Penelope Shuttle’s Ark poem arrived like The Flood

Noah and his family come out of the ark by Jan Luyken, 1698.
Noah and his family come out of the ark by Jan Luyken, 1698.

How strange is our world. As I begin to write this piece, BBC Radio 3 plays me ‘Captain Noah and His Floating Zoo’, a cheerful choral work composed by Joseph Horovitz.

My poem, ‘Noah’s Notes (Preliminary)’, imagines Noah on duty by the Ark’s door as the animals enter. He makes notes about each of the creatures. His notes are preliminary, however. How much more time will he spend, I wonder, studying (like a biblical David Attenborough) the lifestyle of the creatures penned in the Ark as it sails along the flood?

I’m a secular person but of a generation that learned bible stories at school. The magic and richness of these stories has stayed with me as mythology, not theology. I was pleased to find old Noah step into my poem. I see him as played by John Houston. Many animal qualities in the poem are invented, but some are adapted from old bestiaries and a scurry around world mythologies. I am indebted to poet Alyson Hallett for information about the hyena.

Over the past eighteen months I have been reading various poems translated from the Anglo-Saxon, and pootling about through some Old English poems and tracts. I found several long-forgotten Old English dictionaries belonging to my late husband Peter Redgrove. I studied these in a barefoot kind of way. Some of that strange and mysterious vocabulary has found its way into recent poems. A wish to write about animals sprang from a reading of the Chester Mystery Play of Noah and The Deluge.

Noah never ceases
(that night he begins)
Ere all were stowed and enclosed,
as the command required.

‘Noah’s Notes’ began as a handwritten draft, using couplets and longish lines. And this form didn’t change (though a poem’s form often does change as I re-write). When I’d typed up my first version I began adding creature after creature, writing directly on to the screen. Sometimes a poem must be hunted down and/or coaxed into being, but this poem arrived in a rush, as if eager to be made. Poets will know the rare exhilaration of this.

After that second draft, I made several handwritten emendations to the printout, showed the poem to a couple of poet-friends, made further adjustments, and et voilà (or its equivalent in Aramaic) the Noah poem arrived at the place where it is now.

‘Noah’s Notes (Preliminary)’ by Penelope Shuttle is published in the winter 2016 issue of The Poetry Review, Vol. 106, No. 4.