Perhaps the most prominent feature of the poem, for me, was its tone. It’s the only poem I’ve come across where the first word I’d use to describe it (and especially its tone) is “patient”. And that’s despite the use of run-on lines, which usually create a sense of urgency in a poem.
There’s an odd mix of the quiet and the melodramatic here. Odd in the sense that the combination works so well. It’s quite like a classical tune luring us into lulls, followed by crescendos such as “tuning feathers; then like a great winged / accordion at the heart of this session, flamboyant / flapping brings wind and sound to the picture”.
At heart, this is a nature poem which, in many ways, feels like a poem about people. Maybe we are so used to birds doing very bird-like things such as flying that the unusual descriptions here resonate on a deeper level. And it feels as though simple acts such as dipping and diving have extra meaning for the animals themselves. Conveying this is evidence of the poet’s skill, and such deeper meaning is, I think, something we associate with good poetry.
Swan, Heron, Ducks
The surface on the canal tonight: black cellophane.
And music without volume – here in overlapping
rhythmic channels of water birds. On her island nest
a white goddess folds an angular neck, arranging
and tuning feathers; then like a great winged
accordion at the heart of this session, flamboyant
flapping brings wind and sound to the picture.
Across the weir, her partner raps with an old heron –
bird banter between tunes, before the grey one swoops
above the reeds towards a suitable platform for business;
no show, motionless now on spindly fiddle-bow legs –
content to sit this one out, waiting perhaps for a call
to sing an old heron song – and all this time, weaving
in their own patterns, the coming and going of ducks,
silver-grey in the moonlight, tracking their own
invisible melody, dipping and diving…
When I was 13 I had a poem selected for an anthology, Poetry & Song, published by Macmillan. It was then recorded on an album with music by Ewan MacColl & Peggy Seeger. This gave me an early introduction to the connections between poetry and song, and I’ve been fascinated by that since. Living in London in the 80’s I was part of the performance poetry scene but also in a left wing rock/punk band The Resisters, we toured Germany and made an album for Munich’s Trikont Records. When the band split I performed solo as Pete Zero, doing lots of festivals like Glastonbury and political events and some fun gigs alongside such luminaries as the Pogues.
Coming back to Ireland with my partner Moya Roddy and daughter Cassie in the early 90’s I brought a mandolin with me and wanted to learn Irish Traditional Music. I took up the fiddle as well and I’ve been learning since! My interest in the connections between poetry and music continued and I published my third collection, Session (Salmon Poetry) in 2011, exploring music and sound in nature and in human interaction, with a particular focus on Irish traditional music. The book has had a wonderful response, not just in literary circles, but I’m pleased to say from musicians and music publications.
Some people, when they hear “it’s a nature poem” tune out automatically, I find, as if they have a preconceived notion of something boring to follow. What do you think a poet must be mindful of when setting out to write a nature poem?
That’s one huge area of activity and experience given the cold shoulder! The world, the plants, animals, human beings, the universe! It’s hard for me to contemplate nature being boring. Yes, I do write some poems about or inspired by nature, but there are plenty of others that are urban, or about people, or city landscapes – I wouldn’t distinguish between them in terms of approach to subject matter, except, yes, there will be different music to any poem. But even here I like the idea of challenging expectations. No reason why the music of a poem about a flock of birds such as starlings, circling and dipping shouldn’t sound like a jazz riff. Or a city scene in a shopping centre or car park, use “flow” as you would in a poem about a river. The only thing I think anyone should be mindful of is what’s there, in front of or around them, wherever it is. That of course includes themselves as part of the scene or moment. A poem is essentially observation (of what is out there, but also observation of the self in the moment) plus inspiration.
Could you comment on the importance of tone in poetry? “Swan, Heron, Ducks” has a slow, contemplative tone which suits the subject, I think.
I think tone is very important, in any poem. Apart from the “idea” or thought that anchors the poem and the music of the poem, the rhythm, flow, etc. – what merges them together to create an overall effect is the tone – sometimes obvious, other times more subtle and hard to pin down: dry, warm, detached, ironic, superior, playful, sardonic, etc. Sometimes it’s hard for a writer to hear and identify the tone they have presented in their own poem, to hear what readers will get on a first hearing.
Music features quite a lot in your poetry. What role would you say it plays in your writing?
Yes, continuing on from the previous question, for me it’s not enough to just have a good idea, or perception, or witness something and think “that would make a good poem” – and just write it down. In that case the only thing the reader/listener can respond to is the quality of the idea, or perception. If you’re reliant solely on how good the thought is, then it had better be exceptional, unusual, at least worth drawing attention to. But even a low key, quiet or understated thought or idea can have a powerful effect when combined with the form of the poem, the rhythm, structure, flow – in other words the “music”. Imagine a collection where you have to come up with 50 great ideas or perceptions! Even the major writers don’t achieve this. But attention to form and structure – the music of the poem can give a whole collection a sense of cohesion and ensure at least some “delight” with every piece – which is what Frost said he was looking for first in a poem. (He said a poem should begin with delight and end in wisdom, not the other way around.)
Another striking feature of this poem is the use of run-on lines (or “enjambment” if we’re gonna get technical about it). Did you use this technique in order to reflect anything in the poem, or simply because it felt right?
We talk about rhythm in poetry, and it’s easy to hear it in obvious cases like marching feet, or a train – but what is the “rhythm” of a gently flowing stream, or an almost still pond? Perhaps here it’s more helpful to think of ‘flow’ – in which case yes, the flow of the lines one into the next is important in capturing the soundscape or music of the scene. This poem is also a bit like a play, there are characters taking part in a low key dramatic scene, there is action and there is stillness. All the characters get a moment where the attention is on them, but they form an ensemble, a collective presence. Each has a voice and quality of action that is distinct to them. So, overall, although the poem is focused on a stillness (the title is the way you might describe a “still life” in visual art), it still has to move.
Why do you write?
I love words, ideas, feelings, perceptions, sounds – and how these come together in ways that surprise even the writer. I love how when you’re writing, things happen by accident. In this poem I clearly had thoughts about music buzzing round in my head, when the swan expanded then contracted its wings I saw an accordion. It surprised me. I didn’t bring that perception to the poem, it just happened. Even in a small way, the result is the world has changed in how you perceive and experience it.
If you had one piece of advice for a writer, what would it be?
Trust your thoughts and feelings. Write it! You can worry about it later.