A few years back I wrote a poem called “Public Footpath on my mother-in-law’s computer. I password protected it, and then forgot the password. I’ve never been able to retrieve it since. The poem was meant to describe a conflict in a relationship, its naturalisation, and draw likenesses to the elements of the English winter. All I have now are these notes, in which I reflect on two poems I drew inspiration from at the time.
Ivor Gurney’s poem “Encounters” describes a similar moment to the one I had in mind for “Public Footpath”. It starts beautifully: “One comes across the strangest things in walks.” Mostly then he describes artefacts from the past, and aspects of nature. Where it falls short is that it doesn’t penetrate the internal: what meaning do we attribute to the things he describes? What do they represent?
I found Joseph Brodsky’s poem “Stone Villages” much more interesting. Essentially a list poem, the things he describes and the sequence in which he describes them give them new meaning. They are iconic images of the countryside, but he juxtaposes them in interesting ways: “cathedral bottled in a pub window”; cows in fields and monuments to kings; a train setting off to sea like a river. These things live side by side and both have equal share in the culture of the land he writes of.
Brodsky leaves us in no doubt that the scenes he describe are extraordinary. A man says goodbye to his daughter. He is at a station; a train is about to leave, and yet the sound that fills the sky is the song of a bird. Now that’s a fucking hopeful poem! And at the same time, a damning indictment of our species. Our whistle signifies an end, a foreboding warning; and birdsong? Infinite wonder.
The stone-built villages of England.
A cathedral bottled in a pub window.
Cows dispersed across fields.
Monuments to kings.
A man in a moth-eaten suit
sees a train off, heading, like everything here, for the sea,
smiles at his daughter, leaving for the East.
A whistle blows.
And the endless sky over the tiles
grows bluer as swelling birdsong fills.
And the clearer the song is heard,
the smaller the bird.
– Joseph Brodsky, 1975