Living things made rich & strange: two tree poems by an early eco-poet Arthur Sale

Rickard, Robert Ernest (2023) Living things made rich & strange: two tree poems by an early eco-poet Arthur Sale. Masters thesis, University of East Anglia.

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A small sample of Arthur Sale’s poems, drafts and letters, analysed here for the first time, begins to reveal an original – possibly remarkable? – English nature poet. He spent a largely uneventful life (1912-2000) developing his own verse and form, writing and re-writing hundreds of carefully-worked poems. From at least 1970, Sale devoted considerable time towards an articulation of the nature of, as he termed it, ‘the living things I had always taken for granted’. The poems focussed on here have turned out to contain strong elements of late-twentieth-century eco-poetic thinking about nature; expressed in an idiosyncratic style, that combines a complex of Modernist and seventeenth-century verse techniques.

This preliminary study has begun to uncover the extent of Sale’s interest in the complex mechanisms of ‘nature’ (using Raymond Williams’s second definition of an omniscient system that subsumes humans); and specific characteristics of a highly-wrought poetic language he developed to express that complexity. It concentrates on two late tree poems: about a garden Cypress and a Silver Birch: their drafts, and other, comparable poems. It seeks to explain their riddles, content and genesis (with specific reference to Van Hulle’s theoretical work on drafting), in order to show how Sale observes, then refines, a depiction of the astounding behaviour of trees and the creatures living off them: the nature – and sheer bizarreness – of their self-contained interactions. It assesses them in relation to the vanguard of a loosely-defined movement now known as ‘Eco-poetry’; and their distinctiveness in technique from other contemporary, as well as much older verse.

Intricate ecologies composed of complex, energetic yet effortlessly-organised, animal and plant forms – are described in appropriately-complex conceits, soundscapes, and typographies. Prolix imagery magnifies surreal implications Sale perceives in wildlife we take almost entirely for granted – yet often do not see, let alone comprehend. Virtuosic displays of Tits feeding on a Birch, Starlings living in a Cypress, Blackbirds tunnelling through Honeysuckle, are captured in wild, comic conceits, intensified by intricate and subtle sound effects. Sale particularly employs idiosyncratic layouts: graded spacings between words and phrases undressed in unpunctuated blank verse, the purpose of which is to suggest connections beyond strict prose- or sentence-sense. The poems are mimetically playful in tone; both conceit and soundscape turn them into embodiments of natural forces operating on their own terms – with seeming disregard for humans. There are elongated sentence-cadences, and verbal flourishes. Sale’s mimetic and prosodic approaches attempt to celebrate, in extravagant detail, ecosystems as inexplicably anarchic in their functions, as they are spontaneous, totally self-regulating, as well as ugly – and beautiful.

Pending fuller treatment of Sale’s other hundred-plus nature poems, these two tree poems appear to bear strong affiliation with emerging late-twentieth-century Anglo-American ‘eco-critical’ philosophies of nature: as essentially non-anthropocentric. They may be early examples of a sub-branch of eco-criticism: ‘Eco-poetry’ – for example bearing strong resemblance in subject (if only passing parallels in form) to later poets such as Mary Oliver, Mark Goodwin, Andrew Crozier, Drew Milne – among others.

However, Sale’s late tree poems combine such characteristics in a panoply of extravagant techniques, to form an ‘un-homogenous’ poetic language, far removed from that of other contemporaries. Helen Vendler, in the only previous assessment of his poetry, also observed that it ‘rewards persistence’: in their eclectic form and style, they are essentially ‘celebratory’.

Professionally, Sale ploughed his own furrow: poetically inventive, he worked mostly alone (despite remarkable literary connections). Over decades, he developed his subject: nature; and seems to have been developing a distinctive poetic language to express its anarchic majesty. He came to advocate ‘swift, tranced reading’, to allow both imagery and expression to bring the poem’s subjects – fully – alive in the imagination; for the reader not to stumble or dwell over-literally on conceits and wording. In style and form, they seem to raid the poetics of diverse traditions: seventeenth century, and Modernist (rather, for example, than anything remotely Postmodern). Sale seeks, in his own words, to make something of ‘small & undistinguished & undistinctive…living things…that is… rich as well as strange’.

The study is divided into four chapters, with two Appendices and a Bibliography.

The first briefly contextualises Sale’s life, the periods through which he wrote, and principal influences on the formal development of the verse. Early poems are influenced by T. S. Eliot (with whom, it emerges, he briefly corresponded before the Second World War). War-time poems express the dilemma of the Conscientious Objector, underscoring an independent streak that later led him on a mostly solitary, but self-sustained, poetic journey. His verse becomes something composed entirely for its own sake, with considerable care through many drafts; without thought of publication. Despite working in Cambridge for sixty years alongside well-known academics, writers and friends – such as F.R. & Q.D. Leavis, I.A. Richards, Wilfred Stone et al - his verse seems ‘immunised’ from local influences. The chapter ends with a note on late professional recognition of Sale’s verse, by Helen Vendler, Harvard Professor of Poetry.

The middle two chapters use a range of formally-appropriate techniques to help comprehend Sale’s theme and poetic, in two late tree poems: ‘“Three Uses of Cupressus Macrocarpa”’ (on birds and mammals living in a garden Cypress tree); and ‘Birch Hats’ (about a Silver Birch being fed on by small birds). The procedure adopted includes first readings to help gain footholds in Sale’s complex – but precise – ideas and expression; genetic critiques (using Van Hulle’s endogenetic model) of Sale’s deliberately-preserved Archive drafts; and Practical Criticism exercises relating the poems to those of contemporaries, in order
to isolate distinctive aspects of subject and form.

The final chapter undertakes more detailed comparative analyses, assessing the poems in relation to older poets Sale admired – and makes an unexpected discovery: the poetry as both seventeenth century (dense, prolix in imagery, blank versed, lyrical, neologistic etc.); but also broadly Modernist. Synoptic definitions of the main formal verse techniques is offered.

Appendix 1 contains extracts from Sale’s extensive correspondence that defend his theories of poetry, as well as his emerging sense of nature as anarchic, yet omniscient. Appendix 2 offers suggestions for further research, including exploration of Sale’s (early) relationship to the ‘Eco-poetry movement’, and the nature of the metaphorical and prosodic development: including via Anglo-Saxon, Shakespearian, and Modernist verse forms. There is a Bibliography of Sale’s writings, works about Sale – as well as those used for the whole study. The findings relate to three out-of-print poetry collections – two privately arranged by pupils; letters; obituaries/appreciations; and interviews undertaken with surviving relatives and friends. Unique access to a comprehensive Archive of poetry drafts gifted me by Sale’s widow in 2004 has enabled detailed analysis of the creative processes adopted as each poem gestated – over years, or decades.

Item Type: Thesis (Masters)
Faculty \ School: Faculty of Arts and Humanities > School of Art, Media and American Studies
Depositing User: Nicola Veasy
Date Deposited: 29 Jan 2024 09:08
Last Modified: 29 Jan 2024 09:08

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