Poetry is traditionally supposed to be magical. This use of the word ‘magical’ is a technical one. Magic is a system of practical techniques invented spontaneously by Mankind from the earliest ages right down to our own - is one way of making things happen the way you want them to happen.
The whole field, of course, is debatable. Because it is, largely, incredible. That someone muttering a few words should be able to cure a sick cow or make a neighbour’s house burst into flames, is incredible. But that somebody’s prayer should affect the course of some other person’s disease, is not so incredible - we call that ‘the psychological effect’, ‘the power of suggestion’ or even ‘the projection of healing energy’.
In the same way, if somebody hears himself cursed. Especially if the curse is pronounced in a solemn way, and even more so if some incomprehensible, alarming-sounding, mumbo-jumbo phrases are included, we expect that person to be very depressed. Indeed, if he dismisses it with a disbelieving laugh, we expect to see the bad luck drop on him out of the blue.
But here, what we recognize as the power of suggestion, and the foolish impressionability of our subconscious self, mingles in an uncertain way with possibilities we both believe and disbelieve.
We know that some people can occasionally foresee what is going to happen to somebody else. And we have a sneaking fear, which we defend ourselves against, that maybe some people can actually give fate a twist, and make things happen that might not otherwise have happened. We both believe and disbelieve that.
Everything lies in the dramatic power of the blessing or the curse, our own susceptibility, and our total ignorance of the laws or the anarchy of fate. In this respect, poetry has always been held in particular regard as an agent for cursing or blessing, and for manipulating Man’s fate. One use of this, is in the hunting poems that all primitive hunting peoples invent.
These are not celebratory descriptions of a successful kill. They’re composed and recited before the hunt, in order to make the hunt successful. In anthropological literature, there exist astonishing descriptions of the operation of that kind of magic recitation. We might say, that such a poem recited before the hunt would affect the hunter - he would become psychologically prepared, hypnotized into the alertness and concentration of perfect confidence, etc. We wouldn’t be so ready to agree with the hunter’s view of it: that the incantation stupefies the game and makes him give himself up.
We’re beginning to accept the fact of telepathic control working between people. The hunter goes one or two steps further and accepts that it works between people and creatures. The telepathic communication between men and the creatures is something that forces itself onto the notice of anybody who lives much among them. Anybody who has done much stalking of wild game, for instance, knows that there are two successful attitudes of mind. One is to concentrate with great force on the fact that the game is already dead: It is a certain kill. This has the effect of paralysing it, or it seems to have. The other, is to deflect one’s attention: not look at the game except in occasional glances. This has the effect of keeping it unaware, so you can get quite close.
If you look at the game steadily but casually, it has the same effect as when you stare at the back of somebody’s head in a cinema: they turn round and look at you.
However that may be, I’ve had curious encounters with the old-fashioned type of hunting magic. One in connection with the following poem. After a whole season of very poor success catching salmon, I composed this poem. It describes earlier experiences, and I was writing and rewriting it on and off over two or three years. Naturally, I never thought of it as a hunting incantation - it was just another poem. But then at the start of this particular season, when the angling fever began to make itself felt, I worked at this piece over two or three days and finished it. At last, it seemed to me I’d got it just right. The following day I caught a large salmon. And two days after, two more salmon, one of them even larger. The impression on me, was that somehow I’d broken down their resistance. Everything had to happen as in the poem.
Here it is. I call it ‘Earth-numb’. The title refers to the strange, unconscious sort of consciousness in which, it seems to me, all hunting and angling operations take place.
READING: ‘Earth-numb’ (Moortown p. 95).
The original motive for that poem was not, as I said, to bring the salmon into my power. But the poem did have a motive, which I suppose can be called a magical one.
I set out to write a poem whose whole accent would be, for me, ‘upbeat’. I have a superstition that the writer, even more than the reader, is affected by the mood and the final resolution of his poem in a final way. In each poem, the writer to some extent finds and fixes an image of his own imagination at that moment. But if a poem concludes in a ‘downbeat’ mood, his imagination is to some degree fixed and confirmed in that mood. In the ordinary way, his imagination would heal itself - move on to new moods. But the poem stands there, permanent, vivid and powerful, and tries to make him continue to live in its image.
With this in mind, I once set out to write a whole book of deliberately ‘upbeat’ poems. At the time, I was a farmer, rearing beef cattle and sheep. And one of the striking things about animals is that their dominant mood is happy - their whole attitude to life is naturally ‘upbeat’. I suppose they’re not burdened with much in the way of memory and the long history of mortality and its disasters. Anyway, this is especially obvious with cattle and sheep. And through their eyes one feels it in the plant kingdom as well.
While I farmed, I kept a journal of sorts. Whenever some striking thing happened - and on a stock farm, as in hospital, something is always happening - I made a diary note of it, in a rough sort of verse. My idea was to fix the details, so that I might use them in future, when I had more time to work them into poems or whatever.
However, when my farming was over, I looked back and found that some of these entries were already poems of a sort. They were quite unalterable, by me anyway. Some of them bear the signs of that effort I was making at that time to write a book of happy poems - ‘upbeat’ poems - about the cycle of the seasons. And some of them, I did include in that book. This one, for instance, describes sheep with their new lambs under cover. In bad snowy weather, lambs will often die of exposure. But if they’re kept under cover for a day or two, not longer, they get over their first weakness and become very tough. So this is just a diary entry, in very rough verse, just as I wrote it down:
READING: ‘Couples Under Cover’ (Moortown p. 32).
That is ‘upbeat’, I think.
But here is another - a record of a disaster - which I tried to turn ‘upbeat’ at the last moment.
The sheep farmer must expect to lose five percent of his lambs. In this poem the sheep are lambing on a high field. I visit it every two or three hours to do what has to be done to new lambs, or to any accident that might have happened. On this particular day, on this particular Spring, a gang of ravens made this hilltop their H.Q. for the lambing season. I have with me a three-year-old boy.
READING: ‘Ravens’ (Moortown p. 37).
It’s extremely difficult to write about the natural world without finding your subject matter turning ugly. In that direction, of course, lie the true poems - the great, complete statements of the world in its poetic aspect. I mean that catalogue of disasters and miseries, The Book of Job; or that unending cycle of killings and grief, The Illiad; or the great tragedies. What all these works have in common, of course, is not exactly a final, ‘upbeat’ note, but it is a peculiar kind of joy - an exaltation. But that’s the paradox of the poetry. As if poetry were a biological healing process. It seizes on what is depressing and destructive, and lifts it into a realm where it becomes healing and energizing. Or it tries to do. That is what it is always setting out to do. And to reach that final mood of release and elation is the whole driving force of writing at all.
On one occasion, I had a sick lamb. Its malady was ‘Orf’, a horrible disease of the feet and mouth. After months of treating this lamb, and getting to know it very well, I decided it could not live. I wrote out an account of what happened, but not as a diary entry - I left it too late - and it wasn’t for a week or two that I sat down to try and record it. Already, the incident had mingled with memory and conscience, and it tried to become a poem. It took quite a while to get it into shape.
READING: ‘Orf’ (Moortown p. 46).
Finally, here is another diary entry, just as I wrote it. I’ll read this and leave it to you to decide whether it is ‘upbeat’ or ‘downbeat’. Whether it is depressing or otherwise.
Once, I read this in a hall full of university students and one member of the audience rebuked me for reading what he called “a disgusting piece of horror writing”. Well, we either have a will to examine what happens or we have a will to evade it. Whatever your judgment may be, in my opinion the piece can be justified. Throughout it, I might say, I was concerned not at all with the style of writing - simply to get the details of the steps of the events for the record.
When the sheep is producing a lamb, many things can go wrong. If the lamb is big and the mother is small, she might have difficulty getting it out. Or the lamb may come out the wrong way. The worst thing that can happen, is when a small ewe tries to push out a large lamb, and that lamb fails to get his front feet up with his nose but trails them behind. In that case, the head of the lamb hangs outside the mother, while its shoulders are jammed against her pelvis inside. And everything is stuck. If you are quick, there are several things you can do. The main thing is to feel inside the mother and, if possible, find the lamb’s front legs and bring them up, and out. Then the lamb should come out in the ordinary way. But this isn’t always possible. And, in any case, unless you’ve moved very fast, you will be too late. The final resort, then, is as in the following. This entry’s dated February 17th.
READING: ‘February 17th’ (Moortown p. 39).
If poems do have an effect on the writer, I wonder what effect these last two pieces have had on me. Just to be safe, I will round them off with a distinctly ‘upbeat’ piece, which uses something of their theme, but guides it to a happy conclusion. Again, it’s a diary entry and describes the birth of a calf.
The magical operation of these last poems, I imagine, can be guessed from the effect each one would have on us if, say, we’d opened a book at random, asking to be shown our fortune. If we came on the poem of the sick lamb, or the disastrous birth, we would be downcast, maybe - or maybe really depressed - according to our resilience. Imagine having a dream about either of these things.
But if we came on this last one, which I will now read, we could feel quite happy. Just as we would if we dreamed about the birth of a beautiful calf under the end of a rainbow. “Surely”, we’d think, “that means things are on the up and up”. It might have a big effect. Here’s the piece about the birth of a calf called ‘Rainbow’.
READING: ‘Birth of Rainbow’ (Moortown p. 44).
This Critical Forum reading is no longer available from Norwich Tapes Ltd. but a copy is held with other Norwich Tapes in the Library of The University of Birmingham.