6/10 RECAP: Poetry Salon on Nature Poems
In this most recent poetry salon, we talked about the genre of nature poetry, how it has changed over time, its intersection with social issues, and what can be made of the relatipnship between humans and it.
The first poem we looked at was a exerpt from Wordsworth's "The Prelude":
One summer evening (led by her) I found
A little boat tied to a willow tree
Within a rocky cave, its usual home.
Straight I unloosed her chain, and stepping in
Pushed from the shore. It was an act of stealth
And troubled pleasure, nor without the voice
Of mountain-echoes did my boat move on;
Leaving behind her still, on either side,
Small circles glittering idly in the moon,
Until they melted all into one track
Of sparkling light. But now, like one who rows,
Proud of his skill, to reach a chosen point
With an unswerving line, I fixed my view
Upon the summit of a craggy ridge,
The horizon's utmost boundary; far above
Was nothing but the stars and the grey sky.
She was an elfin pinnace; lustily
I dipped my oars into the silent lake,
And, as I rose upon the stroke, my boat
Went heaving through the water like a swan;
When, from behind that craggy steep till then
The horizon's bound, a huge peak, black and huge,
As if with voluntary power instinct
Upreared its head. I struck and struck again,
And growing still in stature the grim shape
Towered up between me and the stars, and still,
For so it seemed, with purpose of its own
And measured motion like a living thing,
Strode after me. With trembling oars I turned,
And through the silent water stole my way
Back to the covert of the willow tree;
There in her mooring-place I left my bark,—
And through the meadows homeward went, in grave
And serious mood; but after I had seen
That spectacle, for many days, my brain
Worked with a dim and undetermined sense
Of unknown modes of being; o'er my thoughts
There hung a darkness, call it solitude
Or blank desertion. No familiar shapes
Remained, no pleasant images of trees,
Of sea or sky, no colours of green fields;
But huge and mighty forms, that do not live
Like living men, moved slowly through the mind
By day, and were a trouble to my dreams.
This exerpt from the famous poem about childhood, and the artistic mind forming, reflects many common themes of Romantic nature poetry. Nature as feminine, a place for leisure. But the second half of the poem complicates this simple definition. Nature is not passive. It is in fact scary, other-worldily. Here, shown through the second mountain appearing behind the first. Whether it's real or a part of the speaker's imagination is unclear, and therefore, all the more interesting. The speaker's self exits the poem changed, with bad dreams of "huge and might forms." Thus perfectly emboding what Mike said in our freewrite, that "Nature reminds us what we don't know, how little we know."
We then moved on to W.S. Merwin's "Looking for Mushrooms at Sunrise":
When it is not yet day
I am walking on centuries of dead chestnut leaves
In a place without grief
Though the oriole
Out of another life warns me
That I am awake
In the dark while the rain fell
The gold chanterelles pushed through a sleep that was not mine
So that I came up the mountain to find them
Where they appear it seems I have been before
I recognize their haunts as thought remembering
Where else am I walking now
Looking for me
We noted that this whole poem has a dreamy quailty, like the time when you're not fully sleeping, but aren't fully awake either. Reinforcing that feeling is the ways in which things and identity loose definition and merge into one another. The mushrooms are alien to the speaker: "a sleep that was not mine". But this is followed up with "waking me." Not me and me are placed right next to each other. The poem is titled Looking for mushrooms, but the poem ends with "Looking for me." Merwin recognizes that otherness that we see in the Wordsworth, but chooses to embrace it, dissolving his self into the wider body of nature. He enters "a place without grief". Grief, a uniquely human concept.
Next was Mary Oliver's "The Loon at Oak-Head Pond":
cries for three days, in the gray mist.
cries for the north it hopes it can find.
plunges, and comes up with a slapping pickerel.
blinks its red eye. cries again.
you come every afternoon, and wait to hear it.
you sit a long time, quiet, under the thick pines,
in the silence that follows.
as though it were your own twilight.
as though it were your own vanishing song.
This poem, on the surface, appears simple. Nature here is a way for the self to reflect and self-interrogate. And that feels a little too easy. But I think there are things that complicate this. The "you" is very interesting. We talked of what effect this has on the poem, opening it up to the reader, drawing them into this scene. In a way, it gestures at a community of people and becomes more about connection than a self approiateing what nature presents it. The words "as though" are also curious. Oliver could have simply used "like". But the words "as though" open the door for mislabelling. They end the poem on the act of perception itself, rather than the certainity of connection with nature. The speaker believes the loon's call is "your vanishing song", but it's a judgment, a delibrate comparision, one which may be incorrect. What is that vanishing song? Well, we talked about getting older, death, time. We started to see time all over the poem, "three days", "every afternoon", "long time", "twilight." In these ways, I believe this poem has more to offer than it may seem on a first read.
We moved to contemporary poetry's take on the nature poem with Terrance Hayes "Root":
By Terrance Hayes
My parents would have had me believe
there was no such thing as race
there in the wild backyard, our knees black
with store-bought grass and dirt,
black as the soil of pastures or of orchards
grown above graves. We clawed free
the stones and filled their beds with soil
and covered the soil with sod
as if we owned the earth.
We worked into the edge of darkness
and rose in the edge of darkness
until everything came from the dirt.
We clawed free the moss and brambles,
the colonies of crab-weed, the thorns
patrolling stems and I liked it then:
the mute duty that tightened my parents’
backs as if they meant to work
the devil from his den. Rock and spore
and scraps of leaf; wild bouquets withered
in bags by the road, cast from the ground
we broke. We scrubbed the patio,
we raked the cross hatch of pine needles,
we soaked the ant-cathedrals in gas.
I found an axe blade beneath an untamed hedge,
its edge too dull to sever vine and half expected
to find a jawbone scabbed with mud,
because no one told me what happened
to the whites who’d owned the house.
No one spoke of the color that curled
around our tools or of the neighbors
who knew our name before we knew theirs.
Sometimes they were almost visible,
clean as fence posts in porch light;
their houses burning with wonder,
their hammocks drunk with wind.
When I dreamed, I dreamed of them
and believed they dreamed of us
and believed we were made of dirt or shadows:
something not held or given, irredeemable, inexact,
all of us asking what it means to be black…
I have never wanted another life, but I know the story
of pursuit: the dream of a gate standing open,
a grill and folding chairs, a new yard boxed in light.
There's so many things to say about this poem. It challenges what we think a nature poem is. For one, it's in a backyard, not "the wilderness", and also it addresses social issues. For much of its existence nature peotry has been a largely white genre. This stems all the way back to the Romanitc and pastoral values that founded the genre. It was based on white, Eurpoean people's view of nature. This was one of escape and passtime. But this feeling towards nature is far from universal. If interested in reading more about this, I highly reccomend Camille Dungy's "Black Nature" anthology. Hayes fits very much in the current movement of redefing the nature poem by bringing in new perspectives. The largely apolitical nature poems by white poets are challegened by the strong presence of social and racial issues. Each line stands in for nature as much as it does for processes of economic and racial oppression. The relationship between nature and the self is a conflicted one. Just as the speaker feels conflict towards their white neighbors, a mix of bitterness, fear, longing, and envy, the speaker feels the same way towards nautre. As the family landscapes their yard in a effort to fit in, the nature in the poem becomes the embodiment of self-loathing. All of this collides in the poem's final lines: "I had never wanted another life, but I know the story of pursuit". Leaving the reader in a complex, tough, twisted root of emotion and identity.
We ended with Ed Roberson's "be careful":
i must be careful about such things as these.
the thin-grained oak. the quiet grizzlies scared
into the hills by the constant tracks squeezing
in behind them closer in the snow. the snared
rigidity of the winter lake. deer after deer
crossing on the spines of fish who look up and stare
with their eyes pressed to the ice. in a sleep. hearing
the thin taps leading away to collapse like the bear
in the high quiet. i must be careful not to shake
anything in too wild an elation. not to jar
the fragile mountains against the paper far-
ness. nor avalanche the fog or the eagle from the air.
of the gentle wilderness i must set the precarious
words. like rocks. without one snowcapped mistake.
This poem acts as a total rebuttal to the traditional Romantic nature poem. Here nature is not a passive object to use however the speaker's imagination pleases. It is something in danger of destruction, that must be described very careful, so as not to abuse it. The poem is about its own consturction. The speaker is apprehensive about each word that makes it up. They musn't "jar" or "shake" or "avalanche" anything with a "mistake". This "fragile" winter scene is precarious, almost as if even in descirbing it, the speaker risks damaging it. The oaks are "thin", bears are "quiet". In the era of ecological destruction and climate change this message hits home. We must be careful with what we do with nautre. The poem being in lower case reinforces this. The speaker doesn't want to use capitalization, preferring to whisper this wanring into our ears. The poem mocks the sonnet, with some rhyme and 14 lines. But the spaces toy with the form. It's as if the form itself is beginning to crumble, show holes, just like our civilization at large.