Thursday, September 10, 2009

Sheepdog Trials in Hyde Park

It's been an interesting week in our household. I finished working out the schedule for my student workers yesterday, so everything is set to go at the local college. At the same time, I was working on my syllabus for the college to which I commute, starting today. We had houseguests until yesterday morning. The guinea pig died. Eleanor has to go out driving every evening as soon as it gets dark so she'll have enough hours of night driving to take her driver's test at the end of the month. I was mildly surprised to find that I enjoy being a passenger on the night drives. I've been so tired at the end of each day that it's a pleasure to put my head back against the headrest, feel the cool night air rushing past my face, and listen to my daughter talk about whatever comes into her head. She's actually a pretty good driver already, so I'm past most of the stage where you stomp the imaginary brake pedal.

My working time has been spent explaining the theory of how to teach writing and then scheduling people for opportunities to put that theory into practice. Also writing out a program for what I'd like to be able to teach about a selected stack of books to two groups of people I haven't yet met. It all made me think of C. Day Lewis's poem "Sheepdog Trials in Hyde Park," which was a favorite of mine back when I was writing my dissertation:

A shepherd stands at one end of the arena.
Five sheep are unpenned at the other. His dog runs out
In a curve to behind them, fetches them straight to the shepherd,
Then drives the flock round a triangular course
Through a couple of gates and back to his master: two
Must be sorted there from the flock, then all five penned.
Gathering, driving away, shedding and penning
Are the plain words for the miraculous game.

An abstract game. What can the sheepdog make of such
Simplified terrain? — no hills, dales, bogs, walls, tracks,
Only a quarter-mile plain of grass, dumb crowds
Like crowds on hoardings around it, and behind them
Traffic or mounds of lovers and children playing.
Well, the dog is no landscape-fancier: his whole concern
Is with his master’s whistle, and of course
With the flock — sheep are sheep anywhere for him.

The sheep are the chanciest element. Why, for instance,
Go through this gate when there’s on either side of it
No wall or hedge but huge and viable space?
Why not eat the grass instead of being pushed around it?
Like a blob of quicksilver on a tilting board
The flock erratically runs, dithers, breaks up,
Is reassembled: their ruling idea is the dog,
And behind the dog, though they know it not yet, is a shepherd.

The shepherd knows that time is of the essence
But haste calamitous. Between dog and sheep
There is always an ideal distance, a perfect angle;
But these are constantly varying, so the man
Should anticipate each move through the dog, his medium.
The shepherd is the brain behind the dog’s brain,
But his control of dog, like dog’s of sheep,
Is never absolute — that’s the beauty of it.

For beautiful it is. The guided missiles,
The black-and-white angels follow each quirk and jink of
The evasive sheep, play grandmother’s-steps behind them,
Freeze to the ground, or leap to head off a straggler
Almost before it knows that it wants to stray,
As if radar-controlled. But they are not machines –
You can feel them feeling mastery, doubt, chagrin:
Machines don’t frolic when their job is done.

What’s needfully done in the solitude of sheep-runs –
Those rough, real tasks become this stylised game,
A demonstration of intuitive wit
Kept natural by the saving grace of error.
To lift, to fetch, to drive, to shed, to pen
Are acts I recognise, with all they mean
Of shepherding the unruly, for a kind of
Controlled woolgathering is my work too.

I love a good literal metaphor! If, like me, you feel like you're spending your day herding cats (that is literal here every evening at dusk), perhaps it will give you a recurring lift in your day to recognize what you're doing as "woolgathering." And if there is a time at the end of your day when you're required to suspend your woolgathering and merely watch something happen, then are you aware of the pleasure? Even "the saving grace of error" can be a pleasure after a day of theoretical perfection.


PAJ said...

Thanks for the dog poem! (OK. It's a good literal metaphor, but it's still a dog poem.)
Workers are here today re-roofing our house. My "black-and-white angel" spends half his time at the window, barking at the men climbing ladders outside, and the other half sitting near me, on the alert at the strange noises coming from above. Tonight, after a long day as guard dog, he will certainly want to frolic.

lemming said...

sam is readjusting his herding tactics right now, as we are following none of the usual patterns; he's not even sure where to start.

It is a pleasure, though, to watch him collapse when he is confident that all of the herd is within a small space. Then and only then will he concede to the luxury of sleep.

Karen said...

This reflection, and this poem, were a gift.

Anonymous said...

I like this poem.

It's almost like raising children, except -- it's not really at all.

I loved riding along with N. You always hear so much more in the car anyway, and it's especially great when you're not driving. I also learned an awful lot of latin vocabulary on those trips . . .

Anonymous said...

last week our class held a similar talk on this subject and you illustrate something we haven't covered yet, appreciate that.

- Laura