As a poet born, brought up and now living in Sussex – ‘land of the south Saxons’ – I’ve long felt compelled to write something in the Anglo-Saxon style: four beats per line, the first three alliterative; no rhyme; and no counting of syllables. It’s has been neatly described as ‘bang-bang-bang-CRASH’ and I quickly found it wasn’t nearly as simple as it sounds. Iambic pentameter is a hard habit to break.
I’d also had an idea for a poem about my first day’s ploughing (now more than 20 years ago) bouncing around in my mind for a while. The strong, earthy feel of this form, which has been with us for 1,000 years thanks to the anonymous genius behind Beowulf, suddenly seemed exactly right. So, herewith my first attempt. Something tells me it won’t be my last.
FOLLOWED BY GULLS
And so the seasons slipped. Too late,
Too wet, to work for winter crops.
In the barn, the bags of barley seed
Stood in a stack, till Spring brought in
The sun to suck the soil dry.
We advanced one April afternoon. In haste
We teamed the tractor to the plough
And laid out lands. Our lines were drawn.
As the engine juddered, I joined the ranks
Of workers who’d waged a war with the earth
Since Bronze Age bullocks broke new ground
Won from the wildwood and awakened the land;
The centuries’ struggle to subjugate Nature
Continued by Townsend and Tull, then Ransome
Whose plough I put my apprentice’s hand to
In the hope of holding hard to their tradition.
At first, my furrows fumbled and scrabbled
Like frozen fingers till, finding my rhythm,
The green began to give way to brown
Steadily, but still one stubborn thought
Kept beating about my brain. The rooks
And their cousins, the crows, crowded in rowdily
To rob the rich, ripped-open ground;
Portly pigeons pecked and plundered –
But where were the witnesses I wanted most,
The arbiters of arable, whose approval I craved?
Then they came:
A few, then a flock of followers blew in
Like summer snowflakes, sudden, from nowhere.
Transformed, I was a fisherman, the field an ocean
The tractor a trawler. I trailed them behind me –
A wake of wheeling white, their raucous
Shouts like shipmates on shore-leave completing
My picture-perfect ploughing scene.
I’d gathered the gulls. I got my dream.