Because he’s different from anything you’ve ever read, or ever will read. Because he fools you into thinking he’s naive or obtuse before you realise he’s something else altogether. Because he knits his stanzas together with rhyme schemes so cleverly that you don’t even know they’re there. Because – just sometimes – his words make your breath stop and your heart beat faster. He takes you to strange places that you recognise.
Take ‘On First Hearing a Cuckoo’, for example. Here I’m going to take a medievalist detour and talk about a different poem first – a very famous thirteenth century poem which he most likely would have been aware of:
Sumer is icumen in
Sing, cuccu, nu. Sing, cuccu.
Sing cuccu. Sing, cuccu, nu.
Sumer is icumen in -
Lhude sing, cuccu.
Groweth sed and bloweth med
And springeth the wude nu -
Awe bleteth after lomb,
Lhouth after calve cu,
Bulluc sterteth, bucke verteth,
Murie sing, cuccu.
Well singes thu, cuccu -
Ne swik thu naver nu!
I first came across this poem in a small leather-bound anthology of English poetry with bible-thin pages, given to me by my Grandma. I remember sitting down in her spare room in summer and deciding to read all of it. I didn’t get very far. This was the first poem. What a strange little thing, I remember thinking.
More recently, I discussed this poem with my students. We talked about how the ‘u’ sound holds it all together, and makes it wierd and wonderful. And about the internal rhyme in the 6th and 11th lines. My students loved ‘icumen’. And one of them pointed out that the bucks are being a bit rude (read ‘f’ for ‘v’ in line 11 and you might work it out). The last line means: ‘don’t you ever stop’, or ‘don’t you ever deceive’. ‘Nu’ means ‘now’. Cuckoos, of course, deceive by nature, and the English summer sadly never lasts long. In the lecture, my supervisor pointed out that when it says ‘cuccu’, you can never be sure if it means the bird itself or the sound it makes. This poem is memorable because it is small, simple, secretly ambiguous, joyful, naughty, rueful, fun. And it has been claimed as quintessentially English – English enough to open a serious looking anthology.
Cross to an Australian poet in England in the 1960s. He’s never heard a cuckoo before:
It was never more than two unchanging words
Heard in the first coming green of daybreak,
The sleepier green than sleep, with a sheer white
Between this yawning advancing green and the colour
Of all lights out. Not consciousness, the awakening early green:
For that was steep curtain, immediate
Structure of pain and learning, familiar rattlings.
In a Webb poem, there’s usually a few phrases you don’t understand on a first reading. What’s this ‘sheer white’ doing, and why is he using the odd phrase ‘all lights out’? But the image of the green dawn and the sound of the cuckoo is gentle and haunting. I love ‘the sleepier green than sleep’, and the idea of an awareness and a feeling of peace beneath a more frightened and confused ‘consciousness’ trying to come to grips with the surroundings and the self rationally. The poem goes on to twist around this image of green, and the ‘two words’ of the cuckoo, which enter through the window:
With this taut white wariness two words
Involved themselves, formed and changeless, cool and haunting.
. . .
. . . But they were quite apart,
So freely entering, so at home,
Not softening, not disturbing, but making distant.
Old-story-devious green, all shapes and sizes
Of illusion, turned right out of doors:
Two words, always the same words, freely entering.
It’s hard not to quote the whole poem. It continues through a single day. The speaker hears the cuckoo again whilst ‘playing cricket at eleven’, at dinner, and at nightfall. ‘Voyaging green’, ‘robust green’ and ‘sleek green’ give way to the ‘dissolute green’ of evening, and all the while the cuckoo speaks ‘two level and small words/Never at odds with self, never with green’. Night approaches:
. . . Then the changeless words
Unelectric among the going green and the advancing
Colour of lights out and the nagging strands
Of an anger. And cool before the cavernous
Green of sleep which could alone lose them.
And you start to realise that the whole poem is about the triumph of colour and light against darkness and confusion. The words of the cuckoo, which embody colour and light, cut through the confusion of the self and the ‘nagging strands/Of an anger’. They also cut through darkness. The poem never names darkness, it’s called ‘lights out’ – a phrase that is repeated three times. Electric lights fail against the darkness because they are switched off. The cuckoo’s words, however, are ‘unelectric/Against lights out’, which gives them their calm, persistent power. The poem ends:
What in themselves? Twelve hours shaken away,
Not the abandoned green remained, not self,
Not spring, not Surrey, no, nor merely
A dead word-haunted man. Two words remained -
The language foreign, childish perhaps, or pitiable -
Heedless of enmity, again and again coming
To a taut candour, to a loose warbling green.
Curiously enough, the last three lines could easily be describing ‘sumer is icumen in’. The poem is edged by feelings of unease and displacement – England’s excessive greenness is strange to Australian eyes and almost threatening. But the cadence of the cuckoo’s words overcomes this, even if, like the thirteenth century poem, their language is ‘foreign, childish perhaps, or pitiable’. ‘Ne swik thu naver nu!’