A Name To Conjure With: Reading ‘Mercian Hymns’

When I first started reading poetry as a teenager, poets seemed to come in three flavours. There were urbane cynics who lived in the fast lane or sulked in the suburbs. There were the everyday poets who were fond of anecdotes and who wandered into kitchens, started listing things and then tried to force an epiphany over the toaster. And there were the shamans, who were more real and authentic than you could ever be, because they lived in the country and sometimes watched animals die. Reading Mercian Hymns smashed all that.

Mercian Hymns sepiaMercian Hymns showed me that there could be a poetry that was very much here, in the England where I lived, but still connected to the world of myth we carry with us. History and myth didn’t only belong to poet-spirit-guides who lived on a moor and shouted back findings on what life was really about. Mercian Hymns presented this England, where history clutters up the place annoying town planners and attracting ice-cream vans in summer. The muddle of it all, the incongruity, there were no separate tin cans marked ‘human’ and ‘natural’, ‘past’ and ‘contemporary’. There were ‘Gasholders, russet among fields’ and a eighth century King was crowned again to the proliferation of tacky gift-mugs and a bonfire in the pub car-park, where:


… the chef stood there, a king in
his new risen hat, sealing his brisk largess with
‘any mustard?’

(III, The Crowning of Offa)


Here, I saw my childhood day-dreams (the ones fuelled by watching Prince Valiant cartoons and a fascination with castles) all unapologetically, sometimes viciously, grown-up. Lyrical images of love for one’s home were contrasted with an often chilling hero, and making sense of this contradiction is at the heart of the sequence. This is a book in which historical cruelty cannot be written off as belonging to the Bad Old Days because everything is happening in one all-encompassing anachronistic moment.


                                              … he drew upon grievances from the
people; attended to signatures and retributions;
forgave the death howls of his rival…

… He swayed in sunlight, in mild dreams. He tested the
little pears. He smeared catmint on his palm for
his cat Smut to lick.

(X, Offa’s Laws)


I learned a lot from Mercian Hymns. It revealed to me ways of writing honestly about home and history which neither preached nor diminished its importance. It showed me, masterfully, how a character could be two completely different things at the same time, (not an extended metaphor but actually two things) and while I’ve done a lot more reading since I first came across this book, I still haven’t found another poet that manages this so brilliantly. I want to read Mercian Hymns with you because I’m still finding new things in it and because these thirty tiny poems, some of them just a couple of lines long, bend the world around them in a way only the greatest poetry can.

I’m leading the Poetry School reading course on Mercian Hymns this Autumn. It’s an online course costing £15 for the term.