Here is a fragment from Basil Bunting,
to be found in a copy of his Complete Poems.
Snow’s on the fellside, look! How deep,
our wood’s staggering under its weight.
The burns will be tonguetied
while frost lasts.
The temperature is keeping the snow from melting outside, and I’m currently seeing many birds that I don’t normally see around here; long-tailed tits on the old railway line, wrens flitting in the wind-stripped hawthorn, a song thrush in my small garden, looking for food under a shrub. There seem to be a lot of birds in winter poems (see ‘The Darkling Thrush’ in the previous post.) It seems likely that this is partly due to the fact that birds are more obvious against the snow and have less foliage to hide in. They are also a great metaphor for survival in harsh conditions.
Here is the wonderful John Clare. This poem comes from a selected, and contains a useful glossary of Clare’s Northamptonshire dialect. A ‘brake’
is a thicket of bramble or fern. A ‘ling’ is heather, and a ‘bumbararrel’ is a long-tail tit.
Emmonsails Heath in Winter
I love to see the old heath’s withered brake
Mingle its crimpled leaves with furze and ling,
While the old heron from the lonely lake
Starts slow and flaps its melancholy wing,
An oddling crow in idle motion swing
On the half-rotten ash-tree’s topmost twig,
Beside whose trunk the gypsy makes his bed.
Up flies the bouncing woodcock from the brig
Where a black quagmire quakes beneath the tread;
The fieldfares chatter in the whistling thorn
And for the haw round fields and closen rove,
And coy bumbarrels, twenty in a drove,
Flit down the hedgerows in the frozen plain
And hang on little twigs and start again.
An oddling crow in a field near my house
Here is Kathleen Jamie, one of the best ‘bird’ poets. The poem is in her collection ‘The Tree House’.
It was winter, near freezing,
I’d walked through a forest of firs
when I saw issue out of the waterfall
a solitary bird.
It lit on a damp rock,
and, as water swept stupidly on,
wrung from its own throat
supple, undammable song.
It isn’t mine to give.
I can’t coax this bird to my hand
that knows the depth of the river
yet sings of it on land.
I have a blackbird in this poem from my new book ‘The Great Animator’.
The boy leaves a kiss on her forehead
and I take him to wait by a patch of snow
that’s losing its grip on gravel.
A blackbird alarms in the ivy.
Our breath comes in linen wisps.
Ice-water buds along the eves.
He balances on a low wall, machine-gunning baddies,
becomes a superhero. Beyond the laurel
two men walk dogs.
By the window, you perch on the electric bed
in a wedge of sunlight, one hand over
your mother’s. I read your lips;
how about a little ice-cream?
She nods, though both of you know
it’ll melt untouched while she sleeps.
Here is Edward Thomas’ poem ‘Thaw’.
Over the land freckled with snow half-thawed
The speculating rooks at their nests cawed
And saw from elm-tops, delicate as flower of grass,
What we below could not see, winter pass.
Tom Pickard’s last collection from Carcanet was ‘Winter Migrants’ (2016).
You can read the title poem here.
Here is one of his funnier, shorter pieces from the book.
New Years Day
by Tom Pickard
the blizzards blown out
snow blowers go below
sun-white Watch Hill
a growking raven groaks,
my first-foot flying past
And this is by the great Norman MacCaig, from the recently published 500 odd page tome, ‘ The poems of Norman MacCraig’, from Polygon press.
by Norman MacCraig
Sheperds, tramping the frozen bogland
Beside the sheeted ghost of Quinag,
Hear guns go off in the shrivelling air-
Not guns, ice on the frozen lochans
Whose own weight is too gross to bear
Crofter, coughing in the morning
Sees the pale window crossed with branches
Of a new tree. He wipes a rag
Across the glass and there, a beggar
in his own tatters, a royal stag.
Six black stumps on the naked skerry
Draw the boat close in. The oarsman,
Feeling a new cold in his bones,
Sees cormorants, glazed to the sea-rock,
Carved out of life, their own tombstones.
Sheri Benning is a wonderful Canadian poet I once had the pleasure of reading with in Leeds.
I have had this beautiful poem of hers on file for years, but can’t remember which of her books it comes from. It might be from her New and Selected.
After it all, November sky
over our razed fields,
a boiled bone, a bloodless lung.
Flax stubble, ash and spent wicks.
Thin smoke in the middle distance,
as though harvest was a war –
at thaw the armor will roll out, dig in,
begin again. But then the bluing eastern horizon,
sheen on worn iron, and suddenly snow fell.
Hip-high drifts blown against the garden fence.
You wanted to walk outside so I found our winter coats
in the basement closet. Still holding our shape.
I thought of matted pasture grass
where a deer has lain. Sleeping
spoor of the body woven into wool –
dust, old hair, sweat, cologne. In the snow
we were made new. Snow, a cool chrism
on last season’s wounds. You laughed
as a child can, unburdened,
mouth open, face to sky,
snow melting on your tongue.
Head shorn from surgery,
in your brown coat you looked like a happy monk,
so I joined you. Dizzy with praise and falling
snow, we sank to our knees, rose
again into the frosted clouds of our breath,
and breathed in those small ghosts
of who we were just moments before.