We have let poetry down.
That’s a big claim when there are probably more people writing poetry now than at any other time in human history. I am not talking about quality – I do not have the data to assess whether there is proportionally more bad poetry than there used to be – but about scope, subject, ambition.
Maybe it is fairer for me to say that I have let poetry down. How so? By making it too small, by accepting it is only ever going to be a personal thing about me any feelings, by not expecting it to make a difference to myself or anyone else, by making it about capturing the minutiae of one life with little reference to anything else. So, could my poetry do more than just chronicle my young adult whinings about women? (If you go to The Vault you can read some of those terrible poems in Poems Volume Minus Two.)
Yes, I think it can. And I have an example. It’s called The Republic of Bees.
I have been coming back to the works of Sir Thomas Browne, a seventeenth century doctor and writer, for many years. I finally decided I was ready to engage him in a conversation through reflections on his writings. I also wanted to write a poem about insects that live in colonies, bees, wasps, termites, ants; I didn’t really mind. Reading Browne’s Garden of Cyrus – a fantasia on the quincunx (the shape you get when you plant four apple trees in a square with a fifth in the middle) – I came upon this:
… much there is not of wonder in the confused Houses of Pismires [ants], though much in their busie life and actions, more in the eidificial Palaces of Bees and Monarchical spirits; who make their combs six-cornered
Bees, I thought. Why not bees. Then, with a little more poking about, I learned that the paramount bee of the hive had only been identified as female in the early years of the seventeenth century: Charles Butler published his book The Feminine Monarchie in 1609. Even during Browne’s lifetime there were those who still defended the views of ancient writers such as Aristotle, that the chief bee was a king, not a queen, and using that view to defend the divine right of kings. There was the subject of my poem.
I began to write, weighing up the human and apian monarchies. The human monarchs came out of the comparison quite badly. I remember that when I started writing the poem I would have classified myself as a lukewarm monarchist: we have monarchs, but they don’t do too much harm now. But by the time I had finished the poem (which took a few months), I realised I had moved to a position of at least theoretical republicanism: there is no justification for monarchy and we would be better off without them. I still hold the position: probably more strongly.
The change came through the process of writing the poem. It was a big subject, worthy of poetry. We need big poetry. So as someone who writes poetry, I think I have an obligation to go bigger. There are plenty of subjects to address, the monarchy being only one of them.
The Republic of Bees will appear in Minor Monuments, a collection of poetry that I am publishing in the next week or so. In the meantime, here are the first two verses.
The hive sits snug along the orchard’s bounds;
wall-sheltered from the North wind, it receives
the gaze of the austral sun which drives off damp
and lifts the spirits of its folk in spring.
The wooden walls define a waxen realm,
ruled by a monarch absolute and firm,
who bids the deft, obedient subjects range
the airy streets, and in their gathering play
procurer to the vegetable lusts
of plum and apple, cherry, quince and sloe.
Their city gate in form’s a busy quay
where all the goods of industry and trade
are garnered for the service of the hive,
as in the constant fluxing of the tide
each homing vessel, ready to discharge
its dusty cargo, rides the counter-wake
of other barques with course American.
The tribute of their Indies and Levant
is celled to form the winter sustenance
of all their ruler chooses to preserve.