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The Green Knight’s Lament
from The End of My Tether

Even in the dark cavernous barrow, his green skin shone; he moved towards them purposefully, a great stooping figure, grassy hair spilling in a silky fan from his shoulders, his beard a tumbling nest of leaves. Stilling their instinct to back away, the green axe held out like Excalibur, all powerful.  
          – Welcome, he said. You know the pact we pledged. We made our covenant, I bared my neck like Barleycorn to take your blade. Now take off your headgear, bow your heads that I may give you answer with my axe.  
          – There must be some mistake, stammered Oliver de Foie. 
          – It’s Kernan you want, surely? said Hockle. He struck off your head off, he took what was yours.  
           – No mistake, he responded. Kernan is a part of me, and I of him. My head was his head, he took it and I took it back, a twelvemonth gone, a year ago today. But you men took what was not yours, you killed my country; what you’ve done has cost the earth, my plants and people, my birds and beasts who were not yours to take. No general good was served, no one’s interests but your own. 
           – Where are we? asked Maw. Who are you, in God’s name?
           – I am the Green Knight and the Green Man, Cernunnos and Kernan. I am foxglove and fleabane, cat’s-ear and cowslip, hogweed and cow parsnip. I am harebell and hare’s-foot clover, stork’s bill and bird’s-foot-trefoil. I am dove-foot crane’s-bill and mouse-ear chickweed. I am bee orchid and dog-violet, dog-rose and dog’s mercury. I am toad and
           He moved towards them. 
           – I am the linnet and bullfinch, the whistling lapwing. I am the spotted flycatcher, the song thrush and tree sparrow. I am the barn owl and the grey partridge. All these you killed.

            I am the cornflower, the corn buttercup, 
            corncockle, corn gromwell, cornsalad, 
            corn parsley and lamb’s succory. 
            I am fumitory and pheasant’s eye,
            shepherd’s needle and thorow-wax.
            I am the pink bindweed in the cornfield,
            the bright red poppy, yellow corn crowsfoot,
            broad-leaved spurge and red hemp-nettle.
            I am the purple knapweed in the meadow,
            bryony in the hedgerow, I am finch and warbler
            darting among the dog roses.

            I am weed knotgrass in the wheatfield
            with six pink flower-spikes, food
            for the red-yellow leaf beetle, no more.
            I am the larvae of the leaf beetle, food
            for farmland bird chicks, no more.
            I am the weevil and rove beetle,
            the larvae of moths and sawflies, food
            for songbirds, not now, all killed,
            bindweed, beetles, birds, all gone.
            I am seed of weeds. I am seed-eating birds.
            I am corn bunting, cirl bunting, yellowhammer.
            I am the insects. I am the insect-eaters.
            I am the hovering lark and fieldfare.
            I am the vole, the shrew and the fieldmouse.
            I am the owl and the kestrel.
            I am marshes and wetland, all drained,
            moorland and water meadows, all gone.

            I am the cowslip on the chalk down,
            the dropwort, the devil’s-bit scabious,
            dwarf sedge, burnt orchid and toadflax.
            I am the clustered bellflower.
            I am the chalk hill butterfly
            feeding on the horseshoe vetch.
            I am the marbled white, the chequered skipper,
            adonis blue, pearl-bordered fritillary.
            I am hay-rattle yellow in the hayfield,
            the black knapweed, the wild daffodil.
            I am the cowslip and the meadow buttercup,
            the adder’s tongue fern, the green-winged orchid.

            I am the silent field of ryegrass too,
            the silage field of ryegrass, no grass
            but ryegrass, no plant permitted
            but ryegrass, nothing but ryegrass.
            No ploughman treads this empty space
            where all the air a solemn stillness holds,
            no beetle wheels his droning flight,
            no drowsy tinklings lull the distant folds.

            Where are the owls and insects?
            Where are the finches and cornflowers,
            mice and moths, beetles and butterflies?
            Where are the people, the farmers
            who lived off the land, who gave us our food,
            people and plants, birds and beasts all one?
            All gone, all gone, all driven from the land.

            And why, you men of greed?
            Your cash crops killed us off,
            your fertilisers forced us out,
            you poisoned with pesticides,
            you looted the land, and why?
            You pulled up the hedgerows,
            made big farms bigger, rich men richer,
            small farms fail, money out of misery.
            You turned our land into badlands
            where nothing grows but money.
            When money fails, nothing left,
            nothing left to grow. You took it all.
            There’s nothing, nothing, nothing left.

2 thoughts on “Neil Astley The SHEPHERD POET

  1. I much enjoyed this interview with the doyen of poetry publishers. I think Astley underestimates what Valery calls, in Poetry and Abstract Thought, the art which ‘co-ordinates the greatest number of independent parts or factors: sound, sense, the real and the imaginary, logic, syntax, and the double invention of content and form’. I agree that poets are creators of affects, giving them to us by means of articulate energy, and enabling the reader or the listener to feel and experience, ‘felt in the blood and felt along the heart’, as well as mentally enter into what is disclosed. But I think Astley is too simplistic when he says that poetry is ‘an oral (and aural) art’: sound is clearly important but as Prynne argues ‘performative sonority’ (Mental Ears and Poetic Work), no matter how nuanced in its acoustic modality when heard or produced out loud by ourselves, is by-the by in our experience of many poems. For example, it is of ‘the essence of the dramatic monologue that it urges eye and ear to collaborate in imagining a person from print, while insisting on the demarcation of their activities’ (Griffiths: The Printed Voice of Victorian Poetry). I agree that ‘Poetry is language in excess of the functions of language’ (Bruns cited by Prynne) but ‘this recognition is in danger of being confounded with the vocalizations of text performance’ (Prynne again) if we believe that ‘to be fully appreciated poetry needs to be spoken aloud and heard’. Particular kinds of poetry perhaps but there are many other kinds where this is not the case.

  2. A fascinating interview in which Neil Astley speaks from long, deep and thoughtful experience of writing, reading and publishing poetry. His journey towards poetry, from his escapade with an escaped prisoner in the North East to his near death experience in the Darwin cyclone and on to his immersion in the rich heritage of English poetry, is brought out very well. I was intrigued by his openness to the mysterious influence of sheep, a continuation of a deeply felt tradition that stretches from Biblical literature to the final scene in Robert Bresson’s ‘Au hasard Balthazar’ to Robert Musil’s haunting prose sketch, ‘Sheep, As Seen in Another Light’, surely one of the most remarkable tributes to this animal ever written. I would, however, quibble with a couple of Astley’s points. He remarks that great poetry is usually difficult, but argues that poetry is essentially oral (and aural). I would say that these are often contradictory qualities, insofar as speech sometimes precludes difficulty, whereas writing for the eye, mind and ear (of course) makes difficulty possible, indeed invites it. Poetry written to appeal directly to the ear can often fall into neat but mainly simple rhythms, so as to make understanding easier for a live audience. But the incidental qualities of rhythm and euphony, though clearly important, are no more poetically expressive than imagery, mood and idea. After all, it is unlikely that the complexities of ‘The Waste Land’, for instance, would fare well in the context of more simple (and simple-minded) spoken-word poetry at a festival. It’s worth bearing in mind, too, that though the original sound of a poem is lost in translation, the essential poetry of a poem may well survive. I think it was Walter Benjamin who said that poetry isn’t what is lost in translation but is what survives it, which is why those of us who haven’t mastered, in addition to English, such key languages as French, German, Italian, Latin, Greek, Hebrew, Chinese, Sumerian and Arabic, can still appreciate the universality of the world’s universal poetic tradition through translation. Perhaps it is the case that the power of poetry lives in the relative poverty of language: words as abstract symbols necessarily lack the immediacy of sight, sound, smell, taste, touch and emotion, but it is precisely this lack that allows words to transcend the mere senses and their afterglow in images. Pater claimed, incorrectly I would say, that all art aspires to the condition of music, which would surely make the greatest poem a lesser thing than the worst song. Anyway, these are deep issues, and it is to Neil Astley’s credit that he brings them up. By the way, it may well be that it was my late father, a policeman, who arrested the escaped prisoner Mick with whom Neil hitched a lift in 1971. I well remember him about this time telling us at the breakfast table, before we went to school, that he and his colleagues had caught a runaway prisoner from Scotland! The childhood story of the recaptured prisoner has always stuck in my mind.


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