Malcolm Guite: Poet’s Corner

31 May 2019

Malcolm Guite takes his sailing canoe, Willow, back on the water, among the birds

MY LITTLE sailing canoe, Willow, is back on the water, but this time I’m keeping her on the river Cam near Waterbeach. It’s a very quiet part of the river, at least on weekdays, and once I’ve slipped out in Willow and worked my way up the stretch towards Bottisham Lock, then it’s just me and the wonderful array of bird life which haunts this lower edge of fenland.

Over the last weeks, I have watched a family of coots: the proud mother, in her distinct black coat with its white beak and shield, out with her chicks, still in their orange fluff, but growing more confident in the water week by week. When I see her, I’m inevitably taken to my childhood memories of reading Arthur Ransom’s Coot Club and the children’s heroic adventures to defend the coot’s nest from the “hullabaloos” in their motorboat, and keep mother and chick together.

Leaving the coot’s appealingly untidy nest, and tacking over to the other side, I came close to a more magnificent swan’s nest, with brooding swan in place, and veered away again, so as not to disturb her. This new tack brought me into the path of a great crested grebe, it’s perky crest feathers giving it the debonaire feel, the studied disorder, of a young punk showing off a new tufty haircut.

I’m sure it’s very unscientific, but it’s difficult not to see distinct personalities in the distinct appearances of different birds. To give the perfect end to my morning’s sail, I heard, clear from the cluster of trees beyond the towpath, distinct on that late May morning, my first cuckoo.

How was I so fortunate to have seen and heard so many lovely birds on one brief sail? Well, of course, the fact that I was sailing helped: it was a still, quiet morning, and there was no noise or smell of an engine to disturb the wildlife.

And, in slender little Willow, I was low in the water, almost under eye level with the swans, and just at the right level to glimpse the nests, and sense the scurry of the coot chicks amongst the reeds, as I got close to each bank.

And the fact that I was sailing came into that, too. The wind tends to blow up or down the course of the river, which means that while you might have a glorious run before the wind in one direction, you will have to tack against it in the other, so that you’ve no sooner set your sail on one tack than you’re into almost bumping into the bank, and have to go about and tack to the other bank, and so on, zig-zagging slowly up the river.

Of course, there are more efficient ways to travel, but I was here to escape the tyranny of the efficient, to find in self-imposed constraint a series of new serendipities.

In that way, sailing is a little like verse-making, perhaps a little like liturgy: I sail my craft up the current of language, tacking back and forth, in iambic pentameters, the five-stress line, and, as each line nears its limit, I approach the bank of my verse and veer around, for another five-beat stretch.

But, just as tacking up this little narrow stretch of the Cam brought me close to the coots, and the swans and the grebe, so, too, the self-chosen constraint of my verse form sometimes reveals little beauties that the plain and efficient motorboat of prose might miss.

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