What Light Can Do

What Light Can Do


Robert Hass

I have been entertaining myself with Robert Hass whilst I wait for a book to arrive in the mountains.

Hass has something to say to me.  I want a poesy that responds to the hard grain of the world.  He does not shut himself away in the small particular.  He doesn’t just make pretty objects in exquisite form.  His friendship with Czeslaw Milosz and his work as a translator show that he crosses boundaries and frontiers, as a translator should, and lets in the big issues to his poetry and his prose.  He pushes at the boundaries of “something not sayable”, Winged and Acid Dark.  In that poem from Time and Materials (2008) a guard prizes the woman’s mouth open and there is a six line excursus by Basho who says “if the horror of the world were the truth of the world, there would be no one to say it and no one to say it to”, before spitting in her mouth (from Time and Materials).

timeandmaterialsYou may have read my musings on Basho.  Placing a quotation from Basho up against horror is appropriate because there is horror in Basho.  The question of what poetry can do is at the heart of Hass’s work.  The answers that come back are never clear.

What Can Light Do?

What can light do?  The phrase comes from the author’s note at the beginning of the collection of essays in a reading of Robert Adams’s photography.  “It is as if he thought his subject was the earth, when in fact it was the sky,” he says.  This leads him on to reflect on the themes of his own life’s work:  poetry of course; the violence of the century; an interest in the writers of his place; photography and landscape.

There may be other things as well that I am not noticing.  If there is a sky for me in this collection, it is the act of attention itself, trying to see what’s there, what light can do. (What Light Can Do, 2009)

The act of attention itself is not entirely to be trusted.  In The Dry Mountain Air, a long poem that describes a visit from his Grandma Dahling, I was completely fooled by the details, the attentive and loving description of the old lady removing her hat whilst the poet’s father moved her cases up the high steps to the entrance.  At the end of the poem, the poet’s brother, four years older, says this never happened and Hass finishes:

I thought it might help to write it down here
That the truth of things might be easier to come to
On a quiet evening in the clear, dry, mountain air.

So, the three pages of delicate description including not only the act of removing the hat, but the little presents that came from the train and the poet’s obscure terror of the Grand Canyon depicted on a paper mat from the dining car, which goes to his brother, is all something else.  It is literature and demands to be read, as does the fifth and last mat which shows the brooding angel, Shasta.  His memory is unreliable.

 The Truth of Things

The “truth of things” is a deceptively difficult phrase.  In Novoneyra the truth of things is taken so literally that he proclaims he will only talk about the things that he knows directly.  Normally we put the emphasis on truth and let things fold away.  But poetry does the reverse.  It gives us images where there really is something like truth in things: instead of the truth of things, we have the truth of things.  And if those things, so tightly described and rendered are imaginary, we are left with another consideration: that the literary text itself is the thing we need to attend to.  This, then, is reading: unpicking the truth of the things, the words, in front of us.


the-emperor-of-icecreamAs a reader I appreciate a writer who is also a reader: someone who can play with my expectations in this knowing way.  Everyone, it seems, writes, but readers are few.  When Hass talks about returning to Wallace Stevens’s The Emperor of Ice Cream, I feel at home with someone who has allowed the depth and texture of a poem to filter into the soil of his life.  First, he reads it as a young man on the beach with his friends, delighting in the sounds of the words, then he comes back and back to the words at different stages in his life.  They have not changed but he has, and the changes in his life allow him to see the words in different lights.  He falls away from them when he feels that history demands something more serious of his attention and returns with a mature understanding.IMG_2833-0


I am fifty-two.  There are poems that have followed me through my life in a similar way.  I go back to them with new eyes, shocked by the familiar and surprised by the details I did not see when I was seventeen, twenty-five, forty or fifty.  Are the readings better?  It could certainly seem so when, in moral indignation at Ted Hughes as a poet laureate, I rejected outright the poet who accompanied me through my teenage years.  Then I return with the biography by Jonathan Bate in my hand and unpick something more: the words have not moved, but I can see more connections; and I have grown in compassion towards the man.


An Oak Grove

The final essay in What Light Can Do is called An Oak Grove.  The subject is a grove of oak trees at the University of California at Berkeley, which was cut down to build a new sports facility.  Hass starts by saying that his subject is “thinking about nature and thinking about thinking about nature, and my thesis is that we don’t do it very well.”  This bald statement drew my attention because, if any subject demands attention today, the subject of our relationship to nature is crying out for revaluation.


If you are expecting a typical Romantic poet’s vindication of the natural world, you will be disappointed.  Hass shows that he has sympathy and understanding for the hippies, as the sports fans call them, who include some of the most venerable protesters, such as Sylvia McLaughlin, ninety-years-old and founder in the sixties of Save the Bay.  Yet, his investigations into the history of the foundation of the university, the planting of live oaks and their protection from dry rot that comes on the winds, leads him to see the trees of the campus as a garden.  Not wild nature then?


He turns to Theodor Adorno, who said that “Nature” was a concept developed by the middle class in the Enlightenment and early Romantic era: “an evocation of frankness and simplicity in manners, freedom and diversity in social arrangements, unstoppable force in social movements” and that, later in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, nature had returned to “its previous role as an irrefutable standard by which to justify various forms of racial, gender, and sexual discrimination.”  Adorno, it seems, makes scholars in the humanities tend to poo-poo the very idea of the natural.

 Nature and the Wild

To avoid sinking into radical scepticism he turns to a “wildlife biologist’s definition of ‘wildness’”: “an organism living in an ecosystem among most of the processes in which it evolved.”  The protesters thought they were defending nature but the grove was not wild, it was a garden.  “There might have been very good reasons for preserving it, but they were not the reasons in those young people’s hearts or on their posters.”


I imagine students coming out of the lecture where he declared the necessity of a “sense of urgency and patience, and a sense of complexity and everything they can learn about the processes of the natural world” with perplexed indignation.  Here a senior scholar folds poetry and history into a narrative that tells the story of an oak grove in the heart of the university, telling them that they have got it wrong, that the trees are not wild, they are a part of a carefully constructed image of the university.  It may be a shame to get rid of a garden, but it is not the same as getting rid of wilderness.  They are told that their teachers can give them the “gift of seeing what’s there.  They can give them some of the skills of distinction, discrimination, and description and give them concepts of enormous power to refine and organize their seeing.”


I imagine those students bridling at the mandarin pronouncements of an academic who, by his own admission, paid little attention to the issue in the beginning because, like the rest of the faculty, he was overburdened with work.  “Yeah, right,” they would say, “you have a vested interest in supporting the institutional way of seeing, don’t you?”

 DMZ Korea and White Cranes

He ends his piece by going back to the Demilitarized Zone between North and South Korea, which he had already described in Time and Materials (2008) in a prose poem that talks of the “sheer number of bodies” of dead in the Korean War, struggles with how to think about the young soldiers who efficiently herd them to look and get them back on the civilian bus.  Then finally, he sees a “flurry of white” “cattle egrets nesting in the willows.”  In the essay, he writes this out.  The DMZ has become “an immense, accidental game preserve” because no human being has entered it for fifty years (2009).


If there is ever peace between the Koreas and the threat of nuclear war is lifted, the DMZ will probably be developed and those two species, the white-naped and red-crowned cranes, will be that much nearer to being gone from the kinds on earth.


What is the DMZ?  Is it wild nature?  Or is it another kind of garden, albeit accidentally created?


Hass is a poet.  In his poetry and his writing on poetry there is none of the self-confident professorial tone of the speech about the live oaks.  The poems tell us that there may be a truth to things, but that truth is nowhere near as evident as we at first assume it to be: the narrator may not be reliable, themes may come from a deep well of reference, the text itself is the only truth and it may be fatally flawed.  In some of his poems he goes so far as to half-obliterate words to make the point clearer.  Turning this perception back on his speech about the oak grove, I can’t help but tweeze out the contradictions in the paladin certainties, masked as complexity, in his discourse.


death tractatesThe strongest image- and the one that I wish he had left at the end of the piece, instead of at the beginning- is the image from his wife Brenda Hillman’s poem Death Tractates:  “As an egret fishes through its smeared reflections”


“Every creature,” the entomologist E.O. Wilson has remarked, “lives in its own sensory world.”  And this must especially be true of humans, who have had the capacity to articulate this idea, though I have often wondered if it is not something that all mammals know about each other instinctively.  Still it must especially be true of human consciousness, which emerged in this world rather late to radically alter it, and to invent ingenious ways in which to study it, and to piece together the story of how human consciousness came to be the instrument through which the world thinks about the world that in the past century has come into the care of humans and their consciousness and unconsciousness entirely.”


This could be a comment on his own very ingenious ways of studying what was happening around him.

 The Cold Mountain Air

Here I am in a mountain village witnessing changes in the environment around me.  Some of these changes come on the tailwind of global problems- climate change, pollution in the oceans, economic crisis- and some of them are local- rural depopulation, an increase in tourism, the building of new roads and supermarkets.  The old paths choke up with fast-growing ash trees and untended fields become bramble patches.  Busy government employees devise ineffective plans to stimulate the rural economy.  They tout the region as a “Natural Paradise” and are happy to see more incoming tourism.  Old houses collapse under the weight of their own roofs.


What is the truth of these things?  What can light do?  How can thinking about nature and thinking about thinking about nature be done better?  I do not find the answers I would like to find in the story of the oak grove at Berkeley.  I feel, in an admittedly subjective way, an ululating sadness at the passing away of one world to be replaced by another that lacks the charm of the one it replaces.


The story of how we got here is beginning to seem irrelevant.

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Noriega: trees and language

It is a rivulet running
Sheltered through the shade
Of some dense pine wood:
Take this cover and it dies
Before it can reach the valley.

I am thinking about this verse today.  Noriega is talking about his own language, Galician.  Look at these two photographs of Galicia from the air and draw your own conclusions:

On the left you can see native woodland.  On the right you can see eucalyptus plantation.

Maybe I am a sentimentalist but I was affected by reading this blog:  esmola


Noriega tells us that language is tied to the landscape.  Can we repeat this picture around the world.  With every hardwood forest that is felled from Papua New Guinea to Brazil, what more is being lost besides the trees?  It is not just natural diversity that is destroyed but language, customs and culture.

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Our Language: Novoneyra and Noriega Varela

Our Language

The mountain man is coming now.noriega001
Why?  Oh dear heart!  He is blind-
He cannot see past the veil:
He is coming to speak Gallego
He is coming so that Gallego can live.

Our language is a little bird
The child will usually see
In the sky of the shaggy mountain;
Whether on a wild rose branch
Or the border of a fountain.

It is a flower you can’t take
From the heath, and well tricks
The one who goes after it
If, amongst the mountain gorse
Collecting, he gets pricked.
noriega varela

It is a rivulet running
Sheltered through the shade
Of some dense pine wood:
Take this cover and it dies
Before it can reach the valley.

It’s what dawn’s lustre breaks
Lit by trembling light;
And Our Lady sings to Jesus
in Gallego when he cries,
Lulling him to sleep.

Gallego is a whispering-
The most magical thing there is!
It is the loving language
In which to hear, “My son!”
From the lips of your mother.

It is a speech that illumines,
Moving our hearts
To take the shortest route
To the sighs of the poor
With the grace of charity.

It is such a restless language
That it manages to overcome
The yearning sorrows
Of the replete star
And the moonlit night.
May devotion and pain
Be always on your side
I revere you deeply, believe
That only in heaven
Could there be a better tongue.


When Novoneyra was doing military service with Manuel María in 1952, Noriega Varela was one of the poets they read together.  Noriega went to school at the seminary in Mondoñedo, a school for poets.  When he left he became involved in anti-cacique social protest and spent some time in exile from the landscape that gave him life.


If Novoneyra is indissociably associated with the Eidos of O Courel,  Noriega is similarly associated with Mondoñedo and the mountains around.  He was not a professional writer.  He worked as a teacher for most of his life, but his job doesn’t define him any more than your job defines you.  He was a man who walked in the mountains and enjoyed going to village fiestas.  He wrote out his poems in meticulous long-hand and was so scared by the Nationalists that he dropped the rebellious ideas of his youth.


The magic of Noriega’s poetry is timeless, even though the things he describes have passed away.  That image of the rivulet running through the centre of the poem is protected by the shade of the deep, pine wood.  It is sadly ironic that there are few pine woods around Mondoñedo now.  The town is trapped in the past- like Villafranca del Bierzo and countless other places in Spain that face backwards when the world is rushing forwards.


I was walking through Mondoñedo with my daughter admiring the old buildings and fantasizing with her about moving there and setting up a school.  When I mentioned the idea to a friend in Lugo, she laughed.


“What kind of school are you going to have there?” she asked.  “A school for old ladies?”


The Seminary where Noriega stayed is now a kind of hotel where you can rent out the basic rooms.  The rural economy has disappeared.  It is the same picture where I live in Grado, where I eventually did set up a school and suffer for my obstinance:  I refused to go to a city; refused, even knowing that I would have fewer students.


That metaphor is haunting.  You cut down the wood and you lose the stream.

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An Afternoon in Spring

IMG_2859An afternoon in spring
Murmured these words to me:
If you are seeking paths
With flowers in this world
Then put to death your words
And let your old soul speak.
Let the same white linen
That you are wearing now
Clothe you in your mourning
Clothe you at party time.
Cherish your happiness
Cherish your sadness too,
If you are seeking paths
With flowers in this world.
I spoke then my reply
To that spring afternoon:
You have told the secret
That is spoken in my soul:
I abhor happiness
Abhorring suffering.
But before I ever tread
Your flower-strewn path,
I would like to present
My old soul to you: dead.

Antonio Machado Soledades. Galerías. Otros Poemas (1907- I used the edition edited by Geoffrey Ribbans (Cátedra, 1993)).


I am returning to this poem by Machado.  When I wrote about it before, I said that Machado was concerned about being just a “useless poet” and was proud that he could earn his way in life once he got a job as a secondary school teacher: “I go to work and pay my own way”.


In a letter to Unamuno of 1903, Machado says, “I am beginning to believe, even at the risk of falling into paradoxes, which I dislike, that the artist should love life and hate art.  Quite the contrary to what I previously believed.”  And one year later he says, again to Unamuno: “We should not create a separate world in which to enjoy in egotistical fantasy the contemplation of ourselves; we should not flee from life to forge for ourselves a better life that is sterile to others.”


The relationship between life and art is something I live with.  Do you?


Machado, in both the poem and the letters, sets up the opposing forces of life and art that give him his contradictions.  He is hardly to be trusted when he says he does not like paradoxes!


Look at the poem:


Spring afternoon

Tells the secret of the poet’s soul

Poet Says
Put to death your words death = soul
Let your old soul speak Secret spoken in my soul
Cherish happiness Abhor happiness
Cherish sadness Abhor suffering
Seek flowery paths Dead soul before flowery paths


The poem as a literary object is elusive and paradoxical, arising from the Symbolist tradition that sometimes evades clarity on purpose.  I struggle to understand exactly what it means.  What is the “old soul” the poet should let speak?  And how will it speak if it does not use words?  The spring afternoon itself is murmuring words and the poet recognizes that the spring afternoon really does understand his soul: “You have told the secret/That is spoken in my soul.”  Tell and speak again.  So, when the spring afternoon says, “put to death your words” its meaning is not at all clear.


In these two documentaries there is some good guidance on Machado.


It cannot be that the spring afternoon is saying “love life and hate art,” though that was my first thought on reading it.  What is that tension between the spring afternoon, the poet and the old soul?


I showed the poem to Carmen.  The first part made some kind of sense to her and she wanted to explain it to me, but when the poet replies to the spring afternoon a frown came across her face.  “You’re right,” she said.  “Es enrevesado.”  The curiosity and the strength of the poem is the poet’s resistance to Spring, that eternal literary trope.  It reminds me of a poem by Auden, which starts with quaint songs and ends with despair:

If you have an opinion on the meaning of this poem- what it meant to you- I would be interested to hear it.

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You See, You Hear

In this Christmas post, I am thinking of you sitting at home with a brandy in your hand.  I want to share with you some of the sounds of the poetry we have been talking about.  And with that in mind, I have been researching some of the poets on You Tube.

First Novoneyra:

Cousos do lobo!
Caborcos do xabarín!
Eidos solos
onde ninguén foi nin ha d’ir!

O lobo!  Os ollos o lombo do lobo!

Baixa o lobo polo ollo do bosco
movendo nas flairas dos teixos
Ruxindo na folla dos carreiros
en busca da vagoada máis sola e máis medosa…

párase e venta
finca a pouta ergue a testa e oula cara o ceo
con toda a sombra da noite na boca.

(Domain of the wolf!// Gullies of the wild boar!// Lonesome places// Where no one goes nor should!//// The wolf! The eyes, the back of the wolf!//// The Wolf goes down through the eye of the wood//moving the branches of the yews//rustling the leaves on the paths//looking for the most lonely and most fearful stream…////It tracks along//stops and sniffs//pushes in its claws stretches out its head and howls with its head to the sky//and with all the shadow of the night in its mouth)

Now, R.S. Thomas:


And here is Richard Burton reading John Clare:


And, finally, a fascinating documentary by Llorenç Soler called The mountains are ours, which shows that the processes that enclosed the countryside and expropriated the peasants from communal lands in England were unrolling in Spain in the twentieth-century.



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Shakespeare’s sonnets

young_man_roses_hilliardThis week I took a rest from considering Novoneyra, the mountains and the countryside and gave myself up to

Reading Shakespeare

The sonnets start with a series in which the poet argues with a young man who is wasting his beauty by not having children.  The imagery seems appropriate to this time of year, as the poet’s talk of time passing and I see the trees around me losing their leaves.  I have put the readings with images.

Have a look and see if you like them:


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Novoneyra and the Shepherd’s Calendar

johnclareI left R.S. Thomas last week grumpily considering the distance between himself and the hill farmers of Wales.  I suggested that Novoneyra could represent that hill farmer.  It was certainly a part of the image he put out to the world: the man who is happy in the hills, the man who talks to farm labourers.  This week, however, I want to get closer to the ground by considering the English poet John Clare.  This consideration will allow us to see Novoneyra in another light: as an educated intellectual who rides the wave of modernist thought into the twentieth century.

John Clare is a unique poet.  He was born in the eighteenth-century in Northamptonshire just when the Enclosure Acts were transforming that landscape for good.

John Clare was a peasant farmer.  He is unique because peasants do not usually write poetry.  Our view of the countryside is overwhelmingly given by people who have an education, live in the same community as farmers, but are alienated from them.  The generations of peasant farmers that lived and died before John Clare do not speak to us in their own words.  They are given voice in curiously artificial creations like the “passionate shepherd” or in the melancholy observations of the lettered poets who were able to put words into their mouths.  They were often priests like R.S. Thomas (see previous post).

Clare was taken up by the Romantics.  Across Europe nineteenth-century Romantics showed a new interest in local traditions, languages and cultures.  (Regional languages, like Galician, were revived and brought into literary prominence.)  Peasants and their customs had always been the subject of poetry, but they were not thought of as artists or art.  Country people had songs, peasant dances and quaint customs that could be used by artists, but their creations were craftwork or handiwork: good when they followed traditional patterns; marred by anything approaching invention.   Clare then was exceptional.  He never moved up a social class.  He was always a peasant farmer.

I was drawn to think of the comparison of Clare and Novoneyra for several reasons.

  • They both write about things that are real, focussing on lived experience.
  • The poetic world of both writers is tied to specific places and both Os Eidos and The Shepherd’s Calendar follow the full cycle of the year through in one location.
  • They are both social critics who live through changes in the landscape that affect them deeply.

Clare’s poetry gives us a rich variety of linked images that show his close connection to the land.   Each month of The Shepherd’s Calendar is pricked out with details that bear the unmistakeable tint of direct experience.  They trot off the page one after the other in a succession of detailed observations.  In November, for example, the rainstorm catches a boy in the field:

[he] in hurry weaves,Shepherd's Calendar
Beneath an ivied tree, his sheltering seat,
Of rushy flags and sedges tied in sheaves,
Or from the field a stock of stubble thieves.
There he doth dithering sit, and entertain
His eyes with marking the storm-driven leaves;
Oft spying nests where he spring eggs had ta’en,
And wishing in his heart ‘twas summer-time again.


This is not the shepherd boy of pastoral who seems to exist in a rosy dreamland.  Even compared with Basho, whom we have looked at previously, this writing has a quality of unique lived experience; he identifies with the people in his verse; he is not a distant moon-figure.  There is an arresting sharpness to the picture of the child sheltering from the rain, making himself a seat of rushes under an old ivy-decked tree.  He can see the birds’ nests because the trees have lost their leaves and his meditation about the eggs he took in the springtime is wholly believable.  Clare is at his best when we get the vivid sensation that he is writing about experiences culled directly from his own life.

Compare this to Novoneyra:

Brilla a agua nas beiras…calzas do cuco
As calzas do cuco polas uceiras
I as bouzas dos outos boscos
Nos tesos núos e foscos
Viñeron os ventos de cara a Rodela
Viñeron as feiras
De ir a meniña insinala canela.
(Water sparkles in the eaves/cuckoo socks* on the moors/ and clumps of high woodland/on the naked and gloomy peaks.//The winds came into Rodela/the fairs came/so the young girl can go and sell cinnamon.  *Cuckoo socks: petticoat daffodils (narcissus bulbocodium) although my edition says this refers to the last snows of the winter.)

Novoneyra is more economical in painting his word picture than Clare.  Although he uses rhyme, rhythmically his line is more varied than Clare, who uses a predictable iambic rhythm and a regular syllable count for each line.  This shows that he lacks the literary sophistication of Novoneyra: he looks for that ti-TUM, ti-TUM rhythm and inserts extra words to preserve it; dithering, entertain his eyes.  Novoneyra does not shy away from rhyming, but his fragments carry the weight of a greater awareness of pre-existing literature.

He explicitly aligns himself with troubadour poets to construct his identity as a Galician bard of the mountains.  Clare does not.  The contrast between the two is striking and revealing.  Novoneyra works in an educated poetic tradition.  Clare, by contrast, seems strikingly naïve.  When I first read The Shepherd’s Calendar as a teenager I was disappointed.  I suppose I was hoping for something a little more like Novoneyra.  I wanted to believe that there was an authentic poetry of the people.  I imagined it would be less artificial than educated poetry, but the simple artifice of Clare’s poetry is declared in every line.

Consider this fragment, in which Clare is talking about enclosure:

The spoiler’s axe their shade devours,enclosure
And cuts down every tree.
Not trees alone have owned their force,
Whole woods beneath them bowed,
They turned the winding rivulet’s course,
And all thy pastures plough’d

The rhythms are ponderously poetic with their 8,6,8,6 syllable count, conventional rhymes and heavy iambic feet:

Ti-TUM ti-TUM// ti-TUM ti-TUM
Ti-TUM ti-TUM ti-TUM

Popular ballads and children’s rhymes use the same heavy structure.

The same would be true of ballads in Galicia, in the Courel.  Have a look at this verse:

Maruxiña, Maruxiña,                  das montañas de León
Sete fillos que tuveche                e ninguno che foi varón
¡rebenteras tu con eles               xunto do teu corazón!

(Maruxiña, Maruxiña from the mountains of Leon/you had seven children and not one of them a boy/ you will burst with them along with your heart.)


This section of a verse from Flor de Romances de Cervantes e Pedrafita (Frouma, Santiago de Compostela, 2001, p.85) continues in the same manner for another 13 lines. Anabel Amigo, who went through the villages of the Courel collecting these verses, dutifully transcribes the different variants that she found.   You will immediately notice the heavy rhymes, the rolling rhythm and the caesura systematically placed in the middle of the poetic line.


These poems are part of an oral tradition.  The rhythm is essential to the mnemonic quality of verse that will be recited, learnt and passed on through generations.   Clare is faithful to the rhythms of popular poetry in a way that Novoneyra is not.


It was due to the fact that traditional poems were so easy to remember that they survived until the Romantics of the nineteenth-century discovered them.  When they did so they used the source material as building blocks for a different kind of poetry: authored poetry; poetry that connected to broader political ideas about the language.  They ignored the bilingual quality of the popular verses- many of them are in Castilian Spanish- and reframed them as essential components of a Galician identity.  They added in Celtic themes to promote this sense of identity.



A rare photograph of Clare

Let’s return to Clare.  Clare writes with the naïve rhythms of a poet who has had no formal literary training.  He cannot work at the level of Wordsworth whose ability to create a sustained argument over the course of The Prelude, putting the poet’s experience of the immanent Sublime in powerful and flexible lines that swell from conversational to ecstatic, is in a different league to Clare’s manner of proceeding.  Clare writes according to his own conception of what poetry is and should be.


The rhythms and the rhymes are one part of that.  The images are the other.  Clare explicitly says that the poet’s gaze is turned towards beauty.  In October, for example:

Nature now spreads around, in dreary hue,
A pall to cover all that summer knew;
Yet, in the poet’s solitary way,
Some pleasing objects for his praise delay.

He says that “every trifle will his eye detain.”  There is an obvious difference with Novoneyra here.  The Galician poet steers away from trifles and has set themes that run through Os Eidos, almost as though he were trying to build up a philosophy around the few concrete experiences that come to his senses.  There is a powerful metaphorical undertow with the wolf, the distant road, dreaming and the constant feeling of dissolution of the ego throughout the collection.   The few people that appear are rarely given much to do or say.  Clare walks through a populated world; Novoneyra is sunk into existential solitude.


Courel abandoned villageI will reflect on Novoneyra’s connection to modernism, Heidegger and fifties angst in my next post.  I want to finish this one, however, by considering the curious parallel between the experience of Clare, living uncomfortably in a world of change, and the experience of Novoneyra in the latter part of his life as he moved away from the mountains and towards Santiago.  Here is what he says in Antón Lopo’s A Distancia do Lobo:


Now the Courel is not even the way I remember it.  I prefer not to go.  Not to see it.  The seventies and the eighties ripped the heart out of the villages at a vertiginous rate.  The empty houses of Parada, of Moreda, of Meiraos, of Romeor, of Mercurín, of Esperante… There are even villages that ended up with their tendons exposed, anorexic and bloodless.


John Clare did not have the same options available to Novoneyra.  He was bitter about the effect of the enclosures on the traditional village life that he knew.  He refers to the commons as “the sweetest of gardens… loved as an Eden by me.”  Yet he was persuaded to cut out lines in his writing that implied social criticism so as not to offend wealthy patrons.


The rural economy ceased to revolve around village communities and coalesced around larger landowners and country houses.  Farming moved away from small-scale trading and self-sufficiency to farming as a business.  Some land was suitable to arable, some to stock.  It was more efficient for cattle to be moved around from field to field so that they were always eating fresh grass; it was more efficient to grow corn in large fields and not in strips.  The peasant farmer suffered in this reorganization of the countryside because self-sufficiency is not rational on a large scale.

Whole villages disappeared.

When I was a teenager and first picked up The Shepherd’s Calendar I hoped to find something different in its pages to what I encountered there.  The pretty and charming scenes seemed like a betrayal of what could have been a sharp and angular vision of a real countryman, like the taciturn woodsmen I met on my walks up onto the Blackdown Hills.  I could sense that there was a historical injustice in the very prettiness that I walked up those hills to survey and, in my own naivety, I imagined that the voice from the other side would be muscular in rage and condemnation.   Clare, on the other hand, seemed to be struggling hard to look for the pleasant, the pretty and the scenic.


It did him no good.  He went insane and finished his days in an asylum.

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