Unseasonal Produce, a lecture by Simon Armitage

Winter words in various moods and metres

To write in winter is a contrary endeavour, an act of resistance. It involves crossing the season’s picket line to access the icy workshop, creating lifelike things when so much of what is living is being taken away, rubbing the hands together for warmth when cold has entered the bones, and striking sparks into damp kindling when the planet has turned its face from the light. It’s a contradiction poetry has not been able to resist.

During the previous winter, by which I mean the old-fashioned calendric winter, when the nights of lowest temperatures and the days of longest darkness used to reliably coincide, I reread Tape for the Turn of the Year (1965) by the American poet A.R. Ammons. I’ve spoken before and elsewhere about how I became drawn to mid-century American poetry, finding it a breath of fresh air compared to the clubby standoffishness of certain strains of British poetry of the same era, the fresh air being the frontier of the empty page, there to be explored and adventured along, and the breath being the proximity of the written word to the spoken language, where colloquial registers, local rhythms and quirks of dialect were celebrated front and centre rather than being tolerated as eccentric outbursts or stifled altogether. What I heard and what excited me was the voice rather than the intellect, and although Ammons wasn’t by any means the most vernacular or demotic of his peers, and in some instances one of its more cerebral practitioners, I fell originally for the languid, conversational charms of his poem ‘Corsons Inlet’. Having released himself from the burden of form, from what he calls “the perpendiculars, / straight lines, blocks, boxes, binds / of thought”, the poet continues his free-verse wandering and wondering along the New Jersey shoreline, relieved that “Overall is beyond me”, liberated from the responsibilities of summary and conclusion we associate with the bards of yore.

The titles to the poems in Tape for the Turn of the Year, which are really subtitles in the form of dates, imply entries in a poetic journal, beginning on 6 December 1964 and ending on 10 January 1965, a continuous daily record with the exceptions of Christmas Eve and Christmas Day (when we might assume Ammons had other claims on his time and/or other things on his mind), and 29 December. I approached the collection as if it were a kind of advent calendar, dutifully opening each poetic window on its corresponding date, and encountering entries ranging from half a page to a dozen or more pages in length, often commencing with a matter-of-fact weather report. Harold Bloom said of A.R. Ammons that his poetry “helps me to live my life” – quite a claim – and crudely speaking I suppose I wondered if it could do the same for me, either emotionally or practically, on a day by day basis. But it isn’t the diarised format that gives the poem its energy and frisson, so much as its means of production, by which I mean the roll of adding-machine tape on which Ammons composed. The poet acknowledges to his readers and to himself the potentially synthetic and gimmicky nature of such an approach in the opening section, confessing:

I’m attracted to paper,
kitchen napkins
with little masterpieces:
it was natural for
me (in the House &
               Garden store one
night a couple weeks
ago) to contemplate
               this roll of
adding-machine tape, so
narrow, long,
unbroken, and to penetrate
               into some
               fool use for it: I
thought of the poem
but not seriously: now,
two weeks
have gone by, and
               the Muse hasn’t
rejected it,
seems caught up in the
               serious novelty:

A serious novelty indeed, determinedly quotidian and playfully mundane at times, introspective, philosophical and melancholic at others, the tape with its finite but unknown length representing an exploration of stamina and dedication, as well as imposing unusually slender constraints on the emerging poem. It’s a limitation that forces Ammons into making spontaneous and improvised decisions in regard to line breaks and layout as he slaloms down a seamless ‘page’ about three inches in width, the colons he prefers to full stops emphasising the continuous forward motion of the exercise. The mention of “House & Garden” might seem throwaway but actually sets up one of the poem’s ongoing dichotomies, between the domestic life of the writer – much in evidence here – and the world through the window, the outside where winter sets in, into which the restless imagination and sometimes the body must roam, and from where they must return. In that respect Tape is long poem of inner and outer journeys, with the Commedia and the Aeneid and Piers Plowman and even The Pilgrim’s Progress as shadow narratives, but in terms of its quest for home and the meaning of home, always with Odysseus as a travelling companion. In one of the poem’s few direct quotes and in staccato, one-word lines, Ammons’s wife Phyllis becomes a sardonic but nevertheless telling Penelope, when she calls her husband to the table, saying:


Odysseus’s journey to the underworld also seems present in several passages via the occasionally elegiac or funereal tone. On 29 December – the third of the missing dates – Ammons couldn’t keep his rendezvous with his “muse” because he attended a memorial service to William Carlos Williams in New York, which he describes the following day. Earlier, on 8 December, Ammons watches a violent storm on the Atlantic horizon and ruminates on the nature of fate and prophecy. The following day he reports how a plane carrying eighty people was brought down by the distant weather. Spontaneously, and as if turning to the adding-machine paper for its intended and dispassionate purpose, Ammons then presses down on the 1 key eighty times, until a cemetery of upright digits or unmarked graves has reached its tally, each figure registering an anonymous embodiment, or memorialising a lost life through an expression of cold numerical fact.

Elsewhere Ammons is an unacknowledged Theseus equipped with Ariadne’s thread, using the tape to navigate his way in and out of the labyrinth of winter and through the dark tunnels of his thoughts. It’s hard to do justice to the poem by simply talking about it – there’s something experiential in its flow and direction, something in the silent reading of it that reproduces the process of its construction, all the self-conscious wobbles and existential balancing acts that must have taken place as Ammons negotiated the treadmill of the ‘page’ or performed his poetic log-rolling act with the spool disappearing beneath him. And nowhere are those feelings more present than when the poet notices a red edging to the paper indicating that time is running out, and sees the end of the roll lifting from the floor, rising to meet him. The peculiarly extruded poem has served as a handrail or safety rope through the dead of winter into spring, but the death of the poem waits at the far end.

I wouldn’t want to give the impression that all I did during those short days of last winter was read, or that all I read was poetry, or that the only poet I read was A.R. Ammons, even if my daily appointments with Tape for the Turn of the Year had the intensity and sometimes claustrophobia of a waking hibernation, of deliberately joining the poet in his slow journey through the gloomy underpass, though when I did open other books it was mainly with the intention of complimenting or complicating and sometimes contradicting the experience with other winter poems.

. . .

If many biographical accounts are to be believed, Housman was an unlovable individual, an intellectual snob and dedicated misanthropist who emitted a virtually tangible air of disapproval and existed within an almost visible aura of unapproachability. Frogmarched along to the T.S. Eliot Prize readings or Poetry International for example, I imagine him sitting at the back of an auditorium in a pose of expressive isolation, rolling his eyes and harrumphing at the half-witted attempts of today’s supposed literary heavyweights. Press-ganged into witnessing a performance poetry gig I picture him in the wings of a stage or standing in a muddy field, regurgitating his elevenses. I see him in this hall today, or rather the empty chair where he sat for a few seconds, already on a train and halfway back to Cambridge. But even when Housman was trying to be as disagreeable as possible it’s difficult not to agree with some of his observations, his 1933 Leslie Stephen Lecture being one example. Better known by its title, ‘The Name and Nature of Poetry’, in its closing paragraphs the lecture departs from the usual customs and courtesies of academic objectivity as Housman describes his own writing practice, beginning with a pint of beer at “luncheon” followed by a two- or three-hour walk “looking at things around me and following the progress of the seasons”, during which poetic thoughts would sometimes and unaccountably “bubble up”. We’re familiar with his description of poetry as a “morbid secretion” from earlier in the same lecture, but this is poetry as a gaseous emission, and if his remarks were judged vulgar and inappropriate at the time I can only assume that was part of Housman’s general mischievousness. Likewise, and continuing with the gaseous emission analogy, if the wider tone of his oration was designed to get up the nose of those in the audience, it seems to have worked; I.A. Richards was reported as saying that it would take poetry twelve years to mend the damage that Housman had caused in an hour, an anecdote Housman was pleased to record and repeat. His headline points, however, such as they are identifiable, are persuasive and pertinent. Poetry as a subject is impossible to define, he maintains, or rather “the legitimate uses of the word […] were themselves so many as to embarrass the discussion of its nature”, though we shouldn’t compound the confusion by attaching it to writing not worthy of its name. The eighteenth century couldn’t write poetry, Housman tells us, breezily dismissing a hundred years’ worth of the likes of Dryden and Pope, because cleverness had got in the way, a repressing intelligence and snivelling wit that meant poetry “could not describe natural objects with sensitive fidelity to nature” and “could not express human feelings with a variety and delicacy answering to their own”. Three centuries later, the poetry of learned scholars is still disadvantaged by the emphasising of erudition over articulation; ironically, poetry that goes out of its way to be anti-intellectual also suffers for similar reasons, when it privileges the message over the means. “Poetry is not the thing said but the way of saying it”, pronounces Housman, finally getting to his point. If that’s controversial or opens up the possibility of some uncomfortable truths, it’s a discomfort I recognise. A bad poem isn’t just unconvincing, it actually provokes in the sensitive reader an antipathy towards the very idea being expressed, no matter how acceptable the subject matter or how laudable its standpoint. Equally, on those occasions when I’ve read a poem whose outlook I disagree with or even find obnoxious, a well-turned phrase or felicitous construction of language conjures a positive response somewhere in the neural pathways. So if you want me to sign a petition against the unnecessary felling of trees in the Sheffield suburbs, don’t write a clumsy sonnet or some shouty protest piece about a sycamore – psychologically I’m going to turn up with a chainsaw. Instead, lure some hapless council bureaucrat into composing an excruciating ode on the dangers of falling branches and the health and safety implications of tree roots protruding through pavements in residential areas, and I’ll be there on the barricades, I’ll be hammocked in the boughs.

Requested to supply a definition of poetry, I think by an American publication, Housman says, “I replied that I could no more define poetry than a terrier can define a rat, but that I thought we both recognised the object by the symptoms it provokes in us.” His example of this kind of instinctive and unstoppable canine/rodent identification he gives as the seventh verse of the forty-ninth Psalm of the Book of Common Prayer, “But no man may deliver his brother, nor make agreement unto God for him.” Of which Housman wrote, “that is to me poetry so moving that I can hardly keep my voice steady in reading it.” Another much-repeated example of the usually aloof scholar-poet expressing his emotions in public was recalled by a former student, who remembered Housman ending a lecture with a reading of one of Horace’s odes followed by his own translation. “That […] I regard as the most beautiful poem in ancient literature,” said Housman, allegedly, apparently on the brink of tears, before he left the room. The poem was Odes, IV.7, ‘Diffugere Nives’, which in Housman’s version begins,

The snows are fled away, leaves on the shaws
               And grasses in the mead renew their birth,
The river to the river-bed withdraws
               And altered is the fashion of the earth.

If the anecdote is to be believed, and if Housman was a practitioner of his preachings, then it’s the wording and rhythm of the original rather than the outright meaning which he found so appealing. As someone illiterate in first-century BC Latin it’s an experience I can’t share or comment on, though with just a pocket dictionary and a decent internet connection I can determine that his translation is somewhat free, as poet-to-poet translations must be, and certainly has enough poetic agency and authority of its own to activate Horace’s thinking. In a lesser poem, for example Wordsworth’s scandalously cheerful ‘Written in March’, the arrival of spring stirs the spirits in the poet’s breast and is a straightforward augury of health and happiness to come. “Like an army defeated / The snow hath retreated”, carols the optimistic Romantic. In Horace the green shoots of spring are but memento mori. The world renews but man doesn’t, and false hope is what lies beneath the blanketing whiteness. “The changing year’s successive plan / Proclaims mortality to man”, is how Samuel Johnson renders its moral lesson, reorganising Horace’s dactylic quatrains into clanging couplets of parade-ground iambic tetrameter, quick, clean and clever but endorsing Housman’s point about the eighteenth century favouring the brain over the soul. In fact the true virtuosity of the poem lies in its slide from the pastoral to the interpersonal, albeit via mainly mythological characters. In Housman’s version it concludes: “And Theseus leaves Pirithöus in the chain / The love of comrades cannot take away”, lines presumably haunted by Moses Jackson, the unreciprocating love of Housman’s life to whom the poet was perpetually shackled and from whom he was permanently bereaved. Odes IV.7 opens as a flower might, waking to the spring, full of the equivalent poetic promise. But we have been deliberately misled; the snow was an anaesthetising, numbing element, and sensation, when it returns, brings with it painful truths. As painful as a returning memory after Eliot’s “forgetful snow”.

. . .

We know from the sentence-making in Thomas Hardy’s prose how well he could fashion a clause or paragraph, and how smooth and clear the words could run in his shaping of narrative, or in his observations of action, or in his portrayals of a character. First and foremost the readers of his novels wanted story and plot, but having satisfied their needs and the demands of his publishers, Hardy indulged his own preferences as a writer, initially in the off-hours and by moonlight, and eventually to the exclusion of prose altogether. And the poems feel to be developed out of a different lexicon, as if in constructing verse Hardy reached for a different dictionary, on a higher shelf. Or perhaps like most poets, Hardy was simply aware how conspicuous and exposed poetic language becomes on the page.

It sounds odd to say this of a man born in 1840, but Hardy’s poetic diction was always somewhat old-fashioned, and his delivery could on occasions, as Tom Paulin has noted, carry “the glib sonority of a young man trying to sound old and disillusioned”. It was a poetic tone he maintained across the better part of seven decades and one that he grew to fit, so by the time of his death in 1928 his quirky grammar and peculiar vocabulary seemed not so much archaic as arcane, the idiolect of an eccentric genius with a biblical eye for lesson and parable, writing in a language of which he was the last surviving speaker and to which only he was entitled. Yeats and Frost seemed modernist by comparison.

I see Hardy the poet as a kind of cottage-industry cabinet-maker, using inherited tools and time-honoured techniques, operating alone in a lean-to workshop behind the house, someone with a devotional respect for the materials he worked with and whose products were antiques the minute they left the workbench and the varnish had dried. If all that makes Hardy sound like a servant to “the perpendiculars, / straight lines, blocks, boxes, binds / of thought” as A.R. Ammons put it, and a disciple to the set-square geometries of his architectural training, it was his knack of incorporating reclaimed timbers and found materials into his designs that separated him from other craftspeople of his time. Those eccentric inclusions come in the form of words like “chancefullness” and “undecreased” and “Powerfuller”, words that warrant a ticking off from Microsoft’s spellcheck function and feel as if they belong to some provincial and uncorrupted dialect of Middle Earth. Those three examples are all taken from his first volume, Wessex Poems and Other Verses (1898), but “Unnoting” and “deedily” and the near-unpronounceable “preciencelessness” from his posthumously published collection Winter Words in Various Moods and Metres (1928) prove he was still at it right to the end. And the consistency worked in both directions, in the sense that the “Various Moods and Metres” could apply to every period of Hardy’s poetic output and all of his collections, the moods being anything from joy to misery (though more usually misery), and with Hardy always ready and willing to jump between autobiographical incidents and third-person recollections, between real-time observations and recalled anecdotes, and between personal confession and dramatic monologue or dialogue, though the voice is always recognisably his. As for the metres he worked in, they are as numerous as the physical shapes of the poems on the page, but it’s the metrical variation within the poems as much as between them that sets Hardy apart. To express this in terms of the cabinet-making metaphor, if Hardy’s symmetrical and right-angled stanzas are the solid oak drawers in a bureau or dresser, and his rhymes are the dovetails and wooden dowels and mitred corners by which the structures interlock, and his trademark indents are the decorative scrollwork and bevels, then it’s the rhythmical subtlety within the poems that represent his individuality and stop him becoming the automaton apprentice to some great master or house of design producing piece after piece of indistinguishable perfection. So even though the eye perceives something of proportion and measure in a Hardy poem, the ear recognises a more nuanced construction: rarely do the poems stride along to a repeated and regular bang of the drum from beginning to end, and where rhythms do form a sort of backbeat, careful word-choice leads to restrained and understated subversions.

Hardy correctly predicted Winter Words as “being probably my last appearance on the literary stage”, but the winter words I really want to ponder come from his previous collection Human Shows, Far Phantasies, Songs and Trifles (1925). The later volumes form a lesser-studied area of Hardy’s output, at least in comparison with the guilt-ridden poems from Satires of Circumstance (1914), occasioned by the death of his first wife, Emma Gifford, or the early pieces that have the big subjects of war, religion and politics more directly in their sights. That said, the weather in Hardy is nearly always portent and symbol and often plays a political role. After centuries of land-grabbing by the aristocratic and the elite, and given continuing fashions among the gentry for transforming heaths and wetlands into croquet lawns and boating lakes, the unpredictable and ungovernable character of the skies and seasons is a rascally and rebellious presence in the work, an irrepressible voice and one which speaks with the elemental authority of the natural world, redressing the haughty chatter of the metropolis.

Human Shows isn’t entirely seasonally ordered but the position of dozens of weather-related poems suggests the calendar as a rough template for the collection. So progress through autumn might be monitored by keeping a close eye – a weather eye, shall we say – on the leaves on the trees as they turn, then drop, then rot. In ‘Last Week in October’ a spider’s web on tenterhooks acts as an early warning system, winter’s alarm triggered by a falling leaf that dangles like a convict on a noose, “mumming in golden garb”. Another leaf, still green and innocent, shudders at such a prospect. If the personification is heavy-handed the implications are even less subtle. Death will come to all, and the loftiest and least grounded among us will have the furthest to fall. And in drawing a parallel between expiry by natural causes and a public hanging it feels as if Hardy has anticipated Yeats’s “man has created death” declaration by four or five years; as the only creature in the universe (as far as we know) to be acutely aware of our own mortality, the idea of passing away becomes a self-imposed execution, a death sentence we have handed down upon ourselves.

By ‘The Later Autumn’, two poems further in, all the leaves of the previous year have become corpses on the floor and this year’s crop are in the process of joining them. With an appetite for the worm and the maggot, the opportunist robin eyes the scene. This is Hardy the consummate ghoul, never better than when he’s mooching about in the leaf litter of human misfortune, always a willing messenger when it comes to delivering bad tidings, particularly if the message can be conveyed with a little twist of the knife, in this case by recasting the chirpy robin – the so-called ‘gardener’s friend’ and a clichéd mascot of a clichéd winter – as a vulture. By ‘Night-Time in Mid-Fall’ Hardy is in full-Gothic mode. During “a storm-strid night” the falling leaves are the very least of it: this time the roots of the trees are writhing and wrenching below ground, and in a parallel image in the second verse, those roots have become a most slimy and slippery creature. Stirred from their streams, eels wriggle out of the turbulent water, squelching under the feet and slithering around the ankles of those walking along the road in the dark. And this isn’t the time or place to address Hardy’s much-debated attitude towards religion, but that final line, “Church timbers crack, and witches ride abroad”, juxtaposing a creaking ecclesiastical structure against rampant sorcery and delivered with some relish, deserves a paragraph of response. The poet John Wain, a former professor at this lectern, said of Hardy: “He described himself as an agnostic, but he was in many ways closer to being an atheist in the high Victorian manner, combining disbelief in God with a venomous dislike of Him for not existing.” To my mind, Hardy seemed to find religion not only tolerable but a necessary part of the social fabric, especially in rural or provincial communities where its customs and traditions formed part of a benign code of living. Once in a while he also allowed himself to be beguiled and seduced by the magic of religion, as at the end of his poem ‘The Oxen’ when he acknowledges the persuasive power of the nativity story and his willingness to be drawn along by it. But at the institutional level religion attracted his distrust and disdain. His famous poem ‘In Church’, in which an egotistical clergyman is overseen reenacting a performance that thrilled his congregation, has a universal message on the theme of human vanity, but it is the theatricality of Christian worship and the hypocrisy of its doctrines and dogma which are really being lampooned. Generally speaking, Hardy seems to say that if there is a deity, which there probably isn’t, He’s not a deliberately cruel or vengeful one, but in a frozen-hearted and unresponsive universe it’s the unsuspecting and innocent – stock characters in his novels and poems – who will suffer most.

Those autumnal pieces, ‘interleaved’ can I say, through the first third of Human Shows, bring us eventually to a more intense period of cold weather, Hardy’s own Tape for the Turn of The Year sequence, a sort of poetic mini ice age in the form of six consecutive pieces numbered 701 to 706 in James Gibson’s Complete Poems (1979). I’ve discussed the poised ambiguity of the last line of one of those poems, ‘Snow in the Suburbs’, in a previous lecture; on this occasion I’m interested in the transformative effect of the snow. Following the increasingly bleak conditions and gloomy atmospheres of the preceding poems, the arrival of winter in its most austere garb might have heralded misery and despair on a whole new level, but elicits instead a considerate human-to-animal gesture, as if this pure and primary expression of nature has bestowed an unexpected tenderness on the urban environment and softened the heart of its residents. The original manuscript title suggests the poem is set in one of Hardy’s London addresses, either a neighbourhood in Upper Tooting or St David’s Villa in Hook Road, Surbiton. Either location dates the event to the late 1870s; Hardy was recently married at that time, and although the poem doesn’t necessarily belong to that body of self-recriminatory work I referred to earlier, it carries the same romanticised view of the past and an idealised sense of companionship, the homely and cosy “we” in the last line a declaration of domestic harmony, the joint decision to bring the cat in from the cold proclaiming a partnership of agreed sensitivities.

If ‘Snow in the Suburbs’ was deliberately intended as a bright beginning to the short suite of winter poems, the ‘The Frozen Greenhouse’, five poems later, is its morose counterpart, an example of frost having “a curious effect on my mind” as Hardy put it in a letter to Florence Henniker, foretelling something of a “tragic nature”. No illuminating and dazzling snow on this occasion, just a murderous frigidity that does for the plants in the conservatory one night when someone neglects to light the stove. Go through, Mr Hardy, Dr Freud will see you now. The poem recalls a conversation between Hardy and Emma Gifford during Hardy’s visit to St Juliot church. It’s a first-date poem, and the deceased plants, “iced, cold, forgot”, become conveniently ironic divinations for a love that would lose its heat, for a wife now lying cold in her grave, and for a poet binging on literary remorse, his own spousal numbness of previous years now commuted to the literal numbness of Emma’s body and mind. The last three lines show Hardy at his sharpest and some might say cruellest; the terse diction, the flat factual statements, the curt and clipped rhymes of “got” and “not”, the simultaneous display of compassion and control, and a chilling sense of the cool detachment which is both his subject and his means of enactment.

Between the contrasting bookends of ‘Snow in the Suburbs’ and ‘The Frozen Greenhouse’ lie four more winter poems equally various in their mood and metre and in their interpretation of climatic conditions. In ‘Ice on the Highway’ we encounter several women arm in arm, sliding and laughing their way along the glassy road underfoot. It’s a poem describing a glad and giddy scene – the women happy despite the weather. But read in combination with ‘The Frozen Greenhouse’ it’s a poem of distant observation, Hardy witnessing joyful sisterly companionship from the position of an excluded onlooker. Of the three other poems, two concern music and the inherited significance of music in Hardy’s life and writing. In Shakespeare, at night, in midsummer, the forest is a place of magic and enchantment. In Hardy’s ‘Winter Night in Woodland’ the darkness is populated not by star-crossed lovers and roguish fairy-folk but by hunters, gamekeepers, poachers, snarers and smugglers – shadowy figures involved in shady activities, yes – but real-life people of the countryside looking to put food on the table at a time of scarcity and hardship. However, on the stroke of midnight songs are heard, chorused by named members of the Mellstock Quire from ‘Under the Greenwood Tree’. In Hardy’s words they sing “worn carols” brought on the air “from dim distance”. It’s a distance of time as much as place, the same distance that separates the troupe of passionless and penniless fiddle players in ‘Music in a Snowy Street’ from the “heys, crotchets, quavers” and “old notes” that Hardy associates with merry-making and dancing “when life was no trial”. In both poems, music rouses in Hardy a sentimental nostalgia for the old days and the old ways. Winter is more of a backdrop or stage-set for these poems, though against its sparseness and colourlessness it feels as if the sensitivities of the poet are made keener, his nerves laid bare, his eye quick for the detail and his ear tuned to far-away noises, even to individual voices in songs being chorused by invisible members of an imaginary choir from one of his own early novels, their harmonies spanning the divide between poetry and prose.

Time is also the subject of the final poem I want to discuss, though one in which winter weather is more explicitly included and integral to its meaning. It’s difficult with Hardy, or at least I have found it difficult, to accurately date the poems, and difficult to know how contemporaneous the poems are to their originating circumstances, as with ‘Music in a Snowy Street’, published in 1925 but presumably a version of a scene he observed on 26 April 1884 and recorded in his self-ghosted ‘biography’. For that reason, I can’t say for certain if ‘A Light Snow-Fall after Frost’, despite the “Near Surbiton” postscript, is a poem of projection or of reflection, Hardy commenting on the ageing process from a position of anticipation or experience. But with personal conviction what I can say is that it is one of Hardy’s finest pieces, an exquisitely judged, enigmatically sequenced and expertly crafted conceit. If Housman struggled to recite from one of the Psalms without his voice betraying his response, I have the same problem with the first verse of ‘A Light Snow-Fall after Frost’, which reads:

On the flat road a man at last appears:
             How much his whitening hairs
Owe to the settling snow’s mute anchorage,
And how much to a life’s rough pilgrimage,
             One cannot certify.

I won’t even begin to unpack the orchestrated emotional intelligence of the diction, the syntax, the grammar, the symbolism, the cadencing, the ordering of ideas, the physicalisation on the page, the rhymes and the puns of those five magnificently composed lines – that would be an entire lecture. But to consider the poem as a whole, here we find Hardy moved and enlightened by a change in the weather; the frost, which we might read as a frosty outlook, is replaced by a soft and silent transfiguring snow, prompting an introspective response from the poet. If the first traveller on the road of life has the appearance of an older man, the fiery red beard and tree-green coat lend the second traveller a youthful vigour and vitality, though the coat is faded and the word “dye” carries an echo of its morbid homophone. The imperceptible transition from youth to old age is Hardy’s theme, and the impossible task of identifying when such a change takes place. Deftly, then, instead of trying to locate that shift in his two representative travellers or letting them bear the weight of his metaphor, Hardy turns instead to the road itself, and ends with a verse equal in craft and design to the poem’s opening.

The snow-feathers so gently swoop that though
             But half a­­n hour ago
The road was brown, and now is starkly white,
A watcher would have failed defining quite
             When it transformed it so.

There were heavy snowfalls across Britain in late December 1927 but by New Year a thaw had set in. Diffugere nives. Winter Words in Various Moods and Metres was being prepared for publication, and in the ‘Introductory Note’ Hardy had written, “So far as I am aware, I happen to be the only English poet who has brought out a new volume of his verse on his … birthday” – the number left blank, the ellipsis a ghostly omission. Hardy died on 11 January. A.R Ammons’s Tape for the Turn of the Year ends the previous day, winter outlived and outwitted once more, a new almanac begun, light and life on the horizon, “blessed hope” sounded by the darkling thrush, the poet turning outwards to the galaxies and away from “the warm knot / in the dark”. Ammons’s poem has been an act of survival and escapology, a ‘performance piece’ in fact, but one performed on and at and for and with the roll of paper, one the page will reenact for us as readers. In fact by the closing stages of Tape for the Turn of the Year it isn’t clear whether poet is conversing with page, or page with poet, and whether poet or page or reader or winter has provided the contemplative emptiness in which to think and the pristine emptiness on which to write.

I’ve given you the
interstices: the
             space between
             I’ve given you
             the dull days
when turning & turning
revealed nothing:
I’ve given you the
uninterrupted by moon,
bird, or cloud:
             I’ve given
you long
uninteresting walks
so you could experience

The poem, or the paper, ends:

  Thank you
  for coming: thank
you for coming along:

the sun’s bright:
the wind rocks the
               naked trees:
               so long:

The Poetry Review 1084 Winter 2018This is an edited version of a lecture given by Oxford Professor of Poetry Simon Armitage at Examination Schools, Oxford University, on 19 May 2018. It was first published in The Poetry Review, 108:4, Winter 2018. © The Poetry Review and the author.