Our Common Ground: an anthology of poems celebrating farming and the countryside

Published by Silverdart Price 9.99

Review by Cameron Self

Ever since the Cuckoo Song ('Summer is y-comen in') - British poets have found inspiration in the British countryside - so there are an enormous  number of poems to chose from for a anthology of this kind. When you throw into the mix (as they have done here): farming, trees, woods, birds, animals, seasons, water and the Cotswolds - then the choice becomes literally endless.

One of the main pitfalls of such an anthology is to slip into an over-romanticised view of 'England's green and pleasant land' - which the editors have successfully avoided here by mixing old and new and serious and satirical. Certainly there are old favourites by Wordsworth, Hardy, Hopkins, Housman, Clare and Edward Thomas - but these are interspersed by modern, more off beat poems which, for me, were the main focus of interest. I particularly enjoyed Soil by Roger McGough and I Saw A Jolly Hunter and On Being Asked to Write a School Hymn by Charles Causley. I was also pleased to see poems by R.S.Thomas whose portrayals of Welsh hill farming are always remarkably unsentimental. And Betjeman's wonderful parody 'We plough the fields and scatter the poison on the ground' was a brave choice for a book sponsored by the Royal Agricultural College in Cirencester.

A new anthology about the countryside should, I feel, also remind us (though we shouldn't really need reminding in the 21st century) that it's a fragile resource continually under threat from the relentless pace of human expansion - so the poem The Future of Forestry by CS Lewis (of Narnia fame) was a timely inclusion: 'How will the legend of the age of trees/ Feel, when the last tree falls in England?/When the concrete spreads and the town conquers/The country's heart; when contraceptive/ Tarmac's laid where farm has faded,/ Tramline flows where slept a hamlet,/ And shop-fronts, blazing without a stop from/ Dover to Wrath, have glazed us over?'

My main criticism of this anthology is not with the choice of poems or the tone of the book - but with the layout of the poems on the page. Call me a purist if you like, but I prefer my poetry plain and unadulterated - and certainly not with a chunk of biography sandwiched between the poem title and the first line. Take, for example, Gerald Manley Hopkins' exquisite, timeless curtal sonnet Pied Beauty  - which comes with 6 lines of blurb - nearly as long as the poem itself. Why couldn't this information have been added at the foot of the page or in a biographical section at the end of the book? For me this spoilt an otherwise varied and well chosen anthology.


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