Read at Cambridge Writers’ Short Scripts Meeting, 19 June 2003
“WRITER VALERIE LAWS HAS BEEN AWARDED A £2,000 GRANT FROM THE NORTHERN ARTS COUNCIL TO CREATE ‘WALKING POETRY’ BY SPRAY-PAINTING WORDS ON TO SHEEP. UP TO 15 SHEEP WILL HAVE ONE WORD SPRAYED ONTO THEIR FLEECE. AS THE SHEEP WALK AROUND, THE RANDOM SENTENCES THEY CREATE WILL BE TRANSCRIBED INTO POEMS.”
From the National Farmers’ Union “Countryside” Magazine, February 2003
BILL DRIBBLE: Welcome to another edition of ‘One Poet and His Dog’ and this week our cameras have come to Arcadia Farm on the banks of Rydal Water. It’s a harsh landscape but it’s one steeped in poetry- maybe because much of the land is too poor to sustain even a short story- and a knowledgeable local crowd has gathered to witness our four poets going through their paces. Joining me in the commentary box to add his invaluable insight is a former national champion- John Milton. Who can forget his perfect score in last year’s finals? What was the line again, John?
JOHN: “The hungry sheep look up and are not fed”(2)
BILL: That was it. Marvellous. But are we going to see some great poetry today, John?
JOHN: I hope so. Conditions are tough. It’s very windy out there and it might make the sheep somewhat skittish, but we’ve got some good poets to watch and a good poet should be able to create poetry from the most unpromising situations.
BILL: Well, let’s hope so. Anyway, without further ado, let’s join the action as our first competitor, Percy Shelley, steps up to the starting peg with his dog, Sonnet.
Sonnet goes out nice and wide and comes in behind the 13 sheep in a big sweeping turn to pick them up well.
JOHN: Yes that was well done. How many times have we seen younger poets just sending the dog in, panicking the sheep and scattering them everywhere? It’s all about rhythm and pace, you know?
BILL: Indeed. But back to the action and he’s sorting the sheep well, using the dog to get them in order as they near the control gate. Remember, the judges will note the exact order the sheep pass through between the two hurdles so Percy won’t rush it until he’s happy with that order.
JOHN: Oh, he’s working well, is Sonnet. Look at him stalking the sheep, pressing some on, holding others back and here they go through the gate. Can you pick that up on the monitor, Bill?
BILL: “Wandering… in… thick flocks … along the mountains… Shepherded… slow… by the wind… unwilling.”(3)
JOHN: Shepherded slow by the wind unwilling? That doesn’t seem to make much sense.
BILL: No, I didn’t think so either. And Percy’s walking away shaking his head. He’s sure to lose a lot of marks for that. What on earth happened, John?
JOHN: Well, it’s ironic isn’t it? He’s trying to write “the slow unwilling wind”, “shepherded by the slow, unwilling wind,” I think it should’ve been, and a gust of wind has spooked that ewe with ‘slow’ on her fleece and she’s jumped up the line, taking the others with her. Disaster!
BILL: Umm, certainly not the Shelley we’ve come to expect. And indeed the judges have only given him 7 out of 10. A bit harsh, would you say? I mean most of the words were in the right order…
JOHN: No, come on, Bill. Every word’s got to be in the right order. I think he rushed it a bit- there’s nothing to stop a poet taking hours- days even- to get the order of the words right.
BILL: Yes, well it’s a tough old game. And next up to the peg is one of the crowd’s ever-popular favourites, Rudyard Kipling, with his dog Stanza. Do you like Kipling, John?
BILL: Oh, please! Anyway, Stanza’s gone off at a good pace and picked up the sheep. He’s only got eleven, though, Is that going to help his chances?
JOHN: Well, Bill, obviously it’s easier to control a smaller batch of sheep. But judges like to see poets using the full quota of words.
BILL: Yes, but remember Virgil won it only a couple of years ago with a six word display: “Vos Non Vobis Vollera Fortis Oves,”(4) I think it was.
JOHN: Yes, some performance that was- with borrowed sheep.
BILL: Oh, yes, because of Foot and Mouth, you mean?
JOHN: That’s right- he couldn’t bring his own sheep over. They were hard times- many poets were forced to burn whole volumes. But going back to what you said about numbers, you could just use one sheep, so no need to worry about order at all, but it would have to be a bloody good word to impress the judges, eh?
BILL: Oh blimey, John. One-word poetry- it’s all a bit modern for me. Where would it end?
JOHN: Oh, that’s nothing. The game’s changing. I saw some trials with young poets- one feller, he just used one scraggy old ewe with an exclamation mark sprayed on her.
BILL: Is that poetry?
JOHN: Well, I don’t think so. Maybe it’s art but now there’s a whole load of copycats- question marks, speech marks, pound signs. One poet used a percentage sign too, though I think he had some ongoing dispute with his publishers. Anyway, ‘revenons a ces moutons'(5), as the French would say and you can be sure there’ll be no modern rubbish from Rudyard.
BILL: Yes, the sheep are nearing the gate, nice and slowly. Here we are: “We’re… poor little lambs… who’ve lost our way… Baa… Baa… Baa.”(6) Well. Is that it?
JOHN: You don’t like it? It’s a clever trick, repetition. If the words are the same, the order becomes irrelevant.
BILL: Why didn’t he use ten ‘Baa’s’, then?
JOHN: No, Bill, it’s just good tactics. He’d obviously seen what happened to Shelley in the wind and decided to play it safe. See too how he saved himself two sheep- “We’re” and “who’ve”. Professionalism, that is.
BILL: Well the crowd liked it and the judges too- he’s got nine out of ten- but to me it was all a bit too simple. But here comes our next competitor- it’s old William Langland with his faithful dog Ode.
JOHN: Oh he’s a great man with his sheep and the dog’s been around too. He’s gone off at a gentle pace with hardly a word from Bill and he’s got his ten sheep settled.
BILL: They’re walking through the gate now, so here we go: “I shoop me into shroudes as I a sheep were”(7). What’s that all about, then? I can’t fault the technique but it’s gibberish to me.
JOHN: Well, what it means is “I rigged myself out in shaggy woollen clothes as if I was a shepherd.”
BILL: Oh, I see. And he’s getting a round of warm applause from this appreciative crowd and the judges have given him nine out of ten. We could be in for a sudden-death rhyme-off. And here comes our last competitor- a bit of an outsider, maybe? It’s James Kenneth Stephen. Don’t know much about him, do you, John?
JOHN: Oh, he’s a good young lad; a cousin of Virginia Woolf.
BILL: Ah, a wolf in sheep’s clothing?
JOHN: And you thought my puns were bad? His dog’s called Pound. After Ezra, I suppose?
BILL: Maybe it’s because he keeps his dog in a pound.
JOHN: This gets worse. Anyway, Pound is pounding up the field and has got the sheep moving off nice and settled. They swing off down the hill and approach the control gate at a nice steady pace. Stephen gives Pound the sign and the dog shuffles them into line before they trot through.
BILL: “And one… is of an… old, half-witted sheep… which bleats… articulate monotony”(8). Umm, I quite like that. But there’s murmuring in the crowd and slow hand-clapping. What’s going on, John?
JOHN: Well, like I said, he’s a good young lad, but I don’t know what he’s playing at here. See, the crowd will know this poem, like I do. The “old, half-witted sheep” he refers to is, in fact, Wordsworth.
BILL: Oh my word! A bit risky up here! What was it again, “bleating articulate monotony?”
JOHN: I know, but, to be fair to the lad, I think he’s trying to point out the difference between Will’s bloody ‘Daffodils’ stuff and the great ‘Prelude’- I saw him when he won the championship with that a few years back. Every sheep in its place. But the crowd won’t see it like that, I don’t think.
BILL: No and neither have the judges. Six out of ten, I’m afaraid. And James and Pound are having to be shepherded off the field by officials for their own protection. There’s booing and a few handfuls of sheep dung being thrown by the angry locals.
JOHN: Oh, there’s no need for that. What is poetry coming to?
BILL: Yes, it’s all getting a bit ugly out there. The police have moved in to restore order. But someone’s let all the sheep out of their pens and they’re running riot over the field. I can see some of Shelley’s mixed in with Langland’s and none of it makes any sense.
JOHN: This is modern poetry, Bill, I’m afraid. Look- some people are applauding the sheep as if they’re making their own poetry with no help from the poet. It’s all too much for me- come on, let’s go for a pint.
- John Milton- “L’Allegro”
- John Milton- “Lycidas”
- Percy Bysshe Shelley- “Prometheus Unbound”
- Virgil- transl. as ‘you sheep bear fleeces not for yourselves’
- Anon. “Let us return to our sheep”(Let us get back to the subject)
- Rudyard Kipling- “Gentleman-Rankers”
- William Langland- “The Vision of William Concerning Piers The Plowman”
- James Kenneth Stephen- “Lapsus Calami”
Two voices are there: one is of the deep;
It learns the storm cloud’s thunderous melody,
Now roars, now murmurs with the changing sea,
Now bird-like pipes, now closes soft in sleep:
And one is of an old, half-witted sheep
Which bleats articulate monotony,
And indicates that two and one are three,
That grass is green, lakes damp and mountains steep,
And Wordsworth, both are thine.
(See Wordsworth’s “Two Voices are There”)