Poet in residence

This term's poet in residence

Jo Shapcott

Weather By Jo Shapcott
27 Jun 2007 - 05:53 PM

I am writing this at The Hurst in South Shropshire, which is one of the Arvon Foundation's four houses for writers (www.arvonfoundation.org.uk). We are in the beautiful Clun valley, but higher than the floods and swollen rivers all around this week. A couple of days ago a bridge collapsed in nearby Ludlow, and today we are aware that the River Severn is rising not far away. The force of the recent weather here has made me think how poets have responded to responded to this aspect of nature.

I am writing this at The Hurst in South Shropshire, which is one of the Arvon Foundation's four houses for writers (www.arvonfoundation.org.uk). We are in the beautiful Clun valley, but higher than the floods and swollen rivers all around this week. A couple of days ago a bridge collapsed in nearby Ludlow, and today we are aware that the River Severn is rising not far away. The force of the recent weather here has made me think how poets have responded to responded to this aspect of nature. The archive has great range of poems which respond to the environment: Michael Symmons Roberts poem 'Pelt' is a good example, as is 'The Wishing Tree' and 'Pipistrelles' by Kathleen Jamie (you'll already be getting the idea that she is one of my all-time favourites). Les Murray's poem 'The Meaning of Existence' throws up some essential questions about how humans relate (or don't relate) to the natural world. Other poets (outside the archive) who I think are currently writing important work in direct reaction to their sense of the fragility of the planet are Alice Oswald and John Kinsella. You may want to let us know about others. AI want to mention an important milestone for this aspect of writing which occurred in 2004, when the poets Maurice Riordan and John Burnside put together an anthology of poetry called 'Wild Reckoning'. It is inspired by the fortieth anniversary of Rachel Carson's controversial and prophetic book 'Silent Spring', which warned against the environmental impact of the indiscriminate use of pesticides. The anthology featured new poems commissioned from a whole host of poets - including Seamus Heaney, Mark Doty and Kathleen Jamie - which resulted from discussions with scientists such as Richard Fortey and John Sulston. As well as the newly commissioned poems, the anthology included past and contemporary poems which belong in the great tradition of English nature poetry, and express a sense of the fragility of living things. My question about contemporary nature poetry, which must surely these days have at its centre our concern about human damage to the planet, is this: will all such poems be elegies? Is there any other possible response?

2 Comments at the moment

Susannah at 2 Jul 2007 - 08:59 AM

It does seem a long time since I read a 'nature poem' which is not classifiable as an elegy. I miss them actually - poems which simply celebrate the natural world and don't necesarily mourn it or tell us how fragile it is. Nature is fragile in some ways, but can be strong and even brutal too. Perhaps we need Ted Hughes to remind us of this?

Jo Shapcott at 6 Jul 2007 - 09:08 AM

Hi Susanna - I agree with you about the need for pure celebration. Seamus Heaney suggested in one of his prose essays that all poems are elegies and if that's true, the 'mourning' approach is inevitable. But you've picked out a great example in Ted Highes - a magnificent antidote to the elegaic nature poem.

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