Wednesday, March 5, 2014

Animals Have Things To Say — They’re Just Not Saying Them To Us

Animals aren’t tools for thinking. Animals are some of the basic building blocks of thought itself

The Galapagos tortoise takes a breather. Photo by James Morgan/Getty 

I don’t recall reading poetry as a child. My father had some Betjeman and a tattered paperback of A P Wavell’s Other Men’s Flowers on the bookshelves under the stairs and, while I remember looking at the covers, I don’t think I opened them. Then, at the age of 13, our English teacher handed out two books, The Selected Poems of R S Thomas, and an anthology, Conflict and Compassion, edited by John Skull. I think they very possibly changed my life. The discovery that a collection of words that wouldn’t catch your attention when overheard on the bus can be arranged in an order that will move you more than kisses or rollercoaster rides. I still have both books. The anthology is particularly odd. It’s clearly intended for children – lots of white space, big font, themed sections illustrated by black and white photographs – except that the sections dealt, respectively, with nuclear war, violence, ageing, death, sickness, racism and the heartlessness of the modern city, and were accompanied by photographs of napalm victims, disfigured children, an old homeless man playing a violin in a rubbish tip, two fatal road accidents…

This was 1975. It seemed not wholly impossible that all the red buttons might be pushed and humanity might be wiped out, leaving only cockroaches to thrive among the ashclouds. Which is perhaps why the poems in the section about nuclear war felt the most urgent and had the most profound effect on me. ‘Fifteen Million Plastic Bags’ by Adrian Mitchell. ‘Your Attention Please’ by Peter Porter. The one that haunted me most was ‘The Horses’ by Edwin Muir:

Barely a twelvemonth after
The seven days war that put the world to sleep,
Late in the evening the strange horses came.
By then we had made our covenant with silence,
But in the first few days it was so still
We listened to our breathing and were afraid.
On the second day
The radios failed; we turned the knobs; no answer.
On the third day a warship passed us, heading north,
Dead bodies piled on the deck. On the sixth day
A plane plunged over us into the sea. Thereafter

For the rest of the story:

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