Thepassing of Mary Oliver, and the subsequent news articles and social media messages about her, made me realize something about contemporary poetry. There’s so little joy in much of it.
The range of emotions and experience available for poets is limitless, yet the predominant themes in journals and books makes it seem like poets choose to spend more of their energy on the darker side of the spectrum. Now there’s a lot to be depressed about today and a lot to be upset about. Clearly social and political issues influence, and sometimes dominate many poets’ work. And there’s nothing inherently wrong with that. Good writing, whether it concerns tragedy, anger, sorrow or grief, is still good writing. And as I said in a previous post, pain lends a poem a kind of emotional energy that’s useful for a poem. In fact, I think negative emotions are easier to drive than positive ones. But that doesn’t mean that every poem has to feel like a gut punch.
Mary Oliver could write grief, sorrow and tragedy as well, very well in fact. But she was also known as a poet of joy–one who actively sought out wonder and beauty on her daily walks. Nature is pretty even at being able to deliver metaphors for struggle and metaphors for success, yet more often, Oliver, maybe an optimist, chose to see the positive. She wanted to be impressed. And that’s kind of the point–both a poetry lesson and a life lesson. Consider the attitude expressed in these lines from her poem “First Snow”
and though the questions
that have assailed us all day
remain–not a single
answer has been found–
walking out now
into the silence and the light
under the trees,
and through the fields,
feels like one.
In my own poems I want to be open to the light more than the dark, and some days that’s harder than others, but seems worth the effort.
Frequently while reading Miriam Sagan’s latest poetry collection, Seven Places in America, I was struck with waves of jealousy. The book is constructed around her journeys and residencies at what, at least through her writing, must be some of the most wonderful places in the country for a poet to meditate on things great and small. This is especially true for a poet like Sagan, who has an affinity for the more rustic or natural places.
Some of these places were official writers’ retreats, while others were just places that accommodated her, and she accommodated them. Either way, she made the most of these visits, as good writers can, by using the foregrounds and backdrops as gateways for her poems to pass through or stretch out within. Her poems ride “the boat of the mind/that floats on air” tacking through waterways looking for purchase. When they land on hard ground, you know it, as in “10,000 Islands,” part of a series titled Ever/Glade (which, incidentally, made me think of Karen Russell’s novel Swamplandia.
I longed for departure
As if it were love
As if it would take me out
Of myself, of my accustomed way—
Sandbar of white pelicans
Lifts off, wheels into the sun
Silver flash of fish before the prow
Maze of low islands, one after the other,
to open water.
Do you see what she did there? The very quiet leap from the silent meditation of longing for departure to the dramatic scene of birds rising and a boat rushing among islands. For me, these poems are at their strongest when she uses her environment as the A in an ongoing Q & A with themselves.
While I found poems to relish throughout the book, I think my favorites are in part V, which were written at Stone Quarry Hill Art Park in Cazenovia, New York. Maybe being a Pennsylvanian drew me to these poems as they describe scenery very like my own home.
In the first poem in that section, Sagan uses, with dramatic effect, the refrain “body of” in a chant-like list of things you might find in any eastern woodland.
body of liberties
body of knowledge
body of research
body of principals
That’s fun, as are a lot of the poems in this book. You can feel the author’s delight coming off the page. At the same time, there are also haunting moments, such as in “Tree House,” where the speaker reflects in attendant language (“The creaks and meows of night,/Shadows of the copper beeches.”) on the material landscape of a childhood while simultaneously acknowledging the psychological landscape.
There were moments I thought the poet may have fallen into her own traps—pushed a metaphor a little too far, took the readers’ trust for granted, but then come moments of wonderful self-awareness, as if she knows where she’s taking us and is grinning a little inside, like here, in the poem “Stone Quarry Hill”:
If this poem were Chinese
I’d say my hair is gray (which it is)
And that I haven’t heard
News of you in a long time.
If I’m being played, I’m OK with it. Even when she asks “Why must inspiration be a vista?” you know she knows the answer is more complicated than that. “An inner self/that also shifts shape” is the visita we’re really meant to contemplate: “how what we ignored or couldn’t explain/remained in plain view.”
Below is a continuation of the Q&As I did with several poets on the connection between poetry and nature/wilderness. The first was with Jane Hirshfield, and if you need to get caught up you can see that one here. These Q&A were all done via email. In this one former U.S. Poet Laureate writes briefly about why corporate/business life plays so small a part in the poetry of people who actually work in business for a living (Kooser worked in insurance before he taught at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln).
Do you think writers’ approach to nature/wild has changed in the contemporary world?
No. There are certainly lots of writers using urban life and subjects, and they get a lot of attention, but there is always a steady outflow of poetry and nonfiction about the natural world.
Another way of asking—has our dependence on technology and distance from nature changed poets’ relationship to it?
I don’t think so.
Is nature a good yardstick for measuring our own human issues by?
Certainly. Despite our habit of complicating our lives, we are still natural beings.
You’re a poet who spent a good portion of his life in a business/office environment, yet that world doesn’t surface in your work as frequently as fields, farms, animals or laborers? In general, opening any poetry journal, it’s much easier to find birds, mountains and rivers than it is to find references to inter-office mail, insertion orders or spreadsheets, yet they are probably a larger part of most people’s (and most poets) daily lives. Do you have any thoughts on why that is?
In an office, one’s experiences are often the same experiences day after day after day, whereas in nature there may be epiphanous events, coming as us as complete surprises. I did write some poems about my days in the insurance business, “Four Secretaries” is a good example, but, frankly, I just wasn’t very interested in what happened at the office, and why write about something that doesn’t interest you.
Galway Kinnell has said we must include the city in our definition of nature. What do you think of that? Can the city work for the poet in the same way as the forest or the sea?
I don’t know that quote, or its context, but I think he may have been talking about life in the city, rather than the city. His wonderful long poem “The Avenue Bearing the Initial of Christ….” is rich with human life, which is nature. You can almost smell the people in that poem.
The concepts of bewilderment and wonder—brash and sometimes meditative—seems to be a strong thread connecting nature poetry (from the ancient Chinese writers to present writers like Harry Humes). What role do you believe bewilderment plays in nature poetry? I also believe bewilderment is tied into gratitude. And if not that, then what?
You know, I’ve never thought about that word [bewilderment] and what it means and how it’s constructed to include wild until this very moment, and I thank you for bringing it to my attention. I’ll have to give it a lot more thought. Li Po is bewildered, not by nature but by alcohol, and I don’t think of him, or Tu Fu, as being confused by nature in the way that they are confused by their own circumstances.
You can find Ted Kooser’s latest book, Delights and Shadows, here.
Months ago, in preparation for a workshop I was going to lead in nature writing for the Musehouse Writing Center I asked the poet Jane Hirshfield several questions about her views on nature and poetry. Aside from her wonderful books of poems, Hirshfield also wrote a collection of essays called Nine Gates,which deals somewhat with that subject especially in the “Two Secrets” chapter.
The class never happened, so I’ve been sitting on this wonderful interview for months and decided that I should just publish it as is so other readers can benefit from it. The questions here are not a comprehensive look at my interest in the subject, but they’re interesting on their own and I think worth attention. Eventually I may try to write a whole coherent article, but the chances are getting slimmer all the time.
I also asked Ted Kooser and William Heyen similar questions. I’ll post their responses separately.
Do you think writers’ approach to nature/wild has changed in the contemporary world? Another way of asking—has our dependence on technology and distance from nature changed the poet’s relationship to it?
It’s hard to speculate about others’ inner experience—but I do suspect that increasing swaths of time in the “information technology” world is affecting poets—as urbanization itself long has. There’s a dangerous rift and amnesia that leads to hubris, exploitation, that carries from the environment and creatures into our treatment of other humans as well, when only mediated experience is seen as “real.” Aesthetically, concentration on what’s only within the human surround can be seen as being contemporary or as claustrophobic—the response varies. I myself made a very deliberate choice to live in a way exposed to and in connection with the natural. I grew up in lower Manhattan, and wanted something less controlled and modulated in my life. But all of us carry the template of our age, and even if my poems rarely mention buses or an elevator or a comic strip character, I am quite sure that my thoughts move as the 21st century does–with increased speed and compression, acceptance of fracture, comfort with the jump cut. In a way, though, you could say that poetry itself foreshadowed all these “contemporary” habits of mind—it has always leapt, fractured, compressed, courted the uncertain and contradictory as much as courted expression or “beauty.” But how could something even as simple as electric light not alter our psyche’s relation to darkness? Perhaps we turn toward darkness more, now that it is escapable. Perhaps we must turn to bewilderment more, when we live in such orderly grids as we do.
Is nature a good yardstick for measuring our own human issues by?
As Gary Snyder has long pointed out, we humans are nature. What we do is what nature does. Still, remembering the larger field recalibrates. Going up into the High Sierra puts anxiety, selfishness, sentimentality, and neurosis into scale.
In what way do poets sometimes abuse (misuse) nature (I’m thinking of bad Romantic poems here mostly, but you please respond any way you like)?
There are no rules here—I am willing to go on record (heresy!) as being in favor of certain kinds of personification and anthropomorphizing in poems, even as I know they can be horribly abused. It works when it enlivens possibility, fails when it cheapens or simplifies or presumes. What we don’t know, cannot know, has to be remembered and honored. Still, Aristotle praised personification–what we’ve come to call “the pathetic fallacy”—as the “animating principle” in poetry, and I would not give up any mode of meaning-making, so long as it’s used deftly, subtly, toward accurate expansions and not the sentimental. Every metaphor works by internalization of the image into the self. How else could we understand, except by taking in, and trying on the image from inside our own lives, histories, minds? Comprehension is empathic. We understand even “2+2=4” because we have fingers, feelings, hunger, bodies with mouths as well as brains.
You write that the objective mode (discussed in Nine Gates) is rare and difficult. Is it also less effective or less likely to evoke a response from the reader? A poetry of Vulcans? (sorry for the Star Trek reference)
I’ve used certain haiku as examples of the objective mode—and such poems do need a reader able to feel them fully, or they will be uninhabited ink, ash-shapes. But such a reader is precisely the opposite of feelingless—rather, that reader who is able to feel these poems is a human being so tuned to the full actualities of existence that he or she can feel a spectrum of emotions outside the usually available names—the way a bee can see the ultra-violet road-stripes on certain flowers, which we cannot.
Galway Kinnell says we must include the city in our definition of nature. What do you think of that? Can the city work for the poet in the same way as the forest or the sea?
Of course. Our cities are termite mounds and bower bird nests, felt fully. Mark Doty can write urban natural history in a way absolutely continuous with his poems that are set in the non-urban.
Who are your favorite contemporary poets who write with nature/wilderness themes?
Snyder is still a master. Merwin. Heaney’s poems of recollection. Pattiann Rogers, Alison Hawthorne Deming, Sandra Alcosser. Milosz is dead now, but his passion for the natural world was exemplary. Some of Hass. Some of Kay Ryan. Jim Harrison, Dan Gerber. But really, even making this list feels somehow like putting lipstick on a tree. I prefer not to segregate poets by theme—Auden was as urbane as a poet comes, and then there’s his “In Praise of Limestone”; Robert Frost’s concerns were profoundly and ultimately human. And if we understand ourselves as part of nature, there’s not a poet who isn’t a nature poet. I suspect our relationship to the larger existence of this planet would be most restored to sanity if that were the principle we held in mind, rather than one of separation and difference. We are mammals, with mammals’ concerns. That thought, at least to me, is not ignoble or diminishing—it’s curative, chastening, and enlarging.
Here’s a short video of Hirshfield reading. Youtube is loaded with Hirshfield videos.