Jon Silkin Essay - Critical Essays


A third or more of Jon Silkin’s approximately 350 poems deal with or touch on the subject of the natural world and humanity’s relation with it, through concord, discord, or symbolic parallels. Animals, such as the persecuted fox of Silkin’s antihunting poems, or various caged or free birds; insects, such as the bees, butterflies, moths, ants, and flies, with their interesting symbolism applicable to nature and humanity; plants, such as the various flowers of Silkin’s distinctive flower poems; and inanimate nature, especially stones, river, sea, sky, and stars—all pervade Silkin’s poetry both as subjects and repositories of imagery and symbolism. The poems most often anthologized have been selections from the fifteen flower poems (so named by Silkin himself) in Nature with Man: “A Bluebell,” “Crowfoot (in Water),” “A Daisy,” “Dandelion,” “Goat’s Beard and Daisy,” “Harebell,” “Iris,” “Lilies of the Valley,” “Milkmaids (Lady’s Smock),” “Moss,” “Peonies,” “Small Celandine,” “The Strawberry Plant,” “The Violet,” and “White Geranium.” As Silkin himself explains in “Note on ’Flower’ Poems” in Nature with Man, the flowers are either wild or cultivated, suggesting certain relationships with humanity, and the garden is “a kind of human bestiary, containing in the several plants earlier developed and anticipatory examples of human types and situations.” Silkin goes on in his note to discuss almost every flower poem, explaining for example that “’Dandelion’ . . . sees its subject as a seizer of space, and asks for political parallels to be made,” including the idea of “nature being a ’preying upon.’” While Silkin’s analyses of his own flower poems are perceptive (not always true of writers about their own work), they are not exhaustive: for example, lurking in the background of “Dandelion” is the etymology of the flower’s name, from “lion’s tooth.”

As meritorious as these flower poems but not as well known are the ones from Silkin’s later books: “Snow Drop” (from Poems, New and Selected), which suggests the paradoxes of a flower having insect-like qualities and appearing in sunshine, despite its name; “Ajuga” (from The Ship’s Pasture), which explores the flower’s intercontinental intermixture, the paradox of a mineral appearance of a plant, and the powerful psychological effects on the viewer; and “Inside the Gentian” (from The Lens-Breakers), which examines the flower’s combination of visual art, mystery, magic, violence, and communicativeness.

Human relationships

A third or more of Silkin’s poems deal with romantic love, including marriage and the parent-child relationship, and an even larger proportion of his poems deal with all the varied relationships between human beings individually and in groups, societies, or nations. Romantic love, frequently with marriage implied, is celebrated in physical terms, sometimes quite sexually explicit, in poems such as “Community” and “Processes” (both from Nature with Man); “Opened” and “Our Selves” (both from Amana Grass); “Untitled Poem: ’The Perfume on Your Body’” (from The Little Time-Keeper); “Acids,” “Going On,” and “Water” (all from The Psalms with Their Spoils); “Given a Flower” and “The Lamps of Home” (both from The Ship’s Pasture); and “Beings,” “The Hand’s Black Hymns,” “Juniper and Forgiveness,” and “Psalmists” (all from The Lens-Breakers). Such love may sometimes emphasize a triumph of life over death, or reach to the spiritual beyond the physical, an issue that is recurrent in Silkin’s poetry, as are the words “flesh,” “mind,” and “spirit.” Such physical love gone wrong is shown in one of Silkin’s poetic sequences, “Poems Concerning Salome and Herod” (from The Ship’s Pasture). Another difficult issue in romantic love includes separation, as in “Absence and Light” and “A Hand” (both from The Ship’s Pasture) and “A Psalm Concerning Absence” (from The Lens-Breakers). Recurrent words in Silkin’s poetry are “absence” and “space,” which refer to lovers’ separation as well as death. Also problematic in love may be constancy or fidelity, as in “Fidelities”...

(The entire section is 1799 words.)