by Gillian Clarke
It was hay-making time in the countryside where I live. The long grass had been cut and lay drying in the sun. Children were playing in the field, tossing the hay, rolling about. It was a happy scene. Far away in Bosnia, one of the countries that made up the former Yugoslavia, a terrible war was raging. When each country broke free at the end of the 20th century, there were terrible crimes of ethnic cleansing (the murder of one group by another, just because of their race or religion). There were at least 3 religious and ethnic groups, people who had lived as friends and neighbours for generations. Overnight they became suspicious of each other. Soldiers moved in. Thousands of people were murdered.
I’d been asked to write a poem about the war in Bosnia. I was trying to think of a way to write about it. It seemed far away, yet it was in Europe, as we are too. All over the European countryside the same seasonal work must be done. I needed a link between here, that day in the field, and there, in war-torn Bosnia. The child, my 4-year-old grandson, gave me the link I needed.
How to read the poem for its content:
Look for clues.
- Where is the poem set?
- How do I set the scene?
- What season is it?
- What work is going on?
- Who’s telling the story?
- What other place, other event, is referred to throughout the poem? How are the two places linked?
The story is all in the words, but some things may need further explanation. The first two lines sets the scene with sounds: ‘Summer, and the long grass is a snare drum’. The snare drum is the sound of grasshoppers in the field. ‘The air hums with jets.’ RAF Harrier jets roar low overhead, pilots practising for war. The noise is a continuous hum. We cut our hay, ‘far from the terrible news’ of the Bosnian war that fills the Sunday papers and all TV and radio news, yet we’re reminded of it by the sound of jet-planes. Over the hedge our neighbour is spreading lime, a fertiliser, on his land. Some of it blows our way, ‘a chance gift of sweetness’. He’s a good neighbour.
In verse 2 the child runs through the ‘killed’ grasses and wild flowers, cradling the injured mouse. He wants to save it, but we have to tell him it will die. The light in its eye goes out as it glazes over. The hurt mouse and the child’s tears bring the war to mind. We were happy, making hay in the sun. Elsewhere in Europe innocent people are killed. ‘The children’ are our children and the children of Bosnia, ‘staring at what we have crushed.’
By evening the cut hay has been turned and raked, and the children find the remains of more dead creatures. The ‘wrong’ is the war. The sight of the field-mouse ‘woke’ the pain which I was trying to put out of mind. The ‘rumour of pain’ is the reminder that the mouse brings. I think of the innocent hurt in war. I can’t escape the knowledge of what is happening, I dream that the creatures killed in the field are really children.
How to read the poem for its form:
There are three verses of nine lines each - like fields, maybe. Each verse has a purpose. Verse 1 sets the scene, an innocent country scene of hay-making. Verse 2 introduces the child, the field-mouse and the war. In verse 3 the elements are gathered together, and war overwhelms the other theme, ending in nightmare. The lines don’t rhyme* and are not of equal length. That doesn’t mean the sound is unimportant. Sound is always important. There is internal rhyme*, words that chime inside the lines. I trust my ear and my voice to decide the length and number of beats in a line. The comma after the first word, ‘Summer’, lengthens the two syllables* so you linger on the word before getting to the first detail: the singing field, the ‘snare-drum’ of the grasshoppers. So punctuation, and lineation* (line-breaks) all contribute to the form and sound of a poem.
How to read the poem for its language:
There is a metaphor* in the first line: the grasshoppers singing in the long grass make a ‘snare-drum’. ‘Summer’, ‘drum’ and ‘hums’ are internal rhymes, as are ‘wave’, ‘breaks’ and ‘blade’ in line 6. This is also called assonance*, the sound of vowels echoing each other. Look for other examples throughout the poem. Some students have said the linked words ‘snare’ and ‘drum’ remind them of the First World War. This poem is about war, and words have many meanings. The reader can enrich a poem by adding ideas to the imagery. An American poet has called cicadas ‘The drums of August’. Maybe that influenced the way I heard the grasshoppers. There are many other metaphors* in this poem, most of which I leave you to find for yourself.
Warning: never just list the metaphors, assonance, and other poetry devices you find in a poem. Always note these things as part of your understanding and appreciation of what you are reading. You won’t get a good grade for just spotting the metaphors etc.
Look at the choice of words and phrases and see how they help to tell the story. Note, for example, ‘the star goes out in its eye’, and ‘a rumour of pain’.
- Do you know why I chose ‘woke’ in line 21?
- Does it work, in your opinion?
*Look at my A-Z of poetry terms for explanations of alliteration, assonance, metaphor, rhyme, rhythm, simile etc, with examples from my and other set poets’ work.
look at Seamus Heaney’s poems about nature and farm work. Compare this poem with ‘Death of a Naturalist’, ‘At a Potato Digging’. Compare the way we use the countryside and its seasonal jobs, and the way we link these with personal experience and with a wider world. Read Heaney’s own notes on his poems.