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Tuesday, 10 February 2009

Nature Poetry

extract from the poem Koi by John Burnside

All afternoon we've wandered from the pool
to alpine beds and roses
and the freshly painted
palm house

all afternoon
we've come back to this shoal
of living fish.

Crimson and black
or touched with gold
the koi hang in a world of their invention
with nothing that feel like home
- a concrete pool
and unfamiliar plants spotted with light
birdsong and traffic
pollen and motes of dust

and every time the veil above their heads
shivers into noise
they dart

and scatter

though it seems more ritual now
than lifelike fear
as if they understood
in principle
but could not wholly grasp

the vividness of loss

I suppose most people when they think of nature poetry think first of someone like William Wordsworth, say:-

My heart leaps up when I behold
A rainbow in the sky:
So was it when my life began;
So is it now I am a man;
So be it when I shall grow old,
Or let me die!
The Child is father of the Man;
And I could wish my days to be
Bound each to each by natural piety.

or John Clare, with a poem like:-

The thistledown's flying, though the winds are all still,
On the green grass now lying, now mounting the hill,
The spring from the fountain now boils like a pot;
Through stones past the counting it bubbles red-hot.

The ground parched and cracked is like overbaked bread,
The greensward all wracked is, bents dried up and dead.
The fallow fields glitter like water indeed,
And gossamers twitter, flung from weed unto weed.

Hill-tops like hot iron glitter bright in the sun,
And the rivers we're eying burn to gold as they run;
Burning hot is the ground, liquid gold is the air;
Whoever looks round sees Eternity there.

From remarks I have heard or seen expressed recently, it would seem that many people now think of someone they regard as being a Romantic or a peasant poet, usually someone from the past. Indeed, that last criteria appears to be the most telling. And why is that? I've heard it several times expressed in recent days that it is no longer possible to write sensible poetry about nature. (Not sure in which sense sensible is being used there!) Nature is, to coin a phrase, all messed up. It is polluted, it has been genetically modified; its ecology, as often as not, is in shreds; it is threatened by global warming, and by much that is more insidious even than global warming. That which has raised and sustained, not only us, but all life over millenia, that which has been our cradle and our nursery, will be our grave, and still is (so far) our home; that which I have seen, ( as Wordsworth put it,) and now can see no more, has all but passed away. Or to quote again from the same verse: That there hath pass'd away a glory from the earth. Had he been living now, he might have used the same words with a slightly different feeling. It is not personal mortality that spoils the picture now, it is universal mortality, the end of everything.

Therefore, it is said, people - and by implication, especially poets - cannot be interested in poetry as they once were. Really? I think that those who feel that way must have in mind a rather impoverished form of poetry, one that maybe just describes a sunset not very differently from the way it has been described a thousand times before; an outmoded form of poetry, in fact, one that has no truck with the darkening of nature that is taking place, one that ignores the fracturing of nature that we are engaged in, one that shuts its eyes to the disfiguring of the natural world. Yes, one that avoids mention of the darkening, the fraturing and the disfiguring even of our own natures.

Good nature poetry, to my mind, begins in accurate observation, continues with precise description and then moves you on, placing you not-quite-where-you-thought-you-were in the great scheme of things, so that at the end you feel differently about some aspect of nature - and therefore about yourself - than you did at the beginning. It changes your relationship to nature and weaves you into the fabric of it in a way you had not not realised you could be. Wordsworth's poetry did that. It still can do that. And so can the poetry of many contemporary and recent poets: Alice Oswald and John Burnside spring readily to mind, as do Dylan Thomas and Ted Hughs. Neither must we forget Seamus Heaney. He is not always thought of as a nature poet, but he is, and a splendid one at that. And I would specially recommend the work of Alice Oswald:

Easternight, the mind's midwinter

I stood in the big field behind the house
at the centre of all visible darkness

a brick of earth, a block of sky,
there lay the world, wedged
between its premise and its conclusion

From Field

The fact that nature has changed - if that is, indeed, a fact - has made no difference to the relevance of Wordsworth's poetry. Before he and the other Romantic Poets got to work on our sensibilities The Lake District and other such places were almost universally regarded as dangerous, unwholesome, ugly areas of wilderness. Wild places to be avoided. But now, some would maintain, nature is going back to being dangerous and unwholesome. And that is not just the wild places, which hardly seem to exist now, but all of it. Nowhere can you escape the desecrating, toxigenic hand of man. That someone needs to speak out about it hardly needs saying. Almost daily someone does. Certainly, it is true that man (who is himself part of natue, let us not forget) is the one most able - and morally charged - to speak up for nature. And why should the poet over all others have that moral obligation? Because it is also true that man is everywhere speaking out. Yet still the desecration and the poisoning goes on. Why? It surely must be that all the speaking out is failing to change hearts and minds. And that must be because the politicians cannot change hearts and minds. They are too caught in their self-made webs of expedience and compromise. The responsibility must fall to those who have chosen or been chosen to be the guardians and the first line exponents of language, the poets and writers of our generation.

We make language, it has been said, and language makes us, but not just language; we are physical beings; mental beings; spiritual beings, and our whole being must be involved in our dedication to nature - as it is involved in the finest examples of poetry and prose. For the sad thing is that we are no longer talking just about the nature that once was, our traditional environment, in other words. No, we are talking about nature adapted, modified, suffused by the habits of science, including, of course, bad science.

I chose John Burnside for my opening example because although in many respects he is a one-off, having bucked just about every trend going, his work nevertheless seems to me to point a way that nature poetry might go. He may not seem to be too focussed on nature. Indeed, he may not seem to be too focussed on anything much at all. His gaze is apt to pick out that which most folk would not stop to register: "a look we cannot place", "a lime-green weed", "a glimpse of powder-blue", leaf mould, a fungal trace or tracks in snow, a litter of leaves. But as he looks he seems to see out of the corner of his eye the presence of man, who doesn't get much of a mention, except as Burnside is both man and the narrator. Man's presence is implied, though, by the way it is felt impinging on the scraps that Burnside sees. Man is everywhere defining what he is and what is his, negotiating with his equally invisible companions and competitors, the rest of nature. So Burnside, who, miraculously, seemig not to mean to, can beautifully conjure up the English countryside, paints not so much a landscape as a borderland where all are engaged in something that is not entirely present, must be spiritual and (for those reasons?) is not precisely explicable. In a poem called Halloween the narrator peels bark from a tree to smell its ghost. Everything is insubstantial, flux and flow. The borderland is forever breaking up: the fern-work of ice and water.

I will leave you withan extract from Alice Oswald's Dart, a meditation on Devon's fabulous river of that name.

What I love is one foot in front of another. South south west and down the contours. I go slipping

between Black Ridge and White Horse Hill into a bowl of the moor where echoes can't get out.












and I find you in the reeds, a trickle coming out of a bank, a foal of a river

one step-width water

of linked stones

trills in the stones

glides in the trills

eels in the glides

in each eel a fingerwidth of sea


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