I have been waiting for a long time to post this poem. There are two reasons for the delay; for one, the subject matter made it inappropriate to post in the height of summer when I started the blog. The second is more interesting.
When, at the age of 17, I belatedly became interested in poetry, having opted for a maths/science only education in the sixth form, three wonderful anthologies provided the backbone of my poetic self-education. These were the Chatto Book of Modern Poetry (1956), the Penguin Contemporary Verse (1963), and the Faber Book of Modern Verse (1965). I still have all three. This latter contained two wonderful poems by Stephen Spender. One of them will be posted here soon; the other is today’s choice. It was called “The North”, and was ostensibly about a trip to the pole and subsequent return to civilisation. (I don’t know whether Spender actually did such a thing or was just imagining how it would be).
I noticed that there was what appeared to be an earlier draft of this poem, entitled “Polar Exploration”, in the earlier Chatto anthology. Compared to this version, “The North” had clearly been sharpened up; the language (including the title) had become starker, leaner; more in keeping with an extreme climate. For instance, the weak “compass needles” had become “compass iron”; the gorgeous line “A speaking clearness through cloudy paranoia” had been crafted from the original “A clear voice speak with words like drawing”.
Imagine my surprise, then, when, in the Collected Poems that came out in 1985, the poem had reverted to its original title and its hard, flint-like edges had become rounded once more. “Compass iron” was gone again, along with the whole of the line before it. “A glittering simpleton” had become “A glittering folly”. The “speaking clearness” had clouded over, becoming “A voice speak through white rifts”.
Apparently Spender was given to doing this sort of thing. I found a blog by Jonathan Wonham in which he gives several instances of this, and opines that “I tend to think that when a poem is published, it no longer belongs to the poet and is no longer his/hers to tamper with”. Quite.
The extra delay has been caused by the fact that, of course, if you google the poem you get “Polar Exploration” and so I had to type it all out!
Anyway, see what you think.
Our single purpose was to walk through snow
With faces swung to their prodigious North
Like compass iron. As clerks in whited Banks
With bird-claw pens column virgin paper
To snow we added footprints.
Extensive whiteness drowned
All sense of space. We tramped through
Static, glaring days, Time’s suspended blank.
That was in Spring and Autumn. Then Summer struck
Water over rocks, and half the world
Became a ship with a deep keel, the booming floes
And icebergs with their little birds.
Twittering Snow Bunting, Greenland Wheatear
Red throated Divers; imagine butterflies
Sulphurous cloudy yellow; glory of bees
That suck from saxifrage; crowberry,
Bilberry, cranberry, Pyrola Uniflora.
There followed winter in a frozen hut
Warm enough at the kernel, but dare to sleep
With head against the wall – ice gummed my hair.
Hate Culver’s loud breathing, despise Freeman’s
Fidget for washing; love only the dogs
That whine for scraps and scratch. Notice
How they run better (on short journeys) with a bitch.
In that, different from us.
Return, return, you warn. We do. There is
A network of railways, money, words, words, words.
Meals, papers, exchanges, debates,
Cinema, wireless; the worst is Marriage.
We cannot sleep. At night we watch
A speaking clearness through cloudy paranoia.
These questions are white rifts. Was
Ice our anger transformed? The raw, the motionless
Skies, were these the spirit’s hunger?
The continual and hypnotized march through snow
The dropping nights of precious extinction, were these
Only the wide invention of the will,
The frozen will’s evasion? If this exists
In us as madnes here, as coldness
In these summer, civilized sheets; is the North
Over there, a tangible real madness
A glittering simpleton, one without towns
Only with bears and fish, a staring eye,
A new and singular sex?