24 November 2014

Poem of the Week 2014/48


The turkeys wade the close to catch the bees
In the old border full of maple trees
And often lay away and breed and come
And bring a brood of chelping chickens home.
The turkey gobbles loud and drops his rag
And struts and sprunts his tail and then lets drag
His wing on ground and makes a huzzing noise,
Nauntles at passer-bye and drives the boys
And bounces up and flies at passer-bye.
The old dog snaps and grins nor ventures nigh.
He gobbles loud and drives the boys from play;
They throw their sticks and kick and run away.

John Clare

For Thanksgiving week, a poem about the Thanksgiving bird par excellence, the turkey. Since Clare was active in early to mid-nineteenth century England, the bird he is describing here is what we now would call a "heritage turkey," something closer to our wild turkeys than to the breast-heavy, stupefied bird currently filling the freezer section of your local supermarket. Clare's life was marked by struggle, poverty, and ill health, both physical and mental. The son of farm workers, Clare himself worked on farms (among other jobs) and though his poems often present attractive scenes of rural life, he does not idealize that life. He was, during his lifetime, sometimes known by the rather condescending term "the peasant poet"; the lettered and leisured love to feel that they are connecting with the real life of "the people." He hovered uneasily between the world of laborers and the world of letters.

A poem like this may seem just a picturesque vignette of farm life à la Currier & Ives, but there are underlying political implications here. Clare grew up in a rural England in which centuries-old traditions were being uprooted by the Industrial Revolution, by the building of factories and towns for their workers and the laying of train tracks and the enclosure of previously "common" spaces. Clare and others like him were shoved out of the way just by trying to stay in place. So what we have here is a vision of the age-old ways that were being wiped out, often with little thought – his description reminds his readers (most likely, the educated and urban) of life outside the powerful city centers. What Clare is doing here is relevant still, as we face our own looming ecological disasters, all the while being distracted by the shiny promise of new digital toys. And ultimately, any work that forces you to look closely at what is actually in front of you (rather than what you want to see, or what your theories tell you you will be seeing) is inherently subversive.

Though the gist of the poem is perfectly clear, looking closely at it actually requires a surprising amount of research (I've posted poems in Middle English that needed less annotation and less hunting after definitions). Clare used many dialect and archaic words (probably for a combination of reasons, including lack of formal education and, as with Robert Burns, a determination to use the language of his people). The turkeys wade: that can mean to move vigorously or forcefully, through water, or, more likely here, a damp substance, as in moist or swampy soil found in the close, which would be an enclosed area. The turkeys strut among the old maple trees bordering the farm to catch and eat bees. They lay their eggs there, too, and lead out their brood of chelping chickens: chelping is chirping, like a baby bird, and chickens is an old term for the young of any domestic fowl. The chicks are chirping, and we switch to a single turkey, who gobbles and drops his rag: that is, he lowers his wattles, just as (in a couple of lines) he will lower and drag his wing. But before he does that he struts and sprunts his tail: that is, he makes a quick, convulsive or spasmodic movement with it. He makes a huzzing noise: that is, a buzzing or murmuring noise (though maybe it's more like a hissing?). He nauntles at passers-by: that is, he rears up, raises himself up, strutting. He moves vigorously to scare off strangers walking by, or the local boys at play – anyone who invades his domain. There is a dog, but an old and presumably tired and cautious one, who snaps and grins (which here I take to mean bares his teeth rather than smiles broadly) but does not come close enough so that he actually has to tangle with the obstreperous bird. The scene ends with the turkey chasing the boys, who throw sticks and kick at the bird, but also run away.

We get a vivid picture of how these birds behave (anyone who has come across ducks, geese, or swans in public parks knows that this sort of behavior is pretty typical of a certain type of bird). And we get a vivid sense of country life, not as the orderly hierarchy beloved by rural nostalgists but as unstable, ruled by a complex and wavering web of power relationships, in a constant state of tension and flux, marked by an endless back-and-forth of aggressive show and retreat and further attack. The boys run away from the turkey, but – and this part isn't explicitly stated, and maybe it's the influence of Thanksgiving week, but – I can't help thinking eventually the farmer will show up with his axe, and so much for the turkey's control of his turf.

I took this from On Wings of Song: Poems About Birds, selected and edited by J D McClatchy, another excellent anthology from the Everyman's Library Pocket Poets series.

Happy Thanksgiving to everyone celebrating it this week – and even if you're in some place where it's not an official holiday, it never hurts to give thanks. As a holiday bonus, here is my recipe for cranberry chutney. And I give thanks, among other things, for my readers.


Unknown said...

And Happy Thanksgiving to you (though I'm one of the lucky ones who gets to say it in person). Thank you for the daily Haiku, the weekly poem, and the stunning photos.

Teresa VazGoodfellow said...

Great poem! Like so many that you post, your analysis makes it all so much clearer and meaningful. Happy Thanksgiving!