, causing topsoil erosion, imbalances of food for wild animals, enormous water waste and a loss of naturally occurring flora, disrupting the migration of pollinators and leading to hunger shortages condemning millions to poverty and famine.  
Man's war against the planet is best - or worst - typified by his attacks on other animals.  These obsessively repetitive attacks, from the persecution of animals hunted to extinction, like the Western Black Rhinoceros, or those pushed to the brink such as puffins, voles, or the Snow Leopard, to the horrors of the meat industry - tucked away from public view or normalized in the crass pastiche of words like "organic" and the grinning inanity of television chefs - injure the planet's fragile environment, producing gasses and pollution at more damaging levels than the air and motor industries combined.  The toxins prevalent in the modern meat industry, the ecological effects of over-farming crops like rice and soya, the violence of palm oil production, in which orangutans are shot and vast areas of forest cleared for the purposes of profit, the predominance of plastics and other materials which, discarded, fester in the earth like rotting sores, right down to today's over-reliance on cars, the paving over of gardens and agricultural practises which condemn whole areas to regular flooding, littering of streets, now commonplace, and indeed the scattering of "poisons" about the earth while ripping out its natural foundations, all - when seen through the prism of Freda Davis' poem, represent a kind of Matricide. 
In one of Coleridge's greatest poems, published the same year as his Hymn to Earth, the reckless Mariner of an ill-fated ship, having shot an albatross, is condemned to wander the earth in penance like one that hath been stunned / And is of sense forlorn, the dead bird strung around his neck as a reminder of his guilt.  Unlike the Ancient Mariner, we do not live in an age of holy-men and hermits. Nor can we rely on spirits from a shipwrecked earth to guide us, and untangle the mutilated mess our species has made of his bounteous home.  But neither should we need to.  Our planet is one of replenishing goodness, which in the words of Freda Davis
Shields the living grain
Absorbs the early sunshine
And holds the gentle rain. 
We are blessed by a sun which lights up our darkness, which ripens fruit to harvest  and which warms the living land, and by springs and water which satiate the roots of trees - providers of life and defences against floods and global warming, and which nourish the earth and its animals. In Freda's poem, the word "living" appears twice.  The words "dead" or "death" do not feature once.  Although it holds a mirror to the terrors of Man's impact, Harvest Song is also a poem of beauty, and of hope.  It is no accident that the poem fills two facing pages: its first two celebratory stanzas, like a condensed Hymn to Earth, on one, and the concluding stanzas in which madness of the Anthropocene threatens to destroy / the earth your mother on the facing page.  It is a picture of the world in two halves - one peaceful, one nightmarish. Or two possible versions of our future.  A future in which, if the earth is to provide us with the replenishing, renewing and redeeming life force for which she is credited by both Freda Davis and her poetic predecessor Samuel Taylor Coleridge, she must be respected and repaired, honoured and loved, as the green goddess who feeds her own - the mother of the mother of she who gave you birth.  Political pressure, as well as changes and restraints to our industrial, agricultural, dietary and personal practises, must be enacted in order to reverse the tragic tide of environmental destruction - or we as a species will be condemned, like Coleridge's Mariner, to remain forever burdened with the albatross of a ruined earth, already hanging heavy around our neck.

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