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.


Maybe it is something to do with our feeling of an inability to express animalistic traits/ our common desires, by having people as the main focus in our writing; thus, we choose instead to use animals as the visual 'backdrop', and by doing so we are drawing the acceptance that, despite living in a so-called 'civilised' society, humans are innately animalistic. It seems a bit contradictory really, though: by moving away from what our poems revolve around (some sort of human life, generally, as that is what we feel), by moving away from our subject, we can perhaps bring ourselves closer to it. 'Serpentine' by Lavinia Greenlaw holds me most forcefully out of the three animal poems I've looked at so far. Compared to 'The Clapham Elephants', 'Considering the Snail' and 'Time', it is far more sensual, more immediate. Indeed, it seems to confront sexual feelings by relating to animal behaviour/ instinct. This could just be how I am reading it, but it seems a lot of the imagery could apply equally to humans: 'infra-red heat of my blood' is plainly scientific enough when taken alone, but it cannot be taken alone. Along with it, one must consider the rest, the 'ripple and curve' of vertebrae, just after 'the whisper', the 'violent hunger' and evident 'passion'. Lavinia goes on to talk about her fingers tracing 'his jaw', admits that she talks about a 'beautiful, simple' thing, to then give us a vision of shared pillows, as if remembering the 'serpentine', in the lull of semi-asleep when one first wakes up. I think it's a fantastically evoking poem! (I have to go now, I'll write more later when I can.)

Interesting post, Katy. I agree with you that Lavinia Greenlaw's poem makes a powerful connection with a version of animal sensibility. The beautiful detail which you quote, is full of sensuality and passion. But the poem provokes an elegaic idea of separation at the same time: separation between people and separation from the animal. Immediately you use the word 'I' you invoke consciousness - human consciousness and individuality. The 'I' in this poem is particularly strong, I think. The poem is remarkable in that it starts such a flurry of questions about individuality, consciousness, our human/animal identity, sex, separation, loss - and all in a few lines.

best, jo

hello. i have a GCSE english literature exam a week tomorrow, i need to revise. i want some interesting poems to revise with. i am 15years old, so i dont really want anything to immature or too mature. i hope you could give me a love poem and a war poem to work from. please help, hannah

Hello Jo and welcome. I wonder if one of the reasons for the popularity of animal themes is that they have no language of their own with which to contradict the poet. The great majority of animal poems are not written in the voce of the animal although there are exceptions. The poet can write about his own reaction to something dynamic and alive -- as opposed to an abstract emotion or a static vista. This wordlessness can be used as an essential part of a dramatic narrative, as in Spencer's Beth Gelert, or as an assurance that a ringing question will not receive any banal reply, as in Blake's The Tyger. Thr Tyger cannot ruin Blake's last wonderful line in the second last stanza by answering 'Actually, yes'. The poet can safely hide behind a repetition of the first stanza as the mighty beast pads by.

Your last correspondent asks for suggestions for love or war poetry.

Wendy Cope has a lovely 12 lines aboutthe joys of the very beginnings of falling in love in the poem 'After the Lunch' which is published in her collection 'Serious Concerns'(faber & faber) As for war poetry, I think that if I were an examiner faced with hundreds of papers to mark I would be well disposed to anyone who had the gumption to include at least one poem written before 1914 or after 1918. By the way, I am not an examiner thank goodness.

Hi Hannah. First of all, very good luck with your GCSE exams - I know how stressful they can be. There are some great poems of love and war in the archive and it was hard to choose just two so I hope you'll come back and browse through after your exams when you'll have time to savour the poems without pressure. Have a look at Jenny Joseph's love poem, 'The sun has burst the sky' and notice how she uses images from the natural world to show her feelings. Owen Sheers' poem 'Mametz Wood' is a fascinating war poem, from the point of view of a young contemporary man looking back at the Battle of the Somme (his introduction to the poem is very helpful, too). If you have time, check out 'George Square' by Jackie Kay which combines love and war. Good luck - and good luck, too, to everyone out there in the middle of exams. Try not to let them put you off poems!

Welcome Jo, I am looking forward to your time of being the poet in residence. Sujata introduced you to us via your poetry, and my favourite of your four samples in poetry archive was Hairless.

Therefore when I saw your post was asking why poets so often write about animals I immediately thought of the hairless Rex cats which appeared on our catshow benches about 3 decades back and many people were asking how anyone could love them as we do our other pets?

My existing thinking on why poets write about animals is it was something to do with our loneliness. First as being the only human-tenanted planet in this huge universe and these are our nearest near-humans to relate to. Secondly with us being poets we are living with the world of no-words which we keep trying to translate into words, much as animals do, and this creates an empathy? I also think many poets are by nature quite solitary for significant periods of time and the company of animals, either our own or borrowed from the scenery, is very welcome.

Over-all I am always perplexed by how many humans are insulted to be reminded that we are foremost, animals; conceived, born and with the ongoing struggle for survival of self and species just the same as all animals are. Therefore the animal kingdom has natural laws we need to remain aware of.

Personally I have always been always been involved with, and loved, both domestic and farmed animals.

Now it is three days after this effort of defining my existing attitude and I have completed the initial overview reading of the 43 animal poems on the Archive and was most interested to find the wide variety of connections between poet and animal and I am looking forward to the forthcoming discussion .

Hello Jo and Katy, nice to meet you here again.

Hi John, hi Lois, and thank you both for the warm welcome. I agree with you, John, that the wordlessness of animals allows poets to project their own thoughts and ideas onto things vibrant and living, not abstract. Thank you for reminding us of Blake's tyger as a superb example of this. Your post made me wonder if we envy the unselfconscious vitality of animals, too. Lois, you raise the important question of empathy which is essential to the poet, I think. And your point about our essential lonliness on the planet is right on the button. It is, odd, isn't it, that so many want to distance themselves from all the other species when I feel, like you, excited to be among the 'endless forms most beautiful and wonderful' that Darwin talks about. Great to meet you all and thank you for your fascinating posts.

I think the use of animals immediately conjures up the world of the outside, with its limitless possibilities for poetry. Birds are a particularly interesting - and well-used - expression of freedom/seasons change etc, particularly shown in the poems of, say, Michael Longley (Snow Water), and even in relatively 'cosmopolitan' poets such as Hugo Williams. More than anything it's just fun for the poet to learn whilst they write, and the worlds of ornithology and lepidoptera offer so much: a seductive mixture of science, myth and history, beautiful language, defunct but brilliant-sounding language. And then that challenge as to how the poet will draw these things back into the human sphere.

The natural world produces limitless possibilities. For instance, today's Daily Telegraph had an article on the 'Iron-eating tree of Brig-Turk', a sycamore that has grown in an old smithy's yard over the past 200 hundred years, slowly enveloping the scrap heap that surrounds it. It has eaten 'among other things' a ship's anchor, and is halfway through enveloping a bicycle which was left against the tree by a boy in 1914. The boy went away to war and did not return. There's a picture of the two handlebars, sticking out of the bark, halfway up. Here we have a literal case of the man-made and the natural world coming together. Apparently it's common for trees to simply eat' metal objects - did anyone else know this?? There's definitely a poem to be had there too, but too late, I've already started!

Gosh that is a hard choice to pick which of all the animal poems featured in the archive, would be my favourite. I think the one that I can best make a starting point from would be the poem where animals are on the inside such as, Animals by John Burnside. I note that it has been written for an American woman, who we could believe, by her nationality, easily associates with the American Indian belief in personal Totem Animals. John is exploring his feelings on this subject throughout this poem especially when he says 'they say if you dream an animal, it means the self / moving from room to room, with its scent on our hands/ and a slickness of musk and fur/on our sleep-washed skins,/'.I get the idea finally from this poem that he is inferring there is 'one broad presence that proceeds/by craft and guesswork/', before us is our soul maybe - which is more animal than ghost. I can then leap off from here: either in the direction of the poets who speak of a particular animal who they feel a particular closeness with, like Edwin Morgan with his Hyena, or the poet David Harsent who talks of people shape-shifting into animals or back again.
Rob, that is an interesting story about the tree. I think there are probably as many interesting poems about trees as there are about animals. You'll surely enjoy writing the poem on the iron-eating tree.

Hello everybody. I definately agree with John that animals provide a uesful and exciting focus for writers, which allow you to approach abstract subjects by giving them a physical or comprehensible base, and can also give a new angle to a topic that has been written of before. I believe that animal's lack of language and separateness from the complications of human society, allows us to connect to animals and even form relationships with them that are free from the pressures, hang-ups and complexities of society, and can also provide great emotional relief when one is having problems with people in their lives (or indeed the lack of them as has been mentioned!).
There is also a kinds of mystical otherness (picking up on Rob's point) in the way we look at animals, Ted Hughes animal poems give many examples of this, in which we find some tangible link to the unexplainables of nature and the mindboggling contemplation of existences.
More recently I have found use of animal characteristics and habits, particularly ones taught to us from childhood (for example those of a magpie), as a tool for writing about characteristics of certain people that I see reflected in them. I think this says a lot about how we understand animals in reflection to ourselves and other people, and use them to simplify and make tangible our understanding of people's character or behaviour, as well as how we have shaped our understanding of animals through culture and society somewhat. It is also a method that immediately springs up many images, metaphors and similies that help create an interesting poem.
I've been naughty and haven't read the animal poems on here yet, so I will do that now and come back with any comments on the poems themselves.


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Glossary term

Iambic Pentameter

A common metre in English-language poetry, based on five two-stressed feet.

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