The Nature of Nature

Everything is in bloom, which is making me think about occurrences of nature in contemporary poetry.  There is a long tradition of observational poetry extolling natural beauty, but the most affecting nature poems for me place nature in the service of a primary concern, such as coping with grief in Katy Didden’s “Avalanche” or acknowledging the dangers of the civilizing impulse in Nick Lantz’s “’The order that Bees keepe in their worke.’”

How do you incorporate nature in your writing?  Do you think of nature as something active?  Passive?  Is nature in the foreground or background of what you write?  Does nature poetry necessarily imply environmental activism?  What are your favorite poems that employ nature in the service of a primary concern?


One thought on “The Nature of Nature

  1. Ezra Pound, the famous nature writer, wrote “. . . the natural object is always the adequate symbol.” There’s a context for that (“Some Don’ts for an Imagist”), but he still wrote it. Jane Kenyon used to keep the phrase above her work table.

    And there’s good reason for it. For instance, if our imagination evolved as our brain evolved, and then there was a sudden flowering, what we were to do with the forest of symbols (“La nature est un temple. L’homme y passe a travers un foret de symboles.” Baudelaire: I’m not looking things up so might have a few words wrong) that suddenly presented itself? And they were, of course, symbols of the natural world, because that was the world we lived in, where we got our food, where things either wanted to kill us or killed us randomly. We went deep into caves and sketched beautiful symbols of the natural world on the walls down there, using lines as sophisticated as any we would ever use (Werner Herzog’s film “Cave of Forgotten Dreams”). We didn’t know what else we could do with these images that suddenly populated our new thing — our imagination. (Clayton Eshleman has written about this in his book “The Juniper Fuse.”)

    So, it’s fundamental, and certainly precedes Romanticism.

    But Romanticism (and the rapid development of bourgeois culture) did sentimentalize our relationship with the natural world. And that criticism of nature poetry — that’s it’s all one one tone, “wow” — is justified (although I often respond, so what’s wrong with awe?). And someone wrote recently that our sense of wonder before the natural world is really an expression of loss — essentially, we stand amazed that any of this beauty actually still exists!

    And that leads us to the relationship with environmental activism. Auden actually knew that poetry DOES make things happen. If we recognize this loss, and if we also recognize that the natural world is fundamental (where do your eggs and lettuce come from? Let alone the images that fill your dreams?), then our poems — our works of art — are also dependent on it. As we work to sustain one, we sustain the other. If there is any possibility for hope left (and one of my sillinesses may be that I still have a little hope for hope), I think it is hidden somewhere in this tangle of half-understood ideas.

    When poetry engages with this (with polemics or not) is becomes something other than bourgeois narcissism. With this subject, too, it becomes political, among other things.


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