On the May/June 2015 Special Poetry Feature: Nature’s Nature
I’m writing here not about my editorial choice of a single poem but rather a gathering of poems, in fact in fact thirty-five poems by twenty-one poets, all collected to consider the nature of nature poetry. I am especially pleased to announce here that this will be a regular commitment in KR, an annual presentation of new poetry about the natural world. So, why choose to do this?
It’s common in our literature now to find writers, editors, and publishers who advocate a particular theme or point-of-interest or who represent a specific group of writers. Certainly it’s a rowdy, inclusive period in our literature, and such advocacy can provide added attention or devotion. Such advocacy can also be self-serving, exclusionary, more public-relations than art. As both writer and editor, I tend to go my own way, hoping to find merit and challenge in a wide palette of aesthetic and social identities. But I have long been committed—as writer, as critic, as editor—to an active, attentive sense of the natural; while we each may belong to one or another group, we are all citizens of this place and this planet, and our treatment of our home requires our attention urgently. I won’t rehearse the damages, the breath-taking harm we have done, nor the peril, nor the beauty that abides. If you have a pulse and a brain, you know what I mean.
Instead, I’m pleased to offer this gathering of new poems to our readers, as I have been pleased to read the work of so many poets in assembling this feature on “nature poetry.” The question at hand concerns how contemporary poets use and refer to—speak about, speak for, speak from—a natural place, and for what purposes, both mindful and subliminal, they may speak.
But first a note about what I mean by nature or nature poetry. Simply defining nature poetry is a slippery slope.
See? Already I have made use of a natural image, a hillside landscape where my footing is manifest, if insecure, where my stability is growing fraught. Already I have written in cliché, too, erasing any vitality or originality—any sense of the actual and particular—to that slope.
Talk about slippery. Philosophers and environmental scholars are writing volumes on the subject of nature, the ecosphere, and extinction. I tend to agree with one friend who argues that nature essentially no longer exists. He means the nature of wilderness and wildness, that place where people have never gone, a site untouched, “natural.” There is no such earthly place. We have walked, flown, and ridden over everything, and where we have not physically gone, we have mapped, gridded, claimed, and named. There is no nature that has not been denatured by
our presence and awareness. Wordsworth speaks to the loss, the romantic nostalgia, for the sense that nature’s world is diminished or past. In “The Solitary Reaper” he recalls nature’s allegoric “Maiden [who] sang / as if her song could have no ending.” His “as if” rings with deep fatalism:
I listened, motionless and still,
And, as I mounted up the hill,
The music in my heart I bore,
Long after it was heard no more.
But the nostalgic sense of vanished nature is evident much earlier, in the poetry from any number of cultural sites. Born in 1272, the Confucian monk turned mountain hermit, Shihwu, writes beautifully plain lyrics about his daily life of contemplation and gardening. He often notes, even in his in-the-moment presence of the natural, its belatedness: “Once the moon shines above a flowering plum, / it’s too late to look at the blossoms.” Fifteen hundred years before Shihwu, Theocritus in his great pastorals depicts an idyllic landscape where shepherds in their fields sing and woo and compete—though they seldom work. Here the explicit irony within Theocritus’s serene scenes derives from his readers’ awareness that such an idyllic time or place has passed or never was; in fact, his readers were themselves not “simple” Arcadian shepherds in a pasture but rather the highly cultivated and urbanized scholars at the Library in Alexandria. The nature in his poetry is not “real” but highly stylized, meant to amuse and to evoke nostalgia for the lost or impossible thing.
More slippage: I also agree with another friend who argues, conversely, that everything is nature. Is there, he reasons, anything that is not nature? Trees, fish, icy expanses, tiny flowers, of course. But where does uranium come from? It too is a “naturally occurring element” found in low levels within all rock, soil, and water. And what is concrete made of? Are not the biggest cities a habitat for one of nature’s abundant species? It is logical to think of everything, the trillions of phenomenal details, as constituents of a single natural thing, a living evolving breathing thing, a universe that is a single life form. This is related to Timothy Morton’s thesis in Hyperobjects: Philosophy and Ecology after the End of the World. He argues for an imaginative paradigm shift where even the concept of World “is a fragile aesthetic effect around whose corners we are beginning to see”:
Why? Because world and its cognates—environment, Nature—are ironically more objectified than the kinds of “object” I am talking about . . . . World as the background of events is an objectification of a hyperobject: the biosphere, climate, evolution, capitalism. . . .
For Morton there are no “sides” to take, no “us versus them,” even as there is “nowhere to stand outside of things altogether.” He argues both that “the end of the world has already come” and that what remains “is a vastly more complex situation that is uncanny and intimate at the same time”: a period of vast “coexistence.” In this paradigm the old concept of nature itself evaporates, being both all-inclusive and concurrently extinct.
What I intend with this poetry feature is a third angle of view, as we regard what contemporary poets may add to the conundrum. I mean here to be less theorized than the first two stances and more linguistically practical. That is, when I say nature, I mean simply to signify those things that are called up for each of you in that usage. It may be the organic rather than the manufactured. It may be the outside—trees and seasons and biota—or the growing city. It may be the sublime green or imperiled blue world. It may be a rare orchid in a heavily managed botanical conservatory. It may be “human nature” or, conversely, the nonhuman.
As you read these splendid, various poems, perhaps you will consider what each poet means when he or she makes a “natural” gesture. How do we use nature, and what do we want that usage to convey? In commencing this feature, setting us off, Arthur Sze reiterates the narrative of exploration, a journey from place to place. Notice how quickly his natural “salt cedar” is juxtaposed with a silty irrigation ditch, and the plutonium waste of Los Alamos leads him to any number of further historical and multicultural connections—to Jefferson, the Chinese Cultural Revolution, the purchase of Louisiana from France. His journey into the world inevitably leads him, by paradox, to “step deeper into myself.” Sze constructs an important natural narrative, where physical exploration, operating by meticulous observation (like a line-of-sight survey), directs him deeper into the landscape, into extended historical correlations and, as well, deeper into self and psyche. The trauma underneath this poem is multiple: environmental (nuclear waste, land development), historical (the constant buying and selling of nature), political (Native American sites, firing squads, suicide bombings), as well as poetic. Nature reflects the conscience and the subconscious alike, even as the particular touches on the “infinite.”
As you proceed through this gathering, you’ll find the poets frequently reiterating the kinds of connections in Sze’s poem. You will also find terrific variety: from long historical
sequences (Andy Grace, Albert Goldbarth, James McCorkle) to short lyrics, experimental forms and innovative styles (Emily Wilson, G. C. Waldrep) to more traditional poetic structures. Many of these poets contribute to the growing field of ecopoetics—poems with an explicit, even activist, political purpose, as those from Joshua Corey and Camille Dungy. Others take a more subtle approach, Meg Kearney, for instance, whose poem “Scarlet Tanager” makes the connection, again, between the outer and the imaginative, between natural observation and artistic creation: how a bird’s song turns into the “scarlet-plumed opus” of Dvorak’s great American Quartet. Carl Phillips marks the meeting poet of the natural and the erotic, while others send out the alarm of extinction and peril, like Allison Hutchcraft’s sequence on the dodo. Birds are a frequent signifier, but so are simple stones and the wind, the tiny (fleas, water-striders) and the large (horses) and the massive (deserts and forests). It’s fascinating to see old tropes rendered anew; several poets present postmodern versions of the sublime overlook (the Cliffs of Dover, Berkeley’s Inspiration Point), while others visit that ur-site, the seashore and sea-depth. Finally, just as their treatments are widely representative, so do the poets themselves range from the well-established and those just emerging, poets from an array of cultural backgrounds, regions, and professions. They contribute a great diversity of poetic forms—from pastorals and georgics to complaints, personal narratives to collective histories, rhyme and regular stanzas to elided syntax and shattered shapes. Ultimately, every one of these poets shares a sense of palpable anxiety, a devotion to the natural in its many manifestations, and a sense of the fateful awareness of that inevitable relationship—between nature and human destiny—which Solmaz Sharif articulates: “There is nothing / that has nothing to do with this.”
Why this? Why now? Because of urgency. Because I sense a rising tide (another nature image) of attention compelled by necessity, dread, and a shared articulation, among so many poets, of desperate hope. Poetry about nature and the environment—whether ecopoetry or some other treatment—is one of the most ancient and one of the most currently relevant subjects for the art. Many believe it is the central, urgent theme of our time now, as John Kinsella observes: “We’re all in it together, this place, that one too.” I admire what Robert Hass has written recently in “An Oak Grove”: “My subject is thinking about nature and thinking about thinking about nature, and my thesis is that we don’t do it very well.” I admire how the poets in this special feature are rising to the challenge.