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A plague on all these houses



It's a great poem, Lowell's For the Union Dead.
I only recently came across it - at least, that's what I thought - but it's been grunting (I choose the word advisedly) away in my head ever since, especially that fourth verse.

Behind their cage,
yellow dinosaur steam shovels were grunting
as they cropped up tone of mush and grass
to gouge their underworld garage.

It took a little while for me to realise why.
Before (I thought) I'd read it, I wrote a poem about the new housing estates springing up round our little town. I was thinking about the various creatures that had lived on the field that was to be covered with houses - sheep primarily - and then those that were to follow.

The first were, well, a sort of dinosaur.

Here's my second verse:

At first it was the one-armed monsters,
set free within their caged arena
to trundle round, and gently paw
the ground, then pile up mounds of earth
accompanied by Lego men.

I was pleased with my trope, so much so that I continued with it later in the poem.

And then I encountered Lowell's dinosaurs.
I was sure my metaphor was my own original idea. So, what had happened?

Had I heard or read the Union Dead before, and 'forgotten' it?
Or perhaps the idea wasn't very original anyway?

Would it have been better if I hadn't recently met Lowell's poem? Then I'd never have known.
So I've made the discovery, and wonder what's best to do. I really don't want to take out that
verse, as jettisoning my one-armed monsters means the whole poem has to follow suit.

I wonder how many others have had this experience.

Having been involved in an unpleasant plagiarism incident (not committed by me, I say
quickly) maybe I'm extra sensitive to such issues. Be that as it may, I felt uneasy.

Well, all this has got me thinking about these things. I hope that in talking about it, I'm not
pretending or covering up, which is what the plagiarist would do.

Covering up?

That's what happens in the poem...


Field Work

One night the stock-proof hedge just went,
and gate and bank. Instead there sprang
a clean steel fence. What stock requires
such stout protection, or has need
to be enclosed, to hold them fast?

At first it was the one-armed monsters,
set free within their caged arena
to trundle round, and gently paw
the ground, then pile up mounds of earth
accompanied by Lego men.

A half-built road the next arrival
brought to a halt by two tall poles
flimsily strung with ribboned string.
The kerbs continued after the gravel
petered out, while hi-vis men stood

round in groups like sheep, and watched
those clever yellow creatures draw
walls from the ground in that old field,
then scaffolding, so they could climb
to see each roof fall into place.

I never saw them plant the lights,
unroll the lawns or pin on porches –
I’m sure the shiny-sinewed ones
saw to that, after the men
removed their helmets, taking home

their noise. The dock-filled field behind
its hedge has gone for good. Instead,
conservatories and garden sheds,
sparkling cars and wheelie-bins and
miles of wooden fences.

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