Monday, April 24, 2006

Vague snow descending

A John Clare poem gives its title to a new anthology of ‘poems for the planet’, The Thunder Mutters, edited by Alice Oswald, author of Dart. Clare’s biographer Jonathan Bate has reviewed it in The Guardian. Clare is also represented among Oswald’s 101 choices by a transcription of a nightingale song and a prose description of a woodman working in a winter forest. These examples convey her aim in the anthology to highlight poems that enter directly into the natural world through close observation or labour (Oswald herself worked as a gardener). As she says in the introduction, “no prospect, pastorals or nostalgic poems are in here…” So in a way this is an anthology about poets in the landscape rather than ‘landscape poems’.

Nevertheless, one poem in The Thunder Mutters is simply called ‘Landscape’. The poem didn’t have this title in French (frustratingly there is no information about any of the poems apart from some incomplete acknowledgements, so it is unclear to the reader when or in what form this poem, or others like ‘The Thunder Matters’, were first written or published). ‘Landscape’ is a translation by C.F. Macintyre of Paul Verlaine’s ‘Dans l’interminable ennui de la plaine’ (1874). This poem concerns neither nature nor outdoor work - it is a landscape of the mind, a ‘flat land’ with ‘vague snow descending’ and woods where misty grey oaks twist like clouds:
Dans l'interminable
Ennui de la plaine
La neige incertaine
Luit comme du sable.
Le ciel est de cuivre
Sans lueur aucune
On croirait voir vivre
Et mourir la lune.
Comme des nuées
Flottent gris les chênes
Des forêts prochaines
Parmi les buées…

Alice Oswald places this ‘Landscape’ opposite ‘Mississippi Bo Weavil Blues’ by blues singer Charlie Patton, which gives an indication of the anthology’s range. It is a strength of the book that her selections are quirky and personal – she includes a poem by her husband and local epitaphs from Bideford and Great Torrington churches. The combination of famous poems by writers like Marianne Moore, Seamus Heaney, Robert Frost and Walt Whitman interspersed with fragments of oral and experimental poetry make The Thunder Mutters a very enjoyable collection.

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