The good thing about
reading of a book like this one - the sub-title is Poems 1965-2005 - is that you really get the chance to see what a
poet is about. I’d read a number of Hooker’s poems before, and had vaguely
pigeonholed him as someone with a finely developed sense of place. Now I have
to revise that slightly - reading this has convinced me that this sense is a
great deal more than well developed. Indeed there is an almost pagan quality
about it in the affinity with the Earth that he demonstrates on almost every
I suppose I should have qualified what I said at the beginning: the
experience is only worthwhile if the poet is. These poems show Hooker has
been from the first decade of his writing. Take these lines from ‘Strata
And not a pinch of blood remains
herb robert grips the corpse-grey stones
That even tender
hart’s-tongue ferns have pierced.
I watch a
wagtail’s pulsing throat;
in the sacristy.
much sky. One arch alone survives.
The ‘blood’ is that of Dafydd ap Gwilym, the fourteenth century Welsh poet.
This is his traditional resting place, along with that of some of the Welsh
Princes. The remains of the Abbey are in a remote location, windswept from
the nearby Cambrian Mountains, and it is easy to understand how they
entranced him. It is also easy to see why he returned to them poetically (and
no doubt physically) in later decades.
Although Hooker is a Southern Englishman, Wales is clearly important to him
and his writing. He has spent important periods of his life in the country
and is currently Professor of English at the University of Glamorgan. Yet he
should not be thought of merely as an incomer who has been inspired by the
landscapes. One of my favourite sequences is from the 1974 collection, Soliloquies
of a Chalk Giant. This is a
celebration of the priapic Cerne Abbas Giant carved in the land nearer to his
birthplace. ‘The Giant’s Boast’ is that ‘I was before Christ, and I remember
/ The saurian head of my begetter’ and this poem ends with the memorable
Who called me
brutal, and no woman
Who called me
daughters worshipped me.
with my body
A more recent (1997) collection that I found intriguing in a different way, Our
Lady of Europe, takes him firstly to
the Netherlands. Two stanzas from ‘Noordpolderzijl’ are superb in the way
they capture the essence of the empty flatlands clawed from the sea. Stanza
A sluice, a
but the place
feels like the end
to sail from,
over the rim.
And then a later one tells us of the family who are the keepers of the
a deep, slow
that ebbs and
sea to land,
and the land
‘Verdun’ from the same collection, finds Hooker in more sombre mood. This is
hardly surprising, and most poets would become ‘poets of place’ when
confronted by these ugly scars of war. The middle stanzas of this one read:
On a bluff a
an iron mask
with two eye-holes,
looks down on
remains of a gun,
The mask that
the face. It overlooks
harebells and young pines.
spiritual matters new ideas
The difference between his earlier and his later poems is hardly one of
quality, but rather that the later ones are likelier to have more severe undertones.
This is not to imply in any way that he has failed to develop his poetry -
the later poems certainly show more readiness to tackle difficult questions -
but says much for the merit of his early work.
Sadly, many poets seem to equate obscurity with profundity. Not this one. You
have to admire the crystal clarity of his writing whether you like his poems
or not. I am in no doubt as to which camp I belong.