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poetry: gillian clarke


Gillian Clarke is a freelance poet, writer, editor, lecturer and broadcaster. She is the president of Ty Newydd, a creative writing centre in North Wales and the author of several books including One Moonlit Night (Pont Books), The King of Britain's Daughter (Carcanet), Collected Poems (Carcanet, 1997) and Five Fields (Carcanet, 1998).

Recurring themes in Gillian Clarke's poetry are childhood, womanhood, Wales and the fragility of life. Her writing is honest and full of vivid imagery. Her subjects are often about domestic matters. She recognises the contribution made by women to society and would like to see the work done by women valued as much as the work done by men.

NEWS
Gillian Clarke has a cassette available that contain poems and notes it features a number of her poems aimed specifically at GCSE and A Level students. For more information
click here. Also, her first collection of poetry for children was published in October 1999 by Pont Books. Its title is The Animal Wall and Other Poems.


Studying A Gillian Clarke Poem - ' The Field Mouse'

The Field-Mouse from Five Fields (Carcanet, 1998)
Summer, and the long grass is a snare drum.
The air hums with jets. Down at the end of the meadow, far from the radio's terrible news, we cut the hay. All afternoon its wave breaks before the tractor blade. Over the hedge our neighbour travels his field in a cloud of lime, drifting our land with a chance gift of sweetness. The child comes running through the killed flowers, his hands a nest of quivering mouse, its black eyes two sparks burning. We know it will die and ought to finish it off. It curls in agony big as itself and the star goes out in its eye. Summer in Europe, the field's hurt, and the children kneel in long grass, staring at what we have crushed. Before day's done the field lies bleeding, the dusk garden inhabited by the saved, voles, frogs, a nest of mice. The wrong that woke from a rumour of pain won't heal, and we can't face the newspapers. All night I dream the children dance in grass their bones brittle as mouse-ribs, the air stammering with gunfire, my neighbour turned stranger, wounding my land with stones.
 

Commentary
This poem, inspired by the late 1990s Bosnian crisis (and equally relevant to all human conflicts), emphasises the fragility of all life and man's destructive nature. The title of the poem refers to a mouse which receives a fatal injury during the hay-cutting. Clarke compares the mouse to children, 'their bones brittle as mouse-ribs' , and throughout the poem there are echoes of conflict, pain and death: 'snare drum', 'jets', 'terrible news', 'killed flowers' , 'agony', 'Summer in Europe, the field's hurt', and so on. The title of the poem is an unlikely title for a poem about war and so the subject matter takes its readers by surprise forcing them to look more deeply for the message that is being conveyed through the poem.

The first stanza creates a traditional British summer harvest scene. Clarke uses a lot of assonance (repeated soft vowel sounds) and internally rhyming words in this verse: 'Summer', 'drum', 'hums', 'end', 'meadow', 'terrible' 'drifting', 'gift' , but there are subtle hints of a destructive element at work in the humming jets and radio's terrible news.

In the second stanza, the destruction is no longer at the edge of the scene but part of the scene itself: ' the field's hurt' refers literally to the injured field-mouse, but we are reminded of the death-littered streets and towns of Bosnia and its surrounds, as well as the never-to-be-forgotten battlefields of World Wars I and II. The use of the pronoun ' we' in the last line of that stanza causes the reader to share in some of the guilt.

The final stanza leads away from the harvest scene and guilt becomes even more consuming: ' the field lies bleeding' , ' The wrong that woke/from a rumour of pain won't heal,/and we can't face the newspapers.' This is a direct reference to the recent situation in Eastern Europe. If we stay away from the radio and don't pick up the newspapers we can remain ignorant of what is going on almost on our doorstep. We can pretend civil war is something only heard about in history lessons. But we can't shake off feelings of guilt and the poem ends with the fearful thought of our own neighbours turning against us. (It should be noted that the NATO bombing campaign of 1999 occurred some time later than the publication of this poem. Whether the action taken was the right action to take will no doubt be discussed by many for years to come).

The rich metaphors used by Clarke create vivid scenes for her readers: ' our neighbour travels his field/in a cloud of lime', 'his hands a nest of quivering mouse', 'It curls in agony big as itself'. She is able to paint a picture for us in just a handful of words by a brilliant juxtaposition of phrases.


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