The BBC has recently been running a Poetry Season. I didn't get to see all of it, but made a point of watching Simon Armitage on Gawain and the Green Knight. Unfortunately it was marred by some desultory attempts at popularisation - instead of discussing the poem with literary scholars Armitage was filmed trying on a suit of armour with a couple of medieval re-enactors, one of whom was called Gandalf. We saw Armitage walking in the landscape, dressed for the British weather, but there was no sense of the extremes of winter experienced by Gawain in the poem (see my earlier post on this). Still, we know Armitage is a music fan and the programme afforded my wife and I a good opportunity to play 'name that tune' with the soundtrack... "Always great to hear Joy Division..." "Isn't that a bit of Nick Drake?..." "Goodness, he's put in 'Sheela-Na-Gig'!" "'A Forest'... nice touch."
In marked contrast to this, Owen Sheers' series ‘A Poet’s Guide to Britain’ was exemplary - completely accessible but no dumbing down. He clearly felt no need to jazz up the poetry with snatches of post-punk and his interlocutors were all interesting and relevant. Each programme lasted half an hour and circled round one poem, so that by the end you felt you really knew it. As can be seen, the list was an eclectic mixture of the famous and the not-so-famous:
- ‘Composed Upon Westminster Bridge’ by William Wordsworth – May 4th
- ‘Wuthering Heights’ by Sylvia Plath – May 11th
- ‘Hamnavoe’ by George Mackay Brown – May 18th
- ‘Dover Beach’ by Matthew Arnold – May 25th
- ‘Poem from Llanybri’ by Lynette Roberts – June 1st
- ‘Woods’ by Louis MacNeice – June 8th
I liked the way he didn't choose the most obvious landscape poets (Edward Thomas, say) or the most renowned poems by each writer ('Woods' is not I think that well known). The programme that opted to feature Sylvia Plath on Yorkshire instead of Ted Hughes worked really well. The poems in this list are not 'just' about the landscape - George Mackay Brown and Louis MacNeice talk about their fathers, for example; it seems to me that Owen Sheers' own poetry often combines landscape and personal memory in this way ('My Grandfather's Garden').
Louis MacNiece's poem 'Woods' was new to me. It reflects on the fact that his father, 'found the English landscape tame' - for him Escape meant an Irish landscape of 'bog or rock'. But MacNiece himself had another choice, experienced first as a schoolboy in Dorset, 'a kingdom free from time and sky'. These English woods were the landscape of 'Malory's knights, Keats' nymphs or the Midsummer Night's Dream'. 'So in a grassy ride a rain-filled hoof-mark coined / By a finger of sun from the mint of Long Ago / Was the last of Lancelot's glitter...'
This Father's Day post is dedicated to my father (who has never 'found the English landscape tame').