Tobias Hill at London Zoo

Tobias Hill

Selected as one of the country's Next Generation poets, shortlisted for the 2004 Sunday Times Young Writer of the Year and named by the TLS as one of the best young writers in the country, Tobias Hill is one of the leading British writers of his generation. His award-winning collections of poetry are Year of the Dog, Midnight in the City of Clocks, and Zoo. His fiction has been published to acclaim in many countries. AS Byatt has observed that "There is no other voice today quite like this."


The first book of poetry I ever chose to read was The Rattle Bag, the anthology 'assembled like a cairn' by Seamus Heaney and Ted Hughes. I remember the canary-yellow hardback covers and the rendered-down animal smell of the spine: and the poems themselves, their own contrasts of the disturbing and the beautiful. I was hooked, and some of what hooked me was the love poems and folk ballads, Holub and Hardy and Hecht. But those weren't the first works to reach me. What I remember reading again and again were animal poems. Blake's tiger, Lawrence's snake, and the jaguar of the Yoruba were what crept under my skin at thirteen. They haven't left yet.

I think poetry and the zoo make good companions. I know very little about zoology, but I do know that poetry allows people to think and to feel. Because zoos are necessary- because the world would be a poorer place without them- the more that people think and feel about them, the better. Poetry can express the complex in clear ways, and the zoo- as a place of locked doors, as a haven for the endangered, as a place of learning- zoos need all the expression they can get. In the six months I'm allotted, I want to use the zoo to introduce people to poetry, and poetry to introduce people to the zoo. There will be readings, competitions and trails for children. I hope there will also be time for me to get some poetry out of the experience myself.

Poetry is an old art form, and animals are one of its oldest themes. Dove, snake, fish, flea- the iconography of fauna has as much strength today as it ever did, and poets from Hughes to Rilke have used the zoo to create a more complex image. For the past few years I've been writing about the flora and fauna of cities- not just the pigeons but the people, and not only them but the invisible aliens of escaped eagle owls, the sound of zoo monkeys howling in the rain. So The Poetry Society's London Zoo placement means a lot to me; it is meat and drink for my writing, and it's the way to let the tiger get under the skins of 12,000 people every day.

- Tobias Hill

Young Poets Network