A.S. Maulucci: Smart nature poetry necessary in these times
Nature’s presence is all around us, so it’s not surprising poets have been contemplating our complex relationship with her and penning lines in praise of her beauty since the beginning of civilization.
From lyric to haiku to ode, nature has played a central role in the art of poetry for more than 2,000 years.
The subject of nature poetry is too complicated to cover in one column, so I’m dividing it into at least two installments. Today’s subject is nature poetry that is literal or direct in its description of the mystery and majesty of the natural world.
Here are some random samples of direct nature poetry that form a timeline from ancient to romantic to modern:
“Snow has run off, now the grass returns to the meadows and the leaves to the branches” (Horace)
“old pond/frog jumps/the sound of water” (Basho)
“It is a beauteous evening, calm and free,
The holy time is quiet as a Nun
Breathless with adoration; the broad sun
Is sinking down in its tranquility,
The gentleness of heaven broods o’er the Sea” (William Wordsworth)
“The Poet came to a garden.
Dahlias ripened against a wall,
Gillyflowers stood up bravely for all their short stature,
And a trumpet-vine covered an arbour
With the red and gold of its blossoms.” (Amy Lowell)
“The porch swing hangs fixed in a morning sun
that bleaches its gray slats, its flowered cushion
whose flowers have faded, like those of summer,
and a small brown spider has hung out her web
on a line between porch post and chain
so that no one may swing without breaking it.” (Ted Kooser)
A straightforward depiction of nature in poetry is usually reverential in spirit. People have always and will always look upon nature with a mixture of awe at her splendor and fear of her power, whether it’s the sun rising for the ancient Maya or the constellations for the Egyptians, Greeks and Romans, or the endless galaxies for modern man.
The microcosmic universe is equally fascinating to us who are living in a time of the Genome Project. A pair of poems by William Blake, “The Tyger” and “Auguries of Innocence,” respectively express this idea of the beauty of the outer and the inner worlds:
“Tyger! Tyger! burning bright
In the forests of the night,
What immortal hand or eye
Could frame thy fearful symmetry?”
From “Auguries of Innocence”:
“To see a world in a Grain of Sand
And Heaven in a Wild Flower
Hold Infinity in the palm of your hand
And Eternity in hour.”
Nature isn’t static, and nature poems are as often concerned with change as they are with the miracles of the physical world.
Beauty is transient, flowers wither and nature has its cycles of birth, blossom and death. The seasons themselves are symbolic of different stages in human life, from childhood to youth to maturity and old age, and they are often employed as convenient conventional symbols.
This symbolism has become deeply ingrained in our consciousness and I doubt you could ever write about the seasons without invoking those concepts. So it’s best to avoid writing about the splendors of the seasons unless you intend to use their psychological associations for some specific purpose in your poem.
If you’re going to write literal nature poetry in a serious way then you need to be aware of the long and honorable tradition of poems that celebrate the Earth’s transcendental beauty and look back to a time of innocence.
With that beauty now being threatened by pollution and climate change, there is an urgent need for nature poetry that inspires people to alter their behavior in order to protect the environment and prevent the meltdown of the planet.
An excellent model for poetry that examines our relationship to nature can be found in the work of contemporary poet Gary Snyder, a Zen Buddhist and former member of the San Francisco beat movement. Snyder has written many fine books of poetry as well as essays on the subject so dear to his heart, but the most highly regarded is the epic Mountains and Rivers Without End which took him 40 years to complete.
Let’s close with a poem by Snyder called “Meeting the Mountains”:
“He crawls to the edge of the foaming creek
He backs up the slab ledge
He puts a finger in the water
He turns to a trapped pool
Puts both hands in the water
Puts one foot in the pool
Drops pebbles in the pool
He slaps the water surface with both hands
He cries out, rises up and stands
Facing toward the torrent and the mountain
Raises up both hands and shouts three times!”
A. S. Maulucci is the author of“Anxious Love,”“100 Love Sonnets,” “Dear Dante” and several other books. You can read his poetry at www.greentigerproductions.com and his fiction at www.anthonymaulucci.com.