‘Heron at Port Talbot’ is a free verse poem, that seeks to relay a message about humankind’s relationship with the natural world. The poem contains seven stanzas, each of which has four lines. Each line is fairly similar in length to the rest. The meter of the poem varies throughout but Clarke seems to favor eight, nine, and ten-syllable lines. Only a few of the lines of this poem contain less than eight syllables or more than ten.
She is seeking to remind the reader of the worlds that we have created for ourselves, by alienating the one we were born into. The speaker and main character of this poem begins by describing the landscape through which she/he is driving. The speaker has a close call as she/he almost collides with a heron, an incident that affects her deeply. Clarke devotes much of the poem to create a contrast between nature and the town that is within it and then reminding the reader how we come from nature and are a part of it.
You can read the full poem here.
Analysis of Heron at Port Talbot
Clarke begins this poem by painting a picture of an old industrial town, layered by falling snow. It is landing on the “cooling towers,” and “settling on cranes.” This is a calming and picturesque image. One can easily imagine the effect of such a sight. Even the rusting machinery that is described in the next two lines, has a beauty to it. The machines are said to have bones that are whitening because of the snow, the machinery is old, and Clarke describes death as settling within it. Nature seems to be overcoming the industry in this specific stanza.
Clarke uses very specific language in this poem to draw a comparison between industry and nature. The machinery is said to have “bones” and even the description of cranes brings to mind both construction equipment and the type of bird. Also, the machinery is said to erode, as the earth does. All of these usages are only within the first stanza, many more will surface as the poem continues. Knowing they are there makes them easier to spot.
The second stanza of ‘Heron at Port Talbot’ describes the danger that the speaker is in driving in these conditions (once again nature seems to be in control). The motorway runs near to the water, where the wind will be blowing the strongest. The speaker describes her/his hands as tightening on the wheel, fighting against the “white steel” of the wind. In this instance, Clarke has reversed her previous word usage and used an industrial word to describe something natural, the wind. The reader can directly relate the word “steel” to the old machinery and cityscape described in the first stanza.
My hands tighten on the wheel against
the white steel of the wind.
The third stanza is where the action begins and the speaker is already in the middle of her/his close collision with the heron.
Then we almost touch, both braking flight,
The “we” that the speaker is referring to is both her/himself and the heron. The speaker and the heron both react by braking their “flight.” While it is usual to describe a heron as flying, it is abnormal in everyday speech to refer to a car this way, this is one more of Clarke’s specific word usages meant to draw attention to the connection between the human world and the natural world. They both “bank” through the air, and experience what Clarke describes as,
…that shocking / intimacy of near-collision,
They are in this together and are both surprised by how close they come. They cross one another, like animal tracks in the snow. The animals aren’t there at the same time, but they are close, as the speaker is to the heron.
In the fourth stanza of ‘Heron at Port Talbot’, Clarke describes in detail what the speaker saw during this close encounter. The speaker sees his “living eye, his change of mind.” This phrase has a double meaning, while she physically does see his eye, and the change in his mind as he swerves, as she does, to avoid one another, he/she also sees deeper. The speaker is also understanding that life is within the heron, she/he is seeing him as a living, thriving conscious creature living on the earth. Just as she is. The “change of mind” line is even more important here, the speaker is registering and realizing that this creature has a conscious mind with which he is making decisions that change his life.
The speaker feels a physical effect from the pressure of their mutual banking and
the force / of his beauty.
These two phrases really portray how impactful this encounter was on the speaker, how deeply it viscerally shocked her/him. The speaker also becomes aware of something that is often taken for granted in modern society, that she/he could have died. That the possibility of death is always looming over all creatures at all times. The speaker is reminded of this fact in tandem with her realization of the beauty and force of this creature, making the whole encounter a perfect summary of nature crashing with industry.
Fifth, Sixth, and Seventh Stanza
The next three stanzas take the reader slightly away from the climax of the poem and give an introspective summary of what happened to the speaker and the heron. It is important in this section of the poem to understand that this was a meaningful moment in the life of the heron as well. He is representative of the larger natural world, and the speaker, the industry that continues to invade it.
The description that is provided of the city is solemn, the sulfur from the billows of the “steel town..” fills the sky like “dirty washing.” It is stained with
steely inks and fires…
Chemicals are rusting and polluting the ground beneath the snow, making it closer to sand than grass. This sad picture of the state of the city and surrounding areas is contrasted with the image of the heron in the next stanza.
The heron comes as an “archangel” from heaven, a “surveyor,” that is flying within the limits of the city; trying to remember and “re-open” the roads that he used to fly before. He is learning the new spaces of the town that are far from the mountains where, the reader may assume, he is able to live.
The last stanza continues the thought from the one before. The heron has come in an attempt to reclaim some of the land he lost and meets with the speaker at an intersection. Clarke uses imagery to give the reader the impression that this meeting is important and dramatic. The wind is described as blowing intensely, flashing off of the water, and throwing snow into the air. This movement of water and snow being broken by the wind is followed by that of the rhythms of the speaker’s and the heron’s blood being interrupted by one another. We only know from the speaker’s perspective, but perhaps they have both been changed by this encounter.
About Gillian Clarke
Gillian Clarke was born in 1937 in Cardiff, Whales. She attended Cardiff University and then went to work with the BBC in London. Later, after returning to Wales, she would help found the Ty Newydd writer’s center in North Whales and work as an English teacher and creative writing tutor. She has published a number of collections for both adults and children and has won the Glyndŵr Award for an “Outstanding Contribution to the Arts in Wales.”