It’s National Poetry Day and the theme this year is The Environment. To celebrate, we asked poet Claire Booker about her relationship with the natural world, and the way she represents it in her new collection, A Pocketful of Chalk:
I can’t remember a time when I wasn’t in awe of the natural world: its endlessly creative
hutzpah; the refreshing disinterest it has in our little human concerns.
A Pocketful of Chalk came together from what I could see was a build-up of poems
connected to natural phenomena. By nature I also include the dream world, which arises
from our inner natures. Dreams are forces inside us which we ignore at our peril, just
like the forces outside us.
Five years ago I moved to the village of Rottingdean just outside Brighton in East
Sussex. I’d spent three decades living and working in south London, which is
particularly blessed with woodland and open spaces. Urban nature is a force for change,
because it offers millions of people a relationship with the wild which they wouldn’t
otherwise have. By virtue of its fragile hold within the city, urban nature is also a potent
symbol of what we’re losing.
Moving to a rural, farming area, placed me right in the middle of wildness (it can get
pretty wooly up there on the Downs if a storm’s coming!). But even this wildness is
under threat. During this year’s drought, the wheat fields were scorched, newly planted
woodland saplings dropped their leaves, there were tiny, misshapen black berries. Then
the rains came in biblical proportions, and top soil was lost.
As humans, we’re in a unique position. We’re part of nature, but also the enemy outside
So what, as a poet, can I do about this? Very little, in reality, but even that little is worth
going for. Poetry can take you to the heart-beat of emotion. It can remind people of
what they’ve lost, or fear losing, or want to fight for. Above all, poetry offers quiet
contemplation, an enrichment of understanding – questions that could do with answers,
answers that need questioning.
The environment is us, it’s our relationship with each other, made manifest. We live in a
rushed, frenetic, some might say, frantic world. Poetry can help us draw breath, stop,
consider, appreciate. I find that by simply walking along the sea front, or up on the
Downs, the world starts to unravel a little. I get to see the same places over and over
again. But of course, they’ve never the same place more than once. And when I feel a
poem start to pupate, I pick up my pen. Learning about the planet, is learning about
So in A Pocketful of Chalk, there are poems about evening shadows on the Downs, and
how we can be stretched by light. There’s a poem about drought and how the loss of
plants is like losing children. There’s a young child who is impatient with her little
radish patch, but then flings herself onto the soil to listen to the seedlings grow. There
are poems that are fantastical, apocalyptic, about a drowned world, and others that look
at rain as a flow of emotions. Some of the poems are persona poems where I imagine
what it’s like to be a wild creature. I find it fascinating to try and enter a world without human parameters. After all, the best poetry leaves ego behind, and that’s always worth
At times, in the face of the night sky, or mesmerised by a murmuration of starlings,
even the idea of writing can seems absurd. The very first poem in the collection,
ironically, is about just that. When you’ve seen the “the impossible exactness” of a
Marbled White butterfly, words can seem a pointless add-on. As Ted Hughes wrote in
Poetry in the Making: “It is not enough to say the crow flies purposefully, or heavily, or
rowingly, or whatever. There are no words to capture the infinite depth of crowiness in
the crow’s flight.”
So that’s the challenge. To be part of nature, yet at the same time its observer and
protector. Poems live as much between the lines as in them – surely an ideal medium for
expressing such a paradox?
Not crows, but herons… watch Claire Booker reading Grey Heron at the launch of A Pocketful of Chalk: