Hello, welcome, and an A to Z of animal poems
Jo Shapcott - 9 May 2007
This is the first blog of my period as poet in residence at the Poetry Archive. I am certain that all writers begin as readers, so it's a delight for me to be here with the opportunity not only to listen to the archived poets and read their poems, but also to give my views about the work, and have online conversations with other readers and writers. So please jump in with your own ideas. This post asks why poets write so often about animals and, taking examples from the archive, looks at some different approaches. I look forward to hearing back from you.
Philosophers and poets have been fascinated by animals from the earliest times. They are the main subject of one of the first forms of human artistic expression: cave paintings. We have always celebrated our dependence on them for food, clothing, company and more. There is something compelling about their closeness to us, our connectedness, summed up in Darwin's words: 'from so simple a beginning endless forms most beautiful and most wonderful have been, and are being evolved.'
The differences preoccupy us too, and have done so since at least Aristotle, causing us to grant animals their own kingdom and sometimes even their own souls. Animals make us wonder how we can know them, how we can know anything other at all and, ultimately, how we can know ourselves.
Many of the first riddles and poems in all languages are beast-based and animals have prowled their way through the canon ever since. From Aesop to Chaucer, from Christopher Smart to Marianne Moore. In many cases human characteristics are read into animal behaviour or appearance by the poet, as in P.J. Kavanagh's 'The Clapham Elephant'. Sometimes the faithful and accurate observation of an animal can tell us something about humanity, as in Thom Gunn's 'Considering the Snail'. Or there are poems in which the observer stands back in admiration of nature, ready to learn from it, believing in its fundamental separation from strictly human nature. I think Kathleen Jamie's poem 'Pipistrelles' and Richard Wilbur's 'Mayflies' are like this. Some poets try on an animal skin, like Edwin Morgan, in 'Hyena'.
The Poetry Archive contains all these animal poems, and more; you can see the whole list simply by pressing the 'animals' link under 'Browse all poems by theme' on the right-hand side of the home page. I hope this will be a conversation, so please do write to say which of them is your favourite, and why.