Books: Albatross to zebra

This Thursday, 9 October, is National Poetry Day. Around the country there will be events prize-giving and readings publishers are busy putting out the best of old and new; THE FABER BOOK OF BEASTS ed Paul Muldoon, Faber pounds 14.99
Click to follow
The Independent Culture
"Whether these poems are really about dogs or about people is a hard question, but that is, in a way, their point: to get to the person go by way of the dog." Thus an American critic recently on a book of verse about man's best friend. Paul Muldoon is, for once, less cagey: "It seems that in poetry, as in life, animals bring out the best in us. We are most human in the presence of animals, most humble, and it is only out of humility, out of uncertainty, out of ignorance, that the greatest art may be made".

Well yes, but try telling the RSPCA, or Hardy, or Dostoyevsky who watches a man flogging an exhausted horse to death, that animals bring out the best in us and they'll quickly remind you that they also bring out the worst, from stupidity to downright sadism. For every St Francis there are hordes of Larkin's kiddies chanting, "Mam, we're playing funerals now"; or a Swift putting down humanity's pretensions with a horse.

That said, everyone can applaud this generous and intelligent round- up of old favourites, new juxtapositions, and poems we mightn't know about . One such is Joseph Brodsky's grave ode to a butterfly, which is a sort of cross between Keats's nightingale and Hughes's thought-fox: "So, too, the sliding pen / which inks a surface / has no sense of the purpose / of any line / or that the whole will end / as an amalgam / of heresy and wisdom; / it therefore trusts the hand / whose silent speech incites / fingers to throbbing - /whose spasm reaps no pollen / but eases hearts."

Blake's "Tyger" is here, of course, and his domestic equivalent, Christopher Smart's "My Cat Jeoffry" (but not Wendy Cope's parody, "My Lover", who is said to be "good with animals and children"). Hughes, Heaney, Frost, Whitman, Lawrence, Dickinson, Clare, Wilbur, all the obvious names are here, and the less-obvious Auden, whose three poems seem to me to come closer to the lectern than to the sharp hot stink of otherness. There's a scattering of 16th- and 17th-century names too, but animal poems only really get going after the Enlightenment, when reason starts looking askance at its own excesses. "The caged mind / is a sewer inside," remarks Lawrence, in a neat reversal; the mosquito "only takes his bellyful / he doesn't put my blood in the bank".

Neither of these last is in the book, nor is his lovely kangaroo, but the Lawrencian lords of creation inevitably make a good showing, as do those of his spiritual heir, Ted Hughes, who leads the table of contents with 13 poems - precisely the number of ways Wallace Stevens asserted imagination's reign over the blackbird. Plath's "Ariel" is here too ("God's lioness"), Moore's elephant, jellyfish, snail, Bishop's "tremendous fish" and allegorised armadillo, together with her man-moth and moose, dogs from C K Williams and MacNeice (but not Simon Armitage's unloseable one), the whole menagerie alphabetically arranged from Baudelaire's albatross to Roy Campbell's zebras.

In casing the animal kingdom we stumble on what Hughes calls "sacred law", both the "mastery" (Hopkins) and the mystery (Blake), bumping up against the fearful symmetry of Yeats's "rough beast" or "Leda and the Swan", simultaneously elevated and debased, made sacred or profane, thoroughly mired in that duality which dubs us beast and angel, or some unholy mixture of the two.

Translations, kept largely to those that have been "taken over ... into the English tradition", include Holub's fly, with its sobering perspective on the battle of Crecy (dead horses make good breeding sites), Dante's lion and leopard from the Inferno who seem to be here for largely extramural reasons, Horace's town-and-country mouse in Pope's couplets, and Francis Ponge's horse, new to me, in a fine version by John Montague. I don't see the point of preserving ancient spelling for Wyatt but not for Philip Sidney. And of course there are omissions and inclusions - James Stephen's sickly "The Snare", for instance, Kipling's hyenas, James Dickey's "The Heaven of Animals", some of Dickinson's feebler poems - which will set heads shaking, as well as nodding with pleasure.

The selection from Wordsworth is particularly conventional and disappointing (skylark, butterfly, linnet), which is odd in a lover of Frost. The large Irish showing includes Heaney and Tom Paulin but not Derek Mahon's great poem "The Hunt by Night" or witty "Rock Music", and nothing at all by Michael Longley. As for the modern Americans, Charles Simic and Adrienne Rich are in, Louis Simpson and Amy Clampitt decidedly out.

No doubt, as Muldoon remarks in his Introduction, the perfect anthology would be "doorstoppingly expansive" - and expensive. This one earns its place beside George MacBeth's Penguin Book of Animal Verse of 1965. If you don't forget yourself a little when stepping into this ample bestiary, then it's time you knew better.

Comments