More often than not, when a person reads a piece of poetry — or appreciates any art form, really — it is easy to focus on that work from a very singular perspective. Often, we consider what a particular poem means for ourselves, and sometimes neglect to think about who or what that poem was written for. For many artists, their craft is a means of reaching out to others, to tell stories that have not been told, but that the author feels should be. For Gillian Clarke, Lament is one of those poems, a piece that is designed to explore the stories of a great many without the voice or reach of the poem’s author, and a way for Clarke to express her own feelings towards those same stories.
A lament is not a particular style of poetry, but instead refers to an expression of grieving, or of deep sadness. While this gives the reader a clear idea of what type of poem this is, the title is purposefully vague, indicating only that there is a lament, and not what is being lamented. Most everyone can relate to a lament in some form or the other, however, so in this case, the simple title works very well, telling the reader a great deal about what they can expect, even if the actual source of grief remains unclear — who is this poem written for?
Throughout the poem, Clarke begins a great many lines with the word “for.” This repetition is used to remind the reader that the poem is not written just as a lament, but rather as one written in honour of someone or something else. Eleven of the poem’s twenty-one lines begin with the word “for,” and nine of the ten remaining lines begin with “the,” as a continuation of a previous line that began with “for.” As a theme, the idea of remembrance plays a crucial role in this piece, and is represented in this way.
Lament can be read in full at Gillian Clarke’s website.
Lament for Nature
The natural world plays a significant role throughout the poem. In the first two verses, Clarke describes a turtle and a cormorant (a diving bird with a famous appetite), both searching for their naturally fulfilling habitats. For the turtle, it is a place to lay her eggs, and for the cormorant, it is the sea, where food can be easily found. In both cases, these areas are corrupted in some way, and these passages are marked with darkly connotative terms, such as “burden,” “sickness,” “funeral,” and “shadow.” In these words, the natural world is distorted, and ruined. It is very striking for the first image in Lament to be the bringing of life into the world, and even more striking for the fact that it is built up and described as a bad thing. This suggests deeper meaning to the images and thoughts described afterwards.
Natural imagery is also prominent in the fifth, sixth, and seventh verses of the piece, surrounded in a similar darkness to the opening two. In particular, the final two verses describe a natural imbalance of catastrophic proportions; Clarke describes the sun as being veiled, and then extinguished altogether, an apocalyptic disaster. Despite this, it is framed from the perspective of the animals, particularly in birds, who migrate long and are slow in dying. The idea of migration brings to Lament the theme of running away, though it is clear that there is nowhere to run away to, as the entire Earth is falling apart, as both the sun and the seas are described in various states of turmoil. In these ways, the poem is a kind of eulogy for the natural planet, and a grim look at its darkest moments.
Lament for Humankind
Juxtaposed against the natural imagery in the poem is Clarke’s involvement of people in the struggles portrayed throughout Lament. Interestingly, there are far fewer man-made images throughout the poem than natural images, though the ones that do appear make it clear that human wars are the cause of the natural world’s devastation. By choosing to focus on lives that are innocent, and ones that do not comprehend the cause or nature of their own destruction, Clarke elicits a measure of sympathy from her audience.
The third and fourth verses focus on a number of thematically related images. First is Ahmed, who stands at a closed border, suggesting he is trying to enter a country and is being denied access. Secondly is the image of a soldier who is being burnt alive. These two ideas are a clear indicator of war, strife, or a similar struggle that sees people as enemies of each other. In the following verse, Clarke expresses sympathy for gunsmiths and armourers, the people who create devices and tools used for destructive purposes only, and then for the people who must use those devices. In particular, she describes these people as “boys,” and as “sons,” suggesting people who are in over their heads, in a conflict that doesn’t really involve them.
In the fifth verse, the natural world and the world of humans collide when a whale is rendered speechless in fear as a response to the sound of a missile detonating nearby. Similarly, the seventh verse concludes the poem with the haunting phrase, “For vengeance, and the ashes of language.” This is perhaps the most complex idea of the poem, which suggests metaphorically that language has been destroyed, and that vengeance is the concept that has replaced it in human societies. “The ashes of language” is a striking image, one that essentially describes the absolute destruction of human society — how would any kind of culture exist without language? In the midst of the natural world being destroyed by warfare, the world of humans, of culture, language, and countless unique societies, has also been lost.
Lament for War
On her website, Gillian Clarke explains that this poem is the result of a collection of images and media stories surrounding the Gulf War. The approach the work takes to the task makes it sound as though the entire world is being slowly destroyed by the conflict, and in a sense, it may well be. War is not necessarily a contained concept, particularly in the modern sense, and its effects and influences can be far-reaching and devastating. Clarke’s Lament is written for everything that is touched by war, because war ruins anything it touches in some way, shape, or form. This is an important theme to consider in a world where wars and conflicts are an unfortunately common occurrence, but also where a great many people are able to speak out against it and see for themselves its devastating effects, even from across the world.