To her fair works did Nature link [t]he human soul that through me ran
I was recently interviewed by educator and fellow poet, Ethan Goffman, for his podcast Poetry and Planet (qv). Among other things, we discussed how humans exist in nature and whether nature can stimulate transcendent experiences.
These questions, of course, are of utmost importance to the poet who is moved to write about nature. Are we humans separate from the natural world? Are we unique among animals? What do we experience when we observe the natural world? What is the role of the poet in confronting such threats as loss of biodiversity and climate change?
There are no easy answers to these and other questions that arise when a poet confronts nature. The reflections that follow I derive from my own thoughts and practice as a poet.
Like many poets, I am moved—sometimes to awe—by the experience of the natural world, particularly as it stands in contrast to the urbanized, mechanized setting that most of us now dwell in. Nature provides respite and refreshment from the pressures of quotidian life, from the stresses of work, family, life among hundreds or thousands of other humans. As an avid birdwatcher, I have absorbed a great deal of knowledge not just about the objects of my quest but also about the environments in which they live, breed. and feed. My observations on many occasions have found their way into poems.
I have also drawn much inspiration from the often overlooked juxtapositions between nature and human-created environments, as in these lines from my poem “Dusk in Farragut Square”: “Bare branches finger/the air and the rooftops'/edges soften into the dark/just above the reach/of the streetlamps’ light.” How many park benches I have sat on, entranced, listening and watching as birdsong and breeze evoke nearly ineffable emotions:
Dusk, Late May
This is the hour
of catbirds—broken songs deep
within the branches
Hour of crows—churning
the air, imprinting inkblots
on the slate-blue sky.
Hour of starlings— dark
shimmer, dropping fast like leaves
onto waiting trees.
Hour of stillness—
the wind drops to soft breath
ruffling grass like hair.
Hour of regret—time
timeless, suspended, voices
call from distant past.
And yet. We can easily forget that nature is utterly indifferent to us and further that as humans we are both a part of and apart from nature. Our consciousness of self and the individuation that occurs as we mature build a transparent wall between ourselves and our surroundings, including other humans. John Keats, one of the finest poets to take up nature, longs to merge himself with the song of the nightingale, half longing to die with the sound of it in his ears: “Now more than ever seems it rich to die,/To cease upon the midnight with no pain,/While thou art pouring forth thy soul abroad/In such an ecstasy!” And yet the catch soon becomes apparent: “Still wouldst thou sing, and I have ears in vain—/To thy high requiem become a sod.” Though he is able to postpone the inevitable reckoning for a few more lines, he ultimately comes to realize the impossibility of his wish: “Forlorn! the very
word is like a bell/To toll me back from thee to my sole self!” This passage is one of the most haunting and moving in English poetry and should chasten any poet who thinks she or he can simply celebrate nature’s beauty without also accounting for its indifference and sometimes seeming hostility to us.
Further, it is well to recall the lines that follow those I quote at the beginning, taken from Wordsworth’s Lines Written in Early Spring: “And much it grieved my heart to think/What man has made of man.”
Even more sad and fearful is what we have made of nature. It is unnecessary to catalog the profound threats to the planet and its inhabitants, from biodiversity loss to climate change. We are already living with their effects. Hopkins’ beautiful optimism about nature’s capacity to heal and renew—“And for all this, nature is never spent;/There lives the dearest freshness deep down things”— rings sadly hollow now.
So what is the poet’s responsibility in the face of environmental catastrophe, especially poets like me who cherish and draw strength and inspiration from nature? I believe there is no single answer. For some, writing directly about such issues as climate change, the loss of species, the degradation of our air and water is the correct approach. What is often called the poetry of witness can be a very powerful tool in awakening readers and energizing them to take action. The writer who has the gift of writing well and clearly and who can avoid producing mere propaganda is to be honored and encouraged.
I myself, however, have chosen a slightly different path. I can write polemic or editorially (and have) or I can write lyrical or narrative poetry drawing from nature among other things, but I don’t feel I have the gift to bring them together into a single piece of writing. So I continue to draw images from nature, celebrate both its beauty and terror, and try to describe the feelings these arouse in me in the hope not only of communicating them to but also evoking them in the reader. Perhaps one could say I am attempting to re-enchant the natural world and in so doing, reminding people of what we stand to lose if we don’t stand against the ongoing destruction of our environment.
Does this make me a nature poet? Let the reader decide for herself.