|Not dissimilar to my house...|
bookshop I came across an almost pristine copy of The Rattle Bag, a book I’ve been meaning to buy for a while. First published in 1982, it is an anthology of poems selected and edited by those two greats, Ted Hughes and Seamus Heaney[i]. It’s a diverse collection, and what makes it a joy to read is not only the individual poems but the way in which they are arranged. Not by theme, or by poet, or by date, but simply in alphabetical order of title. So on the same double page spread, we have Thom Gunn’s ‘Baby Song’, in which the speaker contrasts existence within and without the womb, and John Clare’s ‘The Badger’ in which a badger is hounded out of his hole and baited by dogs. Durham
'Baby Song', written in apparently simple rhyming couplets, starts
From the private ease of Mother’s wombI fall into the lighted room.
Why don’t they simply put me backWhere it is warm and wet and black?
The John Clare poem is also in rhyming couplets, but these are compressed into five 14 line stanzas with no punctuation (although it has unfortunately been punctuated in the provided link), so the poem gallops onwards in a heady and horrible rush as the badger is hounded and baited and eventually killed. But almost from the beginning there are lines in ‘The Badger’ that speak to the Gunn poem. The womb is ‘wet and black’ and the badger’s ‘sharp’ nose is ‘scrowed with black’. Just finding that duplicated word, jumping out from line ends, makes me feel that there is a relationship between the two poems. Suddenly I am aware that we are in parallel worlds: the badger’s world of dens and holes, where the ‘host of dogs and men’ lie in wait to trap him, forcing him to become part of their world of clamour and torment, with its hostility and lack of shelter; and the new-born’s world of cold, harsh light and noise, a world in to which he has been tipped unwilling. The impotent baby is ‘raging, small and red’, while the less impotent badger 'runs along and bites at all he meets/ They shout and hollo down the noisey streets’. He makes a break for it, and ‘tries to reach the woods a awkward race’, but is beaten down and dies.
I think many people might have finished the poem there (and indeed many versions I found on the internet cut the last stanza), but Clare now goes off into a bizarre aside, telling of how some people ‘keep a baited badger…/and tame him till he follows like the dog’. When I got to the end of this stanza I was pulled inexorably back to that baby. The baby that we left in its cot remembering that ‘A rain of blood poured round her womb’, while the badger died in a rain of blows ‘kicked and torn’, and therefore in a rain of its own blood.
‘But all time roars outside this room’ says the baby. The rain of blood seems such a horrific image, bringing as it does connotations of war and slaughter, but it is actually the roaring of 'time', the coming future and all that it implies, that is the truly terrifying thing.
In a similar way, the badger’s fight and death, horrific though it is, seems to me not as horrible as the alternative. The badger’s battle with the people retains a dignity and almost a pleasure in the fight (‘The badger grins’, ‘The blackguard laughs’) which is completely lost in that final stanza where the it has become complaisant to men, a servile gladiator, a toy. And this makes me think of that baby: when it forgets its rage, when it becomes subject to time and the inexorable movement through it, when becomes subjected to the world outside, will also have lost something important. I’m still trying to discover exactly what.
There are many other groups of poems where the juxtaposition has this wonderful serendipity. R.S Thomas’s ‘Here’ faces John Crowe Ransom’s ‘Here Lies a Lady’(no link I'm afraid, because the only version I could find online was very different the Rattle Bag one), so we have lines in which hands will not behave as the speakers feel they should. We can see
Why, then, are my hands redWith the blood of so many dead?Is this where I was misled?
Why are my hands this wayThat they will not do as I say?
in the same glance as
For either she burned, and her confident eyes would blaze,And her fingers fly in a manner to puzzle their heads –What was she making? Why nothing; she sat in a mazeOf old scraps and laces, snipped into curious shreds –
And turning to the next poem, Thomas Hardy’s 'Heredity', we also have death and embodiment, but in a 'face':
I am the family face;Flesh perishes, I live on
and the next, Miroslav Holub’s A History Lesson, has
The dead like so many strained noodles,and ends
a pound of those fallen in battle,
two ounces of those who were executed,
like so many potatoes
shaken into a cap -
And did it hurt in those days too?
Taking two poems (or indeed other types of writing) and seeing what sparks come out when you rub them together can be fascinating. But having them placed together by chance of alphabet makes it even more exciting that such sparks can be generated. There isn’t any need to analyse these glints of connection to get the pleasure out of them. One just needs the willingness to notice and to be pleased by the resonances, the extra significances to be found in both parallels and differences.
Andrew Motion is quoted as saying ‘What I try to do is lean two things up against each other and see what happens'.[ii] And Don Paterson, in the workshop I attended, talked about a term he has coined for the way in which a poet places things next to each other for the reader to make connections. He calls this ‘isology’ – from the root ‘iso’ meaning equal. Unlike analogy, it is not implying parallelism or correspondence, just juxtaposition and equality.
Andrew Motion and Don Paterson were both talking about leaning things up against each other within the space of the poem. But this is also what happens here, in the larger space of The Rattle Bag. The serendipity of an alphabetical arrangement (deliberately chosen by Hughes and Heaney) gives the reader space to see what happens for herself, to make her own connections, to hear the poems speak to each other across the page. Like people meeting, and sharing their experiences, their anecdotes: people finding they could be friends.
[i] See here for an article by Heaney about ‘The Rattle Bag’ and ‘The School Bag’. http://www.guardian.co.uk/books/2003/oct/25/poetry.highereducation
[ii] Hugo Williams in Strong Words: Modern Poets on Modern Poetry (Bloodaxe) ed Herbert and Hollis.