Friday, September 10, 2010
11. What similarities and differences do you perceive between animals in Layton’s poems (“The Bull Calf”… “A Tall Man Executes a Jig”… “Cat Dying in Autumn”… and in the poems of, say, Rilke (“The Panther”), D.H. Lawrence (“The Snake”), Elizabeth Bishop (“The Fish”), Margaret Atwood (“The Animals in that Country”), or Michael Ondaatje (“Loop”)?
“The Bull Calf", as many will know, was one of Layton’s earliest poems and sufficiently well regarded to find its way into A.J.M. Smith’s The Oxford Book of Canadian Verse, which is where I first encountered it. Now normally, I wouldn’t have found the citation of a famous poem in a teacherly forum particularly remarkable, but for the fact that I recently did something similar to the writer of Question 11; that is, I found myself comparing Layton’s calf poem with another poem about a calf, this one by Ted Hughes contained in Moortown Diaries (Faber and Faber, 1979) entitled “Struggle.” Yes, I know it’s not always fair or judicious to make comparisons, especially when our favourite poets are involved. But how a celebrated Canadian poem by a celebrated Canadian poet stands up against a lesser known poem by a more celebrated poet, frankly, was too much to resist.
Do I have an opinion about which poem is the better poem? Sure. In sum, the difference between the two is the difference between telling and showing, between declamation and revelation - and more besides. But perhaps you can guess.
Layton’s poem is first, immediately followed by the Hughes’ poem:
The Bull Calf
The thing could barely stand. Yet taken
from his mother and the barn smells
he still impressed with his pride,
with the promise of sovereignty in the way
his head moved to take us in.
The fierce sunlight tugging the maize from the ground
licked at his shapely flanks.
He was too young for all that pride.
I thought of the deposed Richard II.
“No money in bull calves,” Freeman had said.
The visiting clergyman rubbed the nostrils
now snuffing pathetically at the windless day.
“A pity,” he sighed.
My gaze slipped off his hat toward the empty sky
that circled over the black knot of men,
over us and the calf waiting for the first blow.
the bull calf drew in his thin forelegs
as if gathering strength for a mad rush .
tottered… raised his darkening eyes to us,
and I saw we were at the far end
of his frightened look, growing smaller and smaller
till we were only the ponderous mallet
that flicked his bleeding ear
and pushed him over on his side, stiffly,
like a block of wood.
Below the hill’s crest
the river snuffled on the improvised beach.
We dug a deep pit and threw the dead calf into it.
It made a wet sound, a sepulchral gurgle,
as the warm sides bulged and flattened.
Settled, the bull calf lay as if asleep,
one foreleg over the other,
bereft of pride and so beautiful now,
without movement, perfectly still in the cool pit,
I turned away and wept.
by Irving Layton
We had been expecting her to calve
And there she was, just after dawn, down.
Private, behind bushed hedge-cuttings, in a low rough
The walk towards her was like a walk into danger.
Caught by her first calf, the small-boned black and
Having a bad time. She lifted her head,
She reached for us with a wild, flinging look
And flopped flat again. There was the calf,
White-faced, lion-coloured, enormous, trapped
Round the waist by his mother’s purpled elastic
His heavy long forelegs limply bent in a not-yet-
His head curving up and back, pushing for the udder
Which had not yet appeared, his nose scratched and
By an ill-placed clump of bitten off rushes,
His fur dried as if he had been
Half-born for hours, as he probably had.
Then we heaved on his forelegs,
And on his neck, and the half-born he mooed
Protesting about everything. Then bending him down,
Between her legs, and sliding a hand
into the hot tunnel, trying to ease
His sharp hip-bones past her pelvis,
Then twisting him down, so you expected
His spine to slip its sockets,
And one hauling his legs, and one embracing his wet
Like pulling somebody anyhow from a bog,
And one with hands easing his hips past the corners
Of his tunnel mother, till something gave.
The cow flung her head and lifted her upper hind leg
With every heave, and something gave
Almost a click –
And his scrubbed wet enormous flanks came sliding
Coloured ready for the light his incredibly long hind
From the loose red flapping sack-mouth
Followed by a gush of colours, a mess
Of puddled tissues and jellies.
He mooed feebly and lay like a pieta Christ
In the cold easterly daylight. We dragged him
Under his mother’s nose, her stretched-out exhausted
So she could get to know him with lickings.
They lay face to face like two mortally wounded
We stood back, letting the strength flow towards
We gave her a drink, we gave her hay. The calf
Started his convalescence
From the grueling journey. All day he lay
Overpowered by limpness and weight.
We poured his mother’s milk into him
But he had not strength to swallow.
He made a few clumsy throat gulps, then lay
Mastering just breathing.
We took him inside. We tucked him up
In front of a stove, and tried to pour
Warm milk and whisky down his throat and not into
But his eye just lay suffering the monstrous weight of
The impossible job of his marvelous huge limbs.
He could not make it. He died called Struggle.
Son of Patience.
by Ted Hughes
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