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‘Go to the Zoo’: on Writing About Animals

A couple of weeks ago, I came across this recording of Greta Stoddart reading her poem ‘Errand’. I love the poem, and I love her introduction to it. Describing a time when Rilke was suffering from a sort of writer’s block, she talks about Rodin’s advice to him: ‘Go to the zoo. And stand in front of an animal. And stare at it. For hours. At least three hours.’ Rilke’s resulting poem, ‘The Panther’, offers evidence of his genius, but perhaps good evidence, too, that Rodin was pretty damn good at setting writing exercises. Here’s the opening stanza in Stephen Mitchell’s translation:

His vision, from the constantly passing bars,

has grown so weary that it cannot hold anything else.

It seems to him there are a thousand bars;

and behind the bars, no world.

In interesting dialogue with Rilke’s poem, Ted Hughes’s ‘The Jaguar’ also describes a visit to the zoo. Hughes is among writers who have known the joy that animals can bring to writing, the great images animals can inspire. He gives us some stunning ones:

The parrots shriek as if they were on fire, or strut

Like cheap tarts to attract the stroller with the nut.

Fatigued with indolence, tiger and lion

Lie still as the sun. The boa-constrictor’s coil

Is a fossil.

There are few writers better than Hughes at appreciating the power of animals, and the ending of this poem gives us some unforgettable images to describe the jaguar’s force: ‘The world rolls under the long thrust of his heel. / Over the cage floor the horizons come.’

If the simple act of looking at animals and describing what we see can generate some excellent poems, Hughes is among writers who also know the power of animal monologues. ‘Hawk Roosting’ allows us to share the hawk’s experience – and what an experience it is, in which the world is all laid out for him!

And the earth’s face upward for my inspection.

My feet are locked upon the rough bark.

It took the whole of Creation

To produce my foot, my each feather:

Now I hold Creation in my foot…

An animal monologue which offers a stark contrast to this is Carol Ann Duffy’s poem, ‘Dolphins.’ These dolphins are powerless, trapped in a zoo, helpless against their captors: ‘It is / the same space always and above it is the man. // And now we are no longer blessed,’ say the dolphins, ‘for the world / will not deepen to dream in.’ I love the togetherness of these dolphins, expressed in this gorgeous image: ‘The other knows / and out of love reflects me for myself.’ Lines like these, the connection we have built up with the dolphins across the poem, make the ending of this poem incredibly powerful. Like lots of strong poetry endings, it understands what it is to make the reader desperate to intervene in the immediate situation and powerless to do so:

There is a plastic toy. There is no hope. We sink

to the limits of this pool until the whistle blows.

There is a man and our mind knows we will die here.

A similarly moving poem about animal mistreatment is Raymond Carver’s masterpiece ‘The Hat’. The poem is heart-breaking, merciless, in its description of the treatment of a dancing bear. Wandering through Mexico City, Carver observes this incident:

The man slaps the bear on

its shoulder with the bar, bringing

a tiny cloud of dust. Growls something

himself. The bear waits while the man takes

another swing. Slowly, the bear rises

onto its hind legs, swings at air and at

that goddamned bar. Begins to shuffle

then, begins to snap its jaws as the man

slugs it again, and, yes, again

with that bar. There’s a tambourine.

I nearly forgot that. The man shakes

it as he chants, as he strikes the bear

who weaves on its hind legs.

One of my favourite zoo-set poems is Paul Henry’s ‘The Lion Girl’, from Ingrid’s Husband. In interesting dialogue with the Louis MacNeice poem ‘Reflections’, the poem is a startling reflection on parenthood. Reflected in the glass of the lion enclosure, a little girl’s face blends with the face of a lion, as her father records her on a hand-held video camera, leading to these lines:

She laughs again and, shaking her head, roars

out of the lion, out of herself as the lion.

But for the glass she would eat the strange man

with a camera in his face, she would spring

and the crowd would scatter about him, screaming.

She would make a red rag of her father, lying there,

his camera in pieces, his wide stare

fixed on the evil sun. What comes between

a lie and the truth is merely a glass screen.

For all the powerfully troubling interactions between people and animals that poems can movingly record, there’s no greater joy in the world than spending time looking at or interacting with animals. They’re beautiful, glorious, otherworldly, weird as all hell, us and not us, and poems which celebrate them are among the most beautiful in the language. No one knows this better than Gerard Manley Hopkins. A good response when looking at animals is ‘Wow!’ and no one’s ever said that more beautifully than him. Here, from ‘The Windhover’:

I CAUGHT this morning morning’s minion, king-

dom of daylight’s dauphin, dapple-dawn-drawn Falcon, in his riding

Of the rolling level underneath him steady air, and striding

High there, how he rung upon the rein of a wimpling wing

In his ecstasy! then off, off forth on swing,

As a skate’s heel sweeps smooth on a bow-bend: the hurl and gliding

Rebuffed the big wind. My heart in hiding

Stirred for a bird,—the achieve of; the mastery of the thing!

I remember a few years ago, at the aquarium in Seattle, spending some hours staring at an octopus. It had this incredible, paper-thin, half-liquid body, which spread out all over the place, doing its damnedest to keep up with its head, stretching out behind him like a bride’s train billowing in the wind. I wrote a poem about him, beginning ‘There’s bits of him he’s forgotten where they are.’ Yet his eyes were kind, thoughtful, knowing, human. Inside that body was an old man on a park bench looking into the swirling leaves of autumn and saying ‘Ah yes, ah yes.’ We had a moment, me and the octopus, and moments like this are what poems are for.

I hope that the forthcoming course, ‘The Wild’, which I’m teaching for the Poetry School, will offer plenty of such moments. I’ve always wanted to teach a writing workshop in a zoo, and am thrilled that this course will include a session at Bristol Zoo Gardens. To circle back to Rodin’s advice to Rilke – to stare at an animal for ‘at least three hours’ – it is fitting that the course sessions will be three hours long. We’ll be looking at lots of models and approaches to writing about the wild to inspire us, and workshopping our poems to ensure that they roar, stroll and scratch themselves at exactly the right pace and volume. But we’ll also be scrupulously following Rodin’s advice, because sometimes to write great poems is simply to look properly at the amazing things the world gives us. How do you write well? As the man himself said, ‘Go to the zoo.’

Jonathan Edwards‘s first collection of poems, My Family and Other Superheroes (Seren, 2014), received the Costa Poetry Award and the Wales Book of the Year People’s Choice Award. It was shortlisted for the Fenton Aldeburgh First Collection Prize. His second collection, Gen (Seren, 2018), also received the Wales Book of the Year People’s Choice Award, and his poem about Newport Bridge was shortlisted for the Forward Prize for Best Single Poem 2019. Jonathan has read his poems on BBC radio and television, recorded them for the Poetry Archive, and led workshops in schools, universities and prisons. He lives in Crosskeys, South Wales, and is editor of Poetry Wales.

Book here for Jonathan Edwards’s Bristol-based course “The Wild”, running as part of our Spring Term 2020.

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Image Credits:

Derek Keats