It’s winter here in the English midlands and the snow is thick on the ground. Here a couple of photographs from my weekend walks.
The horses above are in a field a quarter of a mile from where we live, and are the same as those that appear in the opening poem of my book ‘The Great Animator’. You can read the poem here.
I’m at home today, and rather than complete some unappealing paperwork or take the dog for her walk
I’ll let her sleep on until the sun gets a little higher and share some winter poems.
The first that springs to mind is Robert Hayden’s ‘Those Winter Sundays’.
Sundays too my father got up early
and put his clothes on in the blueblack cold,
then with cracked hands that ached
from labor in the weekday weather made
banked fires blaze. No one ever thanked him.
I’d wake and hear the cold splintering, breaking.
When the rooms were warm, he’d call,
and slowly I would rise and dress,
fearing the chronic angers of that house,
Speaking indifferently to him,
who had driven out the cold
and polished my good shoes as well.
What did I know, what did I know
of love’s austere and lonely offices?
I first discovered this poem when I sent the manuscript of my first collection, ‘The Sun Bathers’ to my editor, John Lucas.
Among the stack of poems for his consideration was one (I can’t find it now) that had a line about my father leaving me a cup of tea by the bed before he went to work. Although he liked my poem John felt the subject (the unspoken care of a father demonstrated in actions and underappreciated by his son) had been covered so beautifully before by Hayden that it was best to leave my poem out. I was in the fortunate position of having more than enough poems for the book and so agreed. I am happy with the decision. My poem was indeed a lesser version of this beautiful poem.
Most lists of poems that mention snow will of course have Louis MacNeice and his poem ‘Snow’ at the very top. You can read the poem here.
A list might also include Thomas Hardy’s lovely ‘The Darkling Thrush’. If you are in the mood for clicking links, you can read my own ‘Blackbird in Winter’ from my first book, here. And Sylvia Plath’s terrifying cold-war era ‘Waking in Winter’ has lost none of its chill.
I love Paul Farley’s ‘Not Fade Away’, from his first collection, ‘The Boy from the Chemist is Here to See You (1998, Picador)
The narrator’s voice is that of Buddy Holly, killed, along with the Big Bopper and Richie Haven’s in a plane crash.
The poem begins.
A cornfield deep in drifts. I walked an hour
‘I walked an hour/ without moving’. What a great way of describing the loss of perspective and sense of distance a white field creates, as well the difficulty of crossing deep drifts. Also, the state of mind of Buddy, who in the poem has survived. I won’t ruin the poem for you by giving the game away, but the narrative is a brilliant little mystery, iced with Farley’s trademark wit and detail
‘the dials the crew misread,
the Bopper’s dice and Ritchie’s crucifix’.
Another Paul Farley, poem ’11th February 1963′ from ‘The Ice Age’ is a sonnet that delicately manages to conjure the ghosts of John Lennon (just ‘John’ in the poem) and Sylvia Plath, referred to as ‘the poet’ in the wonderfully condensed finishing line
the studio clock winds up over Primrose Hill,
or the poet and her sleeping children crossed
the mile to Abbey Road. This milk bottle
might hold what John’ll drink for one last take:
that she’ll leave out for when the children wake.
A cheerier, more festive winter poem is Liz Berry’s ‘Christmas Eve’ from her debut collection ‘The Black Country’ where sleet is
blowing in drifts from the pit banks,
over the brown ribbon of the cut, over Beacon Hill,
through the lap-loved chimneys of the factories.
Sleet is tumbling into the lap of the plastercast Mary
by the manger at St Jude’ s, her face gorgeous and naïve
as the last Bilston carnival queen.
Like Dylan Thomas in the introduction to ‘Under Milk Wood’ , Berry is tender, comical and generous in voicing the dreams despair and mundane realities of her characters.
One fine winter poem that comes to mind is Jean Sprackland’s ‘ Ice on the Beach’ from her 2007 collection ‘Tilt’ (Cape) which begins
One single sheet of sprung light.
Touched here with the toe of your boot
it hurts in a distant part.
Dream stuff, with its own internal acoustic.
Striking it with a stick raises
a shocked note, a white bruise under the skin-
Another poem that looks at the tensile and acoustic properties of a body of frozen water is Robin Robertson’s
fantastic ‘Signs on a White Field’ from his collection ‘The Wrecking Light’.
I was going to quote from it but the poem is too good, too resonating, too complete
to not have in full.
Signs on a White Field
The sun’s hinge on the burnt horizon
has woken the sealed lake,
leaving a sleeve of sound. No wind,
just curved plates of air
re-shaping under the trap-ice,
straining to give; the groans and rumbles
like someone shifting heavy tables
– or something gigantic
turning to get comfortable.
I snick a stone over the long sprung deck
to get the dobro’s glassy note, the crying
slide of a bottleneck, its
tremulous ululation to the other shore.
The rocks are ice-veined; the trees
swagged with snow.
Here and there, a sudden frost
has caught some turbulence in the water
and made it solid: frozen in its distress
to a scar, or a skin-graft.
Everywhere, frost-heave has jacked up boulders
clear of the surface, and the ice-shove
has piled great slabs on the lake-edge
like luggage tumbled from a carousel.
A racket of jackdaws, the serrated call
of a falcon as I walk out onto the lake.
A living lens of ice; you can hear it bending,
breathing, re-adjusting its weight and light
as the hidden tons of water
swell and stretch underneath,
thickening with cold.
A low grumble, a lingering vibrato, creaks
that seem to echo back and forth for hours;
the lake is talking to itself. A loud
twang in the ice. Twitterings
in the railway lines
from a train about to arrive.
A pencilled-in silence,
hollow and provisional.
And then it comes.
The detonating crack, like a gun
or a dropped plank,
as if the whole lake has snapped in two
and the world will follow,
falling into fracture.
But all that happens
is a huge release of sound: a boom
that rolls under the ice for miles,
some fluked leviathan let loose
from centuries of sleep, trying to push through,
shaking the air like sheet metal, deep
and percussive as a muffled giant drum.
I hear the lake all night, like a distant war.
In the morning’s brightness,
I brush the snow off with a glove,
smooth down a porthole in the crust
and find, somehow, the living green beneath.
The green leaf looks back and sees
a man walking out in this shuddering light
to the sound of air under the ice,
out onto the lake, among sun-cups,
snow penitents: a drowned man
waked in this weathering ground.