Sunday, 3 November 2013


"Snow" by Louis MacNeice, "Hunger" by Jack Gilbert are, for me, very memorable poems. Reading and re-reading "Snow" got me through the shocking diagnosis and initial drastic treatment for ovarian cancer and I have written an article about this, published in Poetry News some years ago. "Hunger" marvellously expresses the need to dig deeper and deeper when writing a poem, in order to get "beyond the seeds". The poem can be found in the Bloodaxe anthology "Being Alive".

But now I've discovered another poem that strikes home just as powerfully as these two and it is Matt Merritt's poem "Watching Woodcocks, 25.4.10". It comes from his recent collection "The Elephant Tests" (Nine Arches Press). I have to say I have never had the fortune to see a woodcock though I have read a great deal about it: it's a woodland bird, ground-hugging, nocturnal, and very secretive. As Matt's poem suggests it will remain close to the ground almost to the point of being trodden on.

On a cursory reading of the poem it may seem like a list poem of 'how to': how to watch a bird that is "more branch than bird/ more leafmould than branch"; how to sift the stories about the bird; how to use the prized pin-feather, "for removing motes from eyes/for stimulating the clitoris/ for painting woodcocks/ flickering at the edge of  vision." But it is equally about the poet's own difficulties in creating a poem: that faint idea that, like the woodcock, flickers at the edge of vison; the need to "remain within the frame, yet unobserved" which is both the birdwatcher's problem and the poet's; the need to "make yourself more camera than birdwatcher or poet" in order to take in the bird fully or grasp the whole poem before "it is gone into the black bead" of the woodcock's eye. Every birdwatcher knows the misery of the bird that is gone just as you catch sight of it out of the corner of your eye; every poet knows the same sense of frustration when the poem eludes you. This poem aptly describes both of these experiences as well as giving us a fine description and remarkable living sense of the secretive woodcock. As good as actually seeing a woodcock.  I love it! And if I ever have the luck to see this bird then this poem willl be at the forefront of my mind.

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