“Birmingham River” – a powerful environmental history in a poem

This image courtesy of www.geograph.org.uk, has a caption that reads: The River Rea alongside Cannon Hill Park, Birmingham This section of the Rea is canalised, and has a walkway alongside that nobody uses, people preferring to walk through the park instead.
This image courtesy of http://www.geograph.org.uk, has a caption that reads: The River Rea alongside Cannon Hill Park, Birmingham
This section of the Rea is canalised, and has a walkway alongside that nobody uses, people preferring to walk through the park instead.

In my exploration of different ways of writing about our relationship with the environment, I embarked on a search for poems about rivers. First and foremost, my interest was in poems describing New Zealand rivers, but then I stumbled across a poem by English poet Roy Fisher. Entitled “Birmingham River”, it is the story of the rivers (the River Tame and the River Rea) that run through the highly industrialised city of Birmingham.

This poem is an environmental history. It is the powerful and sad story of rivers that have been taken from the people who were connected with them, abused, exploited, and forgotten. (A story repeated in many parts of the world.)

I have only copied a short extract here as I am sure I am not supposed to reproduce in full due to copyright reasons, but would highly recommend a visit to the Poetry Archive to read the poem. There is also audio of the poet reading it. I also found fascinating insights into these rivers on The River Management Blog

At Birmingham, the River Tame (the river that “mothered the Black Country but all but vanished beneath it”) merges with the River Rea:

… a slow, petty river with no memory of an ancient

name; a river called Rea, meaning river,

and misspelt at that. Before they merge

they’re both steered straight, in channels

that force them clear of the gasworks. And the Tame

gets marched out of town in the policed calm

than hangs under the long legs of the M6.

These living rivers turgidly watered the fields, gave

drink; drove low-powered mills, shoved

the Soho Works into motion, collected waste

and foul waters….

6 thoughts on ““Birmingham River” – a powerful environmental history in a poem

  1. Jessica M. DeWitt March 29, 2015 / 4:33 pm

    Love this post. Opened my ASEH presentation last week with a poem, really an effective way to bring the reader/listener into the topic on a personal level.

  2. envirohistorynz March 29, 2015 / 4:47 pm

    Thanks Jessica. Yes this poem is both very personal and very universal in the themes it traverses. And I love the way the poet takes you on a journey down the course of the river(s) and through history simultaneously.

  3. paulknight35 March 29, 2015 / 5:20 pm

    The poem has a powerful effect. Oh for some positive news about our interaction with the environment!

  4. Marianna Dudley March 29, 2015 / 8:48 pm

    As I’m currently working on British rivers, this is of special interest – and I hadn’t come across this particular poem. Thanks! One of my current project’s interests is how local meanings are generated by place, and how they are expressed. Poetry is an important outlet, as are local idioms and songs. Peter Coates, project lead, has blogged about singer Jimmy Nail’s lamentation for the ‘death’ of the big, industrial river Tyne, as coal mining and shipping decreased in the North East. But the death of one river can signal the rebirth of another: the biological status has gone from dead to living. The link is here: http://powerwaterproject.net/?p=504#comment-5740

  5. envirohistorynz April 1, 2015 / 7:21 am

    Thank you for the link, Marianna – a fascinating discussion. Until I began this research (on NZ rivers), I would not have thought we would have had any “dead” rivers, since resuscitated, given that NZ missed the industrial revolution. However, I would have been wrong – at least one of our rivers was brought close to death through the dumping of sludge from goldmining. (But while many New Zealanders celebrate and romaticize our goldmining history, few would know about its devastating effect on some of our rivers.) And of course many of our streams and smaller rivers have been channelised and turned into drains.

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