V  P  R

Contemporary Poetry and Poetics






Perhaps one of the reasons modern nature poetry
is often so insipid is that many poets think Wordsworth
and Thoreau have explained the subtleties of its value,
so their poems are a kind of shorthand addition to this canon. 
Yet, in an age that is almost a century and a half post-Darwin,
few modern poets really grapple with the assumptions
that underlie Wordsworth’s rationalizations, and fewer still
with the kind of hard evidence that comprises Clare’s poems.

    For the last eighteen years, I have had my morning coffee looking out over an algae-riddled pond.  A creek runs beside it, lined with hawthorn, willow, and cottonwoods.  The pond is only about half an acre and rises and falls with the height of the water in the creek.  Often a blue heron stands in one of its rounded corners and feeds on frogs and salamanders that paddle air for a few long seconds before disappearing in a sleek efficient gulp.  Year after year, rafts of mallards have hatched out.  Their numbers dwindled daily from a dozen or so to two or three, often one.  A pair of otters came in for a two week feast on the bass I had planted.  Pin-striped garter snakes slip along the grassy edges catching mice and grasshoppers.  The pond itself is a roiling mass of snails, rotifers, leeches, skippers, water-boatman, crayfish, the larvae of a welter of flying insects, pollywogs, and bi-planed dragonflies that cruise above the vegetal murk catching mosquitoes.  A pond is one of nature’s cities:  it’s overcrowded, smelly, busy with a thousand comings and goings.  Perhaps it is this window on the natural world and its commerce that draws me to poetry that tries to make sense of what is seen there.     
    Yet much of what many have called “nature poetry” or nature writing seems too easy, overripe, and pretentious not only in its claims but the reverential, inflated description.  We can surely trace the contours of the debate to the Romantics who pushed pastoral poetry to a new extreme.  Yet for all Wordsworth’s rather pretty descriptions of nature, he worked very hard at trying to understand the way it influenced his emotions, how it seemed to conjoin with his memory and childhood in intricate and subtle ways, how it encouraged him to examine spiritual issues.  He gave us one of the most complete and comprehensive records documenting his personal reasons for feeling about nature the way he does.  There are other compelling views.  John Clare gave us a radically different but equally capacious perspective.  We also see a comprehensive world view demonstrated in Native American legends and songs and interviews like the one Neihardt did with Black Elk.  Yet what is sadly lacking in much of the current writing that utilizes nature imagery is a sense of an underlying aesthetic that goes beyond cliché, that aims for a real and personal understanding or some rationale for feeling the way one does.
    One of the most thorough meditations about how nature affects an individual is recorded in Wordsworth’s Prelude.  He not only recollects how nature was kind to childhood, but what it means to him as an adult.  He is a man of leisure wandering the countryside trying to decide which vale to follow, which wood to enter, how long to nap and observe, how much to make of any one thing.  He is beset by “Aeolian visitations” (3), the sense of  “a higher power / than Fancy” (3) driving him on, the circumspect sense that some of this is “self-congratulation” (4), and yet he has been inspired to pursue “some noble theme” (4).  And pursue it he does, relentlessly.  He says:

        Dust as we are, the immortal spirit grows
        Like harmony in music; there is a dark
        Inscrutable workmanship that reconciles
        Discordant elements, makes them cling together
        In one society. (10)

In this pre-Darwinian view, he intuits a harmony even though it is “inscrutable” and “dark.”  The source of this harmony is not overtly Christian; in fact, it seems more Platonic when he says, “Wisdom and Spirit of the universe! / Thou Soul that art the eternity of thought / That givest to forms and images a breath / And everlasting motion” (12).  There is some felt Ideal, some ennobling force that inspires him to consider not the “mean and vulgar works of man” but “high objects” and “enduring things,” a “grandeur in the beatings of the heart” (12).   The forms of nature and its beauties impress him in subtle, unconscious ways which can come back at “maturer seasons” and make connections that were not available at the time; the “giddy bliss” of youthful experience “works along the blood” and can re-emerge later (17).  However, he is also wary of his own nostalgia and its blurring of realities:  he says he hopes he hasn’t been “misled. . . / By an infirmity of love for days / Disowned by memory — fancying flowers where none / . . . can survive” (18).   And several times in the Prelude he illustrates that our deep feeling is also partly self-created:  the “Babe,” described in Book II, “through the growing faculties of sense / Doth like an agent of the one great Mind / Create, creator and receiver both, / Working but in alliance with the works / Which it beholds” (27), and when he describes himself like a shepherd alone on a hill, he “looks far forth / Into the boundless sea, and rather makes / Than finds what he beholds” (48). 
    This wariness is also evident in the co-terminus “Tintern Abbey” where he acknowledges that “of all that we behold / From this green earth; of all the mighty world / Of eye, and ear, — both what they half create, / and what perceive; well pleased to recognize / In nature and the language of the sense / The anchor of my purest thoughts, the nurse, the guide, the guardian of my heart. . .” (Poetical Works, 164-65).  Although he attributes the sentiment of the “half create” line to Edward Young who wrote a long blank verse meditation called Night Thoughts, it is what makes the work more relevant or current in our modern era and adds a deeper level of interior circumspection than elsewhere in either the Prelude or “Tintern Abbey.”  He acknowledges that despite the “inward concords” (Prelude, 28) and the “presence” that suggests a “sense sublime / Of something far more deeply interfused,” he may be creating this presence out of the pleasures he takes in his own satisfactions, the outpouring of a life exalted by its privileges, its habitable idlenesses.  In fact, he makes this point most overtly in Book III: “I have been speaking, for my theme has been / What passed within me.  Not of outward things / Done visibly for other minds, words, signs, / Symbols or actions, but of my own heart” (39).  He was an astute student of nostalgia and frequently examines the falsifying effects of  “after-meditation” (51), of creating more than recording.  It is this awareness of the distance between meaning and his creation of it that welcomes him into the twentieth century, for doubt about our historical paradigms and assurances is where we live.  
    If we look at the imagery that encourages Wordsworth’s eruptions of feeling — “melodious birds,” “fluttering breezes,” “murmuring” fountains, “sounding cataracts,” (Prelude, 30) and “steep and lofty cliffs” (Poetical Works, 163) — it is generalized and slightly overstated, romanticized, something like stock characters in a play.  Similarly, his images of the human world, for which nature is an antidote, also seem generalized, perhaps even cribbed from King Lear rather than something he experienced intimately:  “the heavy and weary weight / of this unintelligible world” and “the fretful stir / unprofitable, and the fever of the world” (Poetical Works, 164).  Furthermore, like Goldsmith in “The Deserted Village” and Gray in “Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard,” his description of peasant or hermit life is rimed in sentimental overstatement.  Gray imagines the fieldhands going to work every morning: “How jocund did they drive their team afield!” (114) — whistling contentedly like Disney’s dwarves; Goldsmith sees village life as “Dear lovely bowers of innocence and ease” (129) where the peasant spent the “sweet oblivion of his daily care” (131); Wordsworth calls them “plain-living people” who like to “roam the hills” (58).

For him nature is “a never-failing principle of joy” in counter-balance with the “lonely rooms” “mid the din of towns and cities” (Poetical Works, 164), and when he addresses Coleridge in The Prelude it is with some astonishment that the man from the city could arrive at the same emotional place as this “stripling of the hills” (Prelude, 35).  Yet there is a general lack of specificity in Wordsworth’s nature poetry, partly because he is a poet who comes to poetry through abstraction and not image — much like C.K. Williams, Michael Ryan, Anne Carson, or Stephen Dunn in our era; partly because he doesn’t live in it the way John Clare does.  Even though he suggests that when “Some lovely Image in the song rose up” (55) while he was toiling over his poetry writing, he “darted forward” to write it down, then came back to petting his terrier, it is interesting to note that “Image” is capitalized and he compares it to Venus rising “full-formed” from the sea.  The image seems more in service to tradition and historical connection than to accuracy and authenticity.  Clare always works the other way around; for him, nature’s images are the most curious, and it is his job to record them and find the threads that connect them to some idea or human interaction. Here are some fairly random examples that exhibit his method and his attention to detail and accuracy.  The first describes a mother fox and her young:

        She snuffs and barks if any passes bye
        And swings her tail and turns prepared to flye
        The horseman hurys bye she bolts to see
        And turns agen from danger never free
        If any stands she runs among the poles
        And barks and snaps and drives them in the holes
        The shepherd sees them and the boy goes bye
        And gets a stick and progs the hole to try
        They get all still and lie in safty sure
        And out again when safety is secure
        And start and snap at blackbirds bounding bye. (248-49)

Or this from “Turkeys”:
        The turkey gobbles loud and drops his rag
        And struts and sprunts his tail and drags
        His wing on ground and makes a huzzing noise. (273)

This about "Partridge Nests":

        They lay in any hole without a nest
        And oft a horses footing pleases best
        And there they safely lie till weeders come
        When boys half fill their hats and take them home. (277)

      Wordsworth is a great observer of how and why nature affected his emotions and the workings of his mind; it gave him a sense of purpose and value; Clare is a great observer of nature but wasn’t so sure about its ultimate purpose and allowed that doubt and curiosity to drive poems to unexpected places.  He knew it inspired him, and he felt a strong kinship with the plight of animals, but his initial impetus is to “get it right,” to give it an authentic voice because he saw so many other poets getting it wrong.  Both Wordsworth and Clare felt deeply connected to nature, but reported their allegiances in vastly different ways.  One is essentially abstract, the other physical.
    Another way to look at it is that Clare saw himself as an insider, Wordsworth as the outside interpreter.  This distinction is clearest when we compare poems that take similar stances, and we look at how they differ.  Clare’s “Summer Images” is an imitation of that tradition where the leisured, educated speaker rambles through the countryside dawdling and making observations, like Wordsworth in The Prelude, Gray in his “Elegy,” and Goldsmith in “The Deserted Village.”  Clare’s poem is too derivative and predictable, but there are several stanzas of pure, delightful Clarean moments.  As a peasant insider he describes the guilt of idleness where “the hearts better mood / feels sick of doing ill” (126); he also understands the “Cow tending boy” who is “to toil unreconciled / Absorbed as in some vagrant summer dream” (126).  These are not peasants jocund and whistling off to work, but people who have an active inner life they can’t really afford — the boy “starts dancing to his shadow on the wall / Feeling self gratified / Nor fearing human thrall” (126).  The “human thrall” the boy fears is both the spectator who would laugh at his self-absorbed idleness and the farmer who is the sponsor of his toil.  Clare identifies with the rustic in ways Wordsworth and Goldsmith cannot.

    Perhaps one of the reasons modern nature poetry is often so insipid is that many poets think Wordsworth and Thoreau have explained the subtleties of its value, so their poems are a kind of shorthand addition to this canon.  Yet, in an age that is almost a century and a half post-Darwin, few modern poets really grapple with the assumptions that underlie Wordsworth’s rationalizations, and fewer still with the kind of hard evidence that comprises Clare’s poems.  Wordsworth and Clare are the twin peaks of the 19th Century that should be climbed before we pack our bags for wilderness writing cabins or editing nature journals.
    Edward Storey, in A Right To Song, says that John Clare made his part of England, Helpston, memorable because he was “a poet who made this mixed landscape his own and who remains, as Edmund Blunden said of him, ‘the best poet of nature that this country and for all I know any other country ever produced'” (31).  The criterion for “best” here is clearly the specificity and accuracy of his images, but Wordsworth has a different agenda and poetic aptitude, so it is perhaps unfair to compare them as Storey and Blunden do.  Clare is constitutionally unable to tease out the abstract nuances of emotional causes and effects the way Wordsworth can, and Wordsworth has almost no deep knowledge of the physical realities of rural life, no fresh and particular sense of rural images.   
    One of Clare’s pet annoyances is still shared by people who actually know something about the intimacies of rural life. In prose Clare directly addresses the problem he has with “nature poetry”: “Pastoral poems are full of nothing but the old threadbare epithets of ‘sweet singing cuckoo’ ‘love lorn nightingale’ ‘fond turtles’ ‘sparkling brooks’ ‘green meadows’ ‘leafy woods’ etc etc. . . everything else is reckoned low and vulgar in fact they are to [sic] rustic for the fashionable” (101).  These worn phrases and ideas contradict the realities he knows.  He is as annoyed with literature that gets it wrong as he is with people in cities who know little about the rural commonplace but fake like they do.  In a letter to Taylor and Hessey, Clare describes a “gentleman and lady... lavishing praises on the beautiful song of the nightingale” (457) which was in fact a thrush. He accuses Londoners of identifying every bird they hear after sunset as a nightingale, and says “such is the ignorance of nature in large Citys that are nothing less then over grown prisons that shut out the world and all its beautys” (457).  Furthermore, his criticism of what’s fashionable goes beyond the literary; it’s also the source of a contradiction that poignantly affected his life and writing.  In his long unfinished poem called “The Parish,” Clare criticizes the new kind of farmer and his daughter who now treat the poor as slaves and are keen to create class distinctions.  He says of the new farmers’ daughters that they no longer milk cows and sing, and are no longer “red and rosy as the spring” (99).

        They sit before their glasses hour by hour
        Or paint unnatural daubs of fruit or flower—
        . . .
        Aping at fashions which their betters hate
        Affecting high lifes airs to scorn the past
        Trying to be something makes them nought at last
        . . .
        All the profits pigs and poultry made
        Were gave to Miss for dressing and parade (99-100)

For Clare, “aping” what was fashionable spoiled the art and artist, and it quite literally starved the poor.  When society and fashion came to Helpston, the old relations between landowners and workers changed.  The plain oak table set for “master son and serving man and clown” where “without distinction daily sat them down” (98) was now exclusive and no longer plain.  The irony that poultry and pigs should be used to frill the farmer’s daughter’s dress rather than to assure the survival of the community it took to raise them was about all Clare had to chew on, some days.  This melding in his mind of fashion’s falsity and waste, of nature’s beauty and exploitation, of high-class educated poets and their “love lorn nightingales,” created an urgency to tell it like he saw it. The irony here is that he is “telling it” both to the high-class poets who wished to lift him up and get his books into print and to the educated bourgeoisie, those primping daughters who take up painting and poetry reading.  The peasants could neither read nor had time to; however, they generally would have understood nature as intimately as he did, as well as the ironies he observes about class distinctions.
    Clare’s mind was most at home in describing rural events and things in nature:  in “Sport in the Meadows” he writes 62 lines about children picking “cowslaps,” a yellow pasture flower also called a cowslip; in other poems he has 82 lines on boys fishing, 142 lines on Sunday walks, 68 on the death of a badger, ten poems on or about bird nests, from the crane to the nuthatch.   In the fishing poem, he is as careful to depict the boys as he is the “rotten dunghills” that house the “grub and worm”(74), the way the water in the stream runs, dragonflies, moorhens, the fish’s struggle when hooked, maidens who cross these streams to milk the cows, and resting flies.  Each is endowed with a particularity that he relishes.  One is reminded of Keats’s notion of “negative capability” and how easily able he is to enter the “consciousness” of things living in his landscape.  
    Robert Pinsky wrote that “Poetically, the question is what tone or status we will find appropriate for the act of description.  Description is the great rhetorical burden” (97), but for Clare description always came before meaning because truth centered on the authentic depiction of things, not in how those things were used rhetorically.  Many of his poems have very little content; he often lets the accuracy of detail, his microscopic attention to things, be the whole point of the poem.  One reason is he knew the rhetoric of his contemporaries’ poems was often as weary and trite as the details, so if he got the details right he would be at least one step ahead.   
    Although nature poems are still often full of “threadbare” ideas, the “low and vulgar” certainly has a home in modern poetry, and what is “fashionable” seems to vary from press to press.  Generally, nature is used as decorative background in poetry today or as a safe illustration of some counter-image or concept the poet wishes to consider — unimpeded by the motives and dramas of human life because “natural” images are “pure” and elemental in ways that images about humans could never be.  I’m struck by how often Charles Wright uses nature images when his one theme is the quality and breadth and intricacies of his own thinking; he is an abstract Wordsworthian genius who colorizes with natural tints, but he’s more interested in the connotation and sonic reverberations of the thing than in representing the thing itself. Billy Collins is also a poet of the indoors who likes to use what’s out his window in imaginative play, but we get the sense that the glass presents a fine division.
    Many modern poets want to enter the nature debate, but only do so in bland ways that remind us of Clare’s complaint, or they endorse the age-old pastoral division between country life and the din of city life, or they take Keats’s assumption in “Ode to a Nightingale” and play it out in a minor key — that birds and animals live deep, ecstatic lives compared to the cripplingly self-conscious human mode of action.   All of these points of view are tiresome; they march on-stage like another version of the staid, up-tight Englishman or the cranky, demanding mother-in-law.  Even nature poems famous for their music or imagery often lack a new angle on the debate.  Yeats’s “Lake Isle of Innisfree” is a bucolic daydream that merely invokes Wordsworth’s assumptions about the peace one gets as a respite against the “roadway” and “pavements grey” (39), against civilization and its discontents.  The narrator so romanticizes the place — where “midnight’s all a glimmer, and noon a purple glow” (39), where time is measured by crickets, linnet’s wings, and lapping water — we can’t really imagine him surviving in his little wattle cabin, growing beans and raising bees.  We don’t know why this “peace” is so fulfilling, other than we are well conditioned to the idea by eons of poets telling us the same thing.  The poem presents a stereotype, but a pretty one.  
    Similarly, Wendell Berry’s poem “The Peace of Wild Things,” however attractive its few details and its meter, invokes this same cliché:

        hen despair for the world grows in me
        and I wake in the night at the least sound
        in fear of what my life and my children’s lives may be,
        I go and lie down where the wood drake
        rests in his beauty on the water, and the great heron feeds.
        I come into the peace of wild things
        who do not tax their lives with forethought
        of grief.  I come into the presence of still water.
        And I feel above me the day-blind stars
        waiting with their light.  For a time
        I rest in the grace of the world, and am free. (69)

We all know the drake in the poem doesn’t feel the same peace Berry’s narrator does, despite the shaky assumption that it has no “forethought of grief.”  It is as liable to be eaten by a fox or a hawk as it is to gobble up peacefully sunning snails.  Clare is clear about this when he says that the fox is “from danger never free.”   True “peace” is rather reserved for those on the top of the foodchain, those who can completely forget about the fact that they would make something a fine meal at almost any given moment.  And what looks serene and tranquil on the surface or from our lovely distances is most likely an illusion, some thing’s death about to happen or just accomplished.  Berry’s poem is religious both in its allusions and meter, for he takes as his poetic model the Twenty-Third Psalm.  His lavish use of anapests and the superiamb (a pyrrhic followed by a spondee), his quiet reverential tone, and his reclining near “still waters” suggest that he’s made a nature psalm.  His “peace,” though, is something of an illusion, suggested by the personification of the “day-blind stars / waiting with their light”: of course they are not waiting at all, no more than the “wood drake” (a male wood duck or hint of Biblical antiquity?) “rests” in his “beauty,” no more than the world is full of “grace.”  We are grateful that he acknowledges his consolation is only “for a time” and not a more permanent spiritual Novocain.  But he does say he is “free” when he stretches out there, but of what?  Concern or worry about the future of mankind, the threat to his children’s lives, of his own insomnia?  “Free” is an awfully commodious and vague word here, sentimental in its embrace of value.  Is his consolation primarily Christian, the orderly world emblematic of God’s infinite dexterity?  Probably not.  We imagine it has more to do with preserving the earth from over-development so that his children have a chance to experience the awe he feels in the presence of nature, but the Christian allusions suggest a pre-Darwinian world-view.  Perhaps a more real picture of the natural world would have been given to him if he had gone out at night when he felt all this fear instead of waiting for the sunshine and the day-blind stars; the night has its beauty too, but traveling in it afoot and alone makes us feel more like the hunted animal than the reclining god.
    Worse than invoking the peace cliché to find the poem’s emotional value is the poem that doesn’t even try to understand its intellectual underpinnings and displays a self-righteous sense of experience, one where the managing editor of the poem is glibly demonstrating his or her “peace” or full life, wallowing about in the physical world feeling physical and charmed by this exuberance.  This type of poem often gets embroiled in rather narrow-minded gender relations. Dorothy Livesay’s poem “Other” published in Norton’s Introduction to Poetry is an example.  The speaker sets herself up in opposition to men, who “prefer” “a road / Circling,” a “woman / Limpid in sunlight / Held as a shell / On a sheltering island,” and “islands” instead of the “mainland.”  She, on the other hand, is “mainland,” who ranges “From upper country to the inner core”; there is not an orchard she hasn’t slept in, “a hollow where I have not wrapped / The sage about me,” there isn’t a time she hasn’t loved, nor “a prairie field/ Where I have not furrowed my tongue,” etc etc, as Clare would say.  This is Wordsworthian imagery that uses general landscape details, but she uses them in the way she uses the men in the poem: to make herself look more vivid and interesting.  Yet the fact that she wraps sage around herself to watch the stars, and furrows a field with her tongue, suggests that she’s not paying attention to the landscape the way Clare would; it’s only there as a metaphor for her feelings.  Although the poem is full of details about nature, its covert intention is to illustrate a thinly disguised sex poem, intent on taking a potshot at “men” who of course must possess their women, must protect and shelter them, must encircle them, turn them into islands, and haven’t the sense to allow them to be whole and “mainland.”  She, on the other hand, says,

                I know
        The country I caress:
        A place where none shall trespass
        None possess:
        A mainland mastered
        From its inaccess.

        Men prefer an island. (172)

Because it is as inadvisable to “furrow” one’s tongue across a “prairie field” (an odd redundancy), as it is to caress a country, we can only assume that we are in the province of metaphor and that the sage, marshland, brushland, the island and mainland, the pines and cactus of the poem are also only metaphors.  They are the smokesreen used to hide the real intent of the poem, the message that women who love women never have issues of power, are never jealous, never want to possess the “other,” never want to shelter or protect her.
    Akin to merely using the landscape for metaphoric purposes is using the realities of it to dramatize and sentimentalize nature itself before examining one’s assumptions.  We cannot doubt that Mary Oliver feels deeply about nature, but she generally fails to convince us that we ought to care in the way she does.  She seems to think that if she beats the drum loudly enough, we’ll start dancing too.  It isn’t the peace of wild things and their lack of forethought about grief which makes them robust models for the seize-the-day praise that propels her poems, but something more amorphous and general.  We get the “robust” in all the active verbs and overstated drama, but there is also a sporty affirmation about the miracle of life that threads through her work, that everything in nature is an unequivocal good.  One short poem, “May,” suffices to illustrate all these points:

        May, and among the miles of leafing,
        blossoms storm out of the darkness—
        windflowers and moccasin flowers.  The bees
        dive into them and I too, to gather
        their spiritual honey.  Mute and meek, yet theirs
        is the deepest certainty that this existence too—
        this sense of well-being, the flourishing
        of the physical body—rides
        near the hub of the miracle that everything
        is a part of, is as good
        as a poem or prayer, can also make
        luminous any dark place on earth. (53)

Without a God to attach this miracle to, yet using religious imagery and sentiment to add value to the experience, the poet dramatizes emotional effects.  Her reference to “moccasin flowers” also gently elicits Native American spirituality (as she does more overtly in other poems like “Ghosts,” which I will consider next).  Essentially, the effects are pushy in this poem: the verbs (“storm,” “dive,” “rides”) are aggressive and don’t really match the realities: buds grow rapidly but “storm” is an overstatement; the “existence” of a live thing is rarely a “ride” unless perhaps it is a By-the-wind Sailor; her diving into the buds for “spiritual honey” is cute but pure metaphor without a literal connection.  We can say she’s speaking only of the “flourishing body,” of  “well-being,” but her word “existence” is so large and inclusive, as is “any dark place,” that her gesture is toward as much meaning as she can gather in.   And “deepest certainty” is a bold, teetering generalization which she hasn’t earned by looking at issues and alternatives that hold or don’t hold, or by addressing complications.  The poem rests on a perception that is overly asserted and glib. The essential lie of the poem is that buds can “make / luminous any dark place on earth.”  What patient just told he has cancer will feel “luminous” about the buds?  Choose any major disease, any crippling accident, any heart-core loss — and the buds won’t quite do it.  Very “dark places” are never so easily assuaged.  Beauty and flowers can be a pleasant momentary distraction, but the earth is not suddenly made “luminous” because of that distraction.
    Michael Pollan, in The Botany of Desire, describes Oliver’s “miracle” differently:  “Design in nature is but a concatenation of accidents, culled by natural selection until the result is so beautiful or effective as to seem a miracle of purpose” (xxi).  In our post-Dawinian era, one has to at least define one’s spiritual territory in full knowledge of what others’ objections are.   We can’t just pick things off intellectual/spiritual systems like berries and gussy them up with baskets and ribbons and smart verbs.  If the poem is to be meaningful, it must grapple with the issues at stake, or at least let the reader know how the priorities are arranged.  When Wallace Stevens, in “Sunday Morning,” extols nature because it has outlasted our religious systems, he’s sure to acknowledge “the leaves / Of sure obliteration on our paths” (69) and that our “heavenly fellowship” on earth is “Of men that perish and of summer morn” (70).  He also makes “grievings in loneliness” and “all pleasures and all pains” (67) part of his embrace of nature.  Whether we believe him or not, we know how he arrived at his attachment to nature and that it includes the death and pain, that it comprehends the whole.
    Oliver mixes conventional Christian spiritual language with that of Native American imagery, but the effect is essentially exploitative and philosophically free-floating.  Although there is much to admire in Native American aboriginal cultures — their reverence for the land and animals, their regard for the mentally disturbed, their knowledge of medicinal plants, the way they gave thanks to the animals they ate — often writers co-opt aspects of their religious system and implant it into a modern colonized world so that it seems sentimental and nostalgic.  Given that most Native Americans were nomadic and non-agrarian, they depended on a variable food source.  They ate or starved depending on the vicissitudes of nature, and as we know from Psychology variant reinforcement is the strongest kind.  The success of their dances and prayers was directly tied to survival; one could not sit in the tepee all day watching the nature channel through the tent-flap and expect to eat.  Their whole religious system — of purification, the hallucinatory spirit quest as a kind of initiation rite and search for a public self, dances, chants, sweat lodges, fasting, and killing animals — involved a complex evolution of spiritual and personal identity.  We might admire the way a young man would seize upon an animal as a kind of patron saint to give him protection and characteristics helpful in survival; we might find it quaint that one’s “power bird” was the magpie or the sagehen, but the cunning and fleetness acquired were for hunting and war.  Few of us soft civilian types could endure the deprivation and pain at the center of their ceremonies and rites, even their daily existence, let alone hunt or war the way they did.   Few of us would be willing to perform the rites that Black Elk describes in Black Elk Speaks:  eating the raw liver of the freshly killed bison (58), riding naked into battle (15), enduring the “chapped breast dance” or the test where sunflower seeds were lit on the wrist and one must wait until they burned well into the skin (60), kissing first fish we caught (65), throwing each other off horses as they galloped around the sacred tree, dance suspended from that tree by rawhide thongs cut into and attached to our chests or backs (98).  Chief Moses of the Columbias acquired the sagehen as his spirit animal, and when a number of his family contracted measles, he gave his daughter tea made of sagehen droppings and she lived (Half-Sun On the Columbia, 196).  Most of us can’t quite swallow this kind of quaint.  
    We do admire the pantheistic view that gives divinity to all things; when Black Elk says, “Birds make their nests in circles, for theirs is the same religion as ours” (195),  we wish we had that reverence, but it is hard-earned and bloody at its center.  In gratitude, they tasted the still-hot heart or the limp liver of the things they just murdered; most of us draw the line way back there, not even at pulling the trigger, because our food comes wrapped in cellophane and doesn’t look anything like the thing it came from.
    We also see the reverence for nature in other aboriginal cultures that are somewhat nomadic and depend on what the forest might provide.  Colin M. Turnbull writes about this spiritual element in The Forest People about his years living with the Pygmies in the Ituri Forest of the Congo:  “...to be alone [in the forest] was as though you were daring to look on the face of the great God of the forest himself, so overpowering was the goodness and beauty of the world all around.  Every trembling leaf, every weathered stone, every cry of an animal or chirp of a cricket tells you that the forest is alive with some presence” (278).  Not only is he referring to the multiple presences that inhabit the forest but something larger, as if one had one’s finger on the pulse of life itself.  Of course, this is Turnbull translating what they feel into his own words, and “goodness” seems parallel with “bounty” rather than any kind of moral judgment.  He says the “goodness of the forest” (92) was explained by Moke, his friend: “The forest is a father and mother to us. . .when something big goes wrong, like illness or bad hunting or death, it must be because the forest is sleeping and not looking after its children.  So what do we do?  We wake it up. . .by singing to it” (93).  This goodness is not sentimental.  For example, he says that “I have seen Pygmies singeing feathers off birds that were still alive, explaining that the meat is more tender if death comes slowly” (101).  Their initiation rites, done with neighboring villagers, are a bloody “toughening-up process” (225): “The trials of the nkumbi candidate only begin with the actual circumcision.  During the succeeding months — usually two or three now instead of the former six or even twelve — the boys are subjected to one form of mild torture after another” (224-25).   However, “mild” is a euphemism:  being switched under the arms sequential days so that this area becomes raw, notched sticks pinching their skin to the point of drawing blood, being “beaten” with leafy branches until they are used to it and then substituting thorny ones, and having to endure emotional tests as well.  Turnbull says the villagers are more severe than the Pygmies, but the Pygmies understand the necessity for the “toughening” process.
    When poets like Mary Oliver write about history and Native American experience, there is a temptation to skim off the pantheistic reverence without acknowledging any of the bloody underpinnings.  In “Ghosts” she writes about the slaughter of the buffalo by whites in the mid-nineteenth century; of course, it’s a horrendously embarrassing example of white waste and greed (and there’s plenty today to choose from as well), but that only makes writing about it now with a high-handed moral rectitude and spiritual chumminess to Native Americans almost as shoddy as the hunters shooting from train windows.  She herself is shooting from another kind of train window.  Here are the last two sections of the poem:

        Have you noticed? how the rain
        falls soft as the fall
        of moccasins.  Have you noticed?
        how the immense circles still,
        stubbornly, after a hundred years,
        mark the grass where the rich droppings
        from the roaring bulls
        fell to the earth as the herd stood
        day after day, moon after moon
        in their tribal circle, outwaiting
        the packs of yellow-eyed wolves that are also
        have you noticed? gone now.

        Once only, and then in a dream,
        I watched while, secretly
        and with the tenderness of a caring woman,
        a cow gave birth
        to a red calf, tongued him dry and nursed him
        in a warm corner
        of the clear night
        in the fragrant grass
        in the wild domains
        of the prairie spring, and I asked them,
        in my dream I knelt down and asked them
        to make room for me. (29-30)

    There is so much “wrong” with this, it’s hard to know where to start.  Perhaps with the “facts” on which she balances her statements is best.  First, she either fell for some rich hooey about the cause of these “immense circles” in the grass or is participating in some wishful guesswork.  Given the vastness of the Montana plains and mountains, it is hard to imagine a herd of bison standing in the same circle long enough to create a dung pile whose nutrient effects would last over a hundred years — especially in the same circle surrounded by same wolves.  Also, bull dung isn’t any more rich than a cow’s, and “roaring” bull dung isn’t any more rich than that of the quieter types.  Second, no mammal, especially as large as a cow, gives birth with “tenderness” unless she means that literally, which she doesn’t because she couples it with “the tenderness of any caring woman.”  Presumably, the women who participated in the shooting of the bison from the train windows and horseback were not the caring kind.  Third, repeating and italicizing “have you noticed” introduces a moral urgency and self-satisfied rectitude which she has not earned either by her own noticing or the originality of the complaint, for many writers of prose and poetry have made loud emotional complaints about the bison shooting debacle, and many were made at the time the shootings occurred, not one-hundred years later.  Fourth, there are a pile of overstated words here: “immense,” “rich,” “roaring,” “tribal,” “yellow-eyed” (as the only descriptor for the wolves), “wild domains,” “fragrant grass” which isn’t so fragrant after the cow has just birthed on it, and the convenient, amorphous “dream.”  But worst of all is the gesture at the end where Oliver (we assume she herself is the speaker of the poem because of all that poetic noticing) “kneels” to ask the cow and calf to “make room for me.”  This seems sleazier than Berry’s reclining beside the curiously mosquitoless pond, but perhaps it isn’t.  The rain like the “fall of moccasins,” the dream as parallel to vision and vision-quest, and the apology she gives to the cow and calf are direct appeals to Native American aboriginal culture; the “tribal” circle of the bison is an indirect one.  Furthermore, she quotes two sentences from the “book of the Sioux” in the fourth section.  Yet the kneeling is Christian.  Imagistically, the Christian speaker is apologizing to the Sioux for being a descendant of the whites who slaughtered their, as well as many other Indian tribes’, major food and leather source and thus not only eliminated but desecrated a way of life.  We can admire the humility, but given the time passed and the ideological ground gained about race relations in those 100 years, it’s an empty emotional gesture.  The cow and calf know how much “room” has been left them, Native American descendents aren’t likely to be much impressed with the way she co-opted their cultural history to make a poetic point.  I would rather read a poem like Hopkins’ “Pied Beauty” which fully and clearly embraces a Christian ethic, and which uses Clare-like specificity as illustration of his intimacy with the real details of nature, than a poem like Oliver’s “Ghosts,” which seems opportunistic about its ethics and is not specific and honest in its use of natural details.
     Mary Oliver’s brand of overstatement in both poems is common in modern poetry, and Wordsworth occasionally went there too.  He says, for example, that nature is a “never-failing principle of joy” (50) and it “never did betray the heart that loved her” (165).   These are the sentiments of a young man, and he would come to learn that nature is also a principle of loss and betrayal, for viruses, bacteria, cancers, diseases of all kinds; and genetic errors are as much a part of nature as flowering trees and roaring bulls.       
    We assume that part of the motivation for Oliver’s tone comes out of Horace’s injunction to seize the day, to make our time here really count, and nature seems to present an obvious model for illustrating this claim.  Eagles seize the day, as do fish and swifts and antelopes, etc etc.  Perhaps the most common nature poem is the one that bemoans human self-consciousness, our inability to act as spontaneously, as fully, as ecstatically, as animals, vegetables, birds, or fish.  Keats’s “Ode to a Nightingale” and Shelley’s “Ode to a Skylark” make this argument dramatically, but many poems merely repeat that sentiment without asking very many questions about whether the essential assumption is true or false or is some half-truth.  It doesn’t take an astute observer to notice that dogs suffer their own desires both in forethought and afterthought phases and can be riddled with shame; that horses can be characteristically placid or a bundle of nerves; that rabbits can frighten themselves to death; that the animal kingdom is full of lies and bluffs and torments; that almost every creature fights and whines and bickers.  Although ethologists are still somewhat circumscribed by the strictures of behavioralism and squabble about whether outward cues actually indicate that emotions are being felt, it is completely counter-intuitive to suggest that they aren’t.  One can argue whether the depth and complexity of the emotions are in any way parallel, but only a scientist obtusely loyal to data would argue that they don’t have emotions, or an indoor poet without a foreign hair on the carpet.  Even the depth argument seems crudely anthropocentric, for most emotions belong to the involuntary response, and who is to say a dog’s berserk fear of thunder and lightning is less deep than the average person’s fear at a snake encounter?  If you’ve listened to a calf get branded, you know that the pain runs deep.
    Generally, we impute placidity and contentment when we hear a bird’s song, but there is more than one reason to sing: loneliness, an urge to mate, a territorial conversation, a way to warm up.  We also assume that they have very little to say, but by observing a mare and its foal, we can notice a system of animal communication that has a number of layers and tones.  There is a wealth of information about animal communication in journal articles, chapters in books, and books; much of the debate centers on what constitutes the basis for linguistic communication — words, syntax, “combinatorial productivity,” creativity, etc. — but there is an impressive accumulation of hard data about bee dances, vervet monkey calls, the screams of the rhesus macaques, the clucks of the golden Seabright bantam, the honeyguide’s flight enticements, Irene Pepperberg’s African grey parrot, the odor trails and recruiting gestures of weaver ants, dolphins’ clicks and whistles, the signing of apes and chimps, to name a few.  Although all of this communication is simple compared to humans’, we cannot doubt that it exists and that animals are able to get quite a number of emphatic points across to us and each other.
    In “Ode to a Nightingale” Keats contrasts the “summer ease” in which the bird sings, its constant “happiness,” and the “ecstasy” of its singing, with the human world whose very thinking leads to “sorrow / And leaden-eyed despairs” (206), where children get sick and die, love and beauty fade, and old age is full of sickness and groans.  It is true that birds don’t show their aging like we do, but the idea that they are always happy, never sick, never old, and their love never fades is all poetic guesswork, though Keats carefully ties the permanency of the bird to the use of its song in literature which has remained, we presume, fairly constant over time.  However, invoking this argument that animals lead more spontaneous and joyous lives is generally a way to complain without really seeming to.  There are literally hundreds, probably thousands, of poems that trade on this assumption in the various ways we have of making this point.  Few question it.  In “The Darkling Thrush” Thomas Hardy does sidle up to the idea and questions its validity.  He reverses Keats’s paradigm in several interesting ways: the bird is a common thrush, not the long poeticized nightingale; it sings during the winter among the “bleak twigs,” is “aged” and “frail, gaunt, and small, / In blast-beruffled plume” (137). The thrush appears to be singing “Of joy illimited,” but the speaker knows that in this cold, windy, winter landscape there is “little cause for carolings” and his own literary conditioning may have caused him to think some happiness “trembled through” the bird’s “good-night air” or “Some blessed hope, whereof he knew / And I was unaware.”  Always circumspect, Hardy cannot bring himself to just adopt Keats’s assumption; he has to make it correspond to his own sense of nature.  Like Clare’s, Hardy’s love of nature comes from a keen observation of the physical world and a personal engagement with it.     
    Despite Hardy’s wariness about this point, the next hundred years of poetry about nature generally repeat Keats’s assumption.  In an early poem called “Our Bias,” Auden replays the same tune in a clever way.  He utilizes Yeats’s complaint about civilization and its invention of time not allowing us to live deeply; unlike the rose, we can have our “assurance” shaken by time,  and unlike the lion, we can be put off our leaping. He also repeats Keats’s notion that it’s our thinking and language that impede direct action and frustrate our “success”:

                they, it seems, care only for success:
        While we choose words according to their sound
        And judge a problem by its awkwardness;

        And Time with us was always popular.
        When have we not preferred some going round
        To going straight to where we are? (66)

His “it seems” is a cautionary back-pedaling, for he’s aware of the assumption the poem rests on, but it’s so endowed with literary justification that he’s content to let that be enough.  The poem essentially complains about our “bias,” our inclination toward circumlocution, to “going round” a thing instead of going directly at it, or “straight to where we are.”  Yet if we examine the terms of his argument, we see that he invokes a cliché and then steps away.  One could argue that the tone is slippery, and the speaker is slightly distanced from the “we,” that this might be interpreted as social satire, but the “Our” in the title, the poem’s brief treatment of complex subject matter, and the essential content of the poem don’t allow much satiric room to move in.  Humans are so complex it is really rather simplistic to suggest that there is one place or sense of self that is where or who we “are.”  It is not Time’s fault, though certainly our “words,” our systems of language and religion and politics and the arts overlaid and juxtaposed, make us question what it is we mean by “success.”  Going “straight” toward any goal is as liable to lead to loss as gain, whether you’re a lion or a human.  And if you’ve watched a lion stalk its prey, it does not go “straight” towards it, but uses whatever ruses or stratagems it can to get within striking distance.  Our “bias,” or penchant for being circumspect, is exactly what has led to our success as a species.  Although the cost may be the lack of some “assurance,” it’s a small price for survival, for reclining at the top of the food chain, listening to wood drakes.
    Auden restates the nature versus human problem in a poem called “Their Lonely Betters,” but comes back to the language issue in a more complicated way.  He says of the “vegetables and birds” that not “one of them was capable of lying, / There was not one which knew that it was dying” (118).  This is Berry’s wild things untaxed “with forethought of grief” (69), a standard characterization whose truth is more than questionable.   Donald Griffin has a chapter in his Animal Minds: Beyond Cognition to Consciousness called “Deception and Manipulation” in which he summarizes a number of kinds of animal “lying.”  Besides the deceptions implied by color mimicry and the changing of chromatophores in the skin by squids, chameleons, and fish, there are the more deliberate vocal deceptions by birds trying to scare others from a food source, death simulation by snakes and insects, plover injury ploys to deceive predators, adolescent male chimps in captivity having furtive sex with adult females out of view of the dominant males (and if discovered the “subordinate male hastily covered his erect penis with his hands” (226)), vervet monkeys imitating leopard calls, and male fireflies duped by predatory females of another species as well as males blinking like the predatory females in order to cut down on mating competition.  We can argue about how conscious all this “lying” is, but the glib answer is—theirs is about as conscious as ours. We can identify and name the lying after it occurs, but our simple everyday kind of lying happens at fairly subconscious levels.
    Perhaps we can say that young or middle aged animals don’t meditate much about their own deaths, but they experience grief and loss rather dramatically.  Dogs that have lost their companions generally turn sullen and dispirited for several days, even weeks; horses can throw a whinnying, running and bucking fit when a buddy is taken from the pasture; a goose that has lost his mate to hunters will often leave the flock and fly back over the pond or field and into the line of fire, calling loudly for the missing mate.  We don’t know how much of this loss is internalized, but it’s presumptuous to suggest that “not one ...knew that it was dying,” especially when old animals often crawl off somewhere to accomplish their own ends.  Certainly “knowing” can exist without words. Generally, John Ruskin’s observations about the nuances of the pathetic fallacy are astute, especially when inanimate objects like the sea and the earth are given human emotions, but to assume that animals have no emotions similar to ours is to ignore what is plainly obvious to rural dwellers.  Emotions belong to the involuntary areas of the brain and central nervous system.  Animals clearly experience lust, hatred, jealousy, attraction, comradeship, comfort, fear, terror, and loss; I doubt they feel love or loss the way we know them, nor do they have as many ways to envy, lust, or hate; nor do they have emotions sponsored by complex aesthetic reactions, for our literate consciousnesses have refined and expanded (and sometimes skewed) many of our emotional responses to the world.  But to envy their emotionally uncluttered lives is mere poetic cliché.
    In the last two stanzas, Auden pushes the poem beyond cliché and says,

        Let them leave language to their lonely betters
        Who count some days and long for certain letters;
        We, too, make noises when we laugh or weep;
        Words are for those with promises to keep. (280)

Our language may indeed make us more lonely, having more options for self-analysis and more knowledge about the influences on our well-being, but his reference to our “noises” suggests our kinship with animals, even though our lives are more shaped by our “responsibility for time” and the “promises” we keep.  The point of view shift implied by the pronouns in the titles of these two poems is interesting as well: “Our Bias” versus “Their Lonely Betters.”  The second poem isn’t as assured about its neat divisions, and he sees some value in our human responsibilities and commitments which are a product of the ethics embedded in culture and language.  I don’t think he is merely invoking a Christian sense of dominion, or a Chain of Being, when he uses the word “betters.”  He is, in the first stanza, sitting in “a beach-chair in the shade,” listening to the “Robin-Anthem,” and contemplating differences.  We may be more lonely and have more longings and disappointments, but contemplation, laughing and weeping and kept commitments make this human life “better,” despite a certain penchant for lying and a death-dread.
    Many poets assume that their angst, the depth and nuances of their dread, is universal, so they exploit the gap between the wordless animals so they can talk about themselves in comparison with the placidity and vitality of animal life.  Robert Lowell, for all his strengths as a poet, often used nature imagery in this way.  An example is “Shifting Colors” from Day by Day.  His mind is “weary of self-torture” and his body is “unimpassioned”; he feels that he’s not a part of the nature he sees which is “sundrunk with sex” (119), nor is he full of its “directness that catches / everything on the run and then expires”(120).  His most overt comparison is “Poor measured, neurotic man — / animals are more instinctive virtuosi” (119).   Furthermore, he feels that man is “the one pornographer among the animals” (119), but aberrations and perversions and rape are not exclusive to the human world.  Although “sundrunk” romanticizes animal urges and makes them seem as uncomplicated as air, animals certainly have less self-consciousness about sex, not having been conditioned by two millennia of religious and philosophical embarrassment about it.  For example, Turnbull describes Pygmy sexuality as being so “open” that no instruction was ever necessary.  Cook reported in his Journals that among the Tahitian people “chastity at first sight appeared to be held in no great estimation,” but goes on to suggest that promiscuity was common only among the “lowest class of people” and that these women were “brought to us in order to make the most of the present time” (170).  He doesn’t explain who did the bringing or the intention of the “gift,” but for a person who can’t see his own irony and didn’t know the language of the Tahitians, the class explanation seems both ethno- and religio-centric.  Darwin in Voyage of the Beagle refers to Captain Cook’s account and says that their “licentiousness [has] been greatly reduced by the introduction of Christianity” (438).   Despite religious claims to the contrary, we are just as “sundrunk” on sex as animals are; in fact, even more so, considering that we are not governed by seasonal heats and are “drunk” on it all year round.  Lowell’s choice of “sun” as a descriptor wants to suggest its naturalness, but sex and childbirth are among the most purely “natural” acts we perform.    
    Although Lowell invokes the “directness” cliché that Auden uses, as well as the notion that animals are more “passionate” or “instinctive virtuosi,” and that our mental sickness is related to our consciousness, our measuring, he does reject one of the main assumptions underlying much nature poetry: that viewing natural objects is ipso facto “consolatory.”  He says, “I see / horse and meadow, duck and  pond / universal consolatory / description without significance, / transcribed verbatim by my eye” (120).  Nature is just a sequence of “shifting colors” that his eye takes in and transcribes without “significance.”  Despite the stereotypes already in the poem, this admission is refreshing.  The poem is like Yeats’s “The Circus Animals Desertion” because it is from the point of view of an old poet who sees, or has seen, things with a microscopic eye and now has no “theme,” no significance to tell.  Interestingly, Yeats yearns to begin again “where all the ladders start / In the foul rag-and-bone shop of the heart” (336), but Lowell yearns for a style like Mallarmé’s “that made writing impossible,” which would of course end the self-torture, the measuring, his sense of passionlessness, his themeless empty mind. Lowell acknowledges here what other poets overlook: if we truly believe the mind’s measuring is the cause of our pain, then there is no point in writing literature at all.  This is the paradox of the Seventeeth century painters who believed that painting and secular images were part of the corrupt, vain world of sin and degradation.  The things of the world, the representational painter’s lexicon, distracted them from contemplating divine goodness and the Biblical message.  The “vanitas” painters solved the problem by painting the “evils” they weren’t supposed to paint.  Writing poems about the evils of consciousness is like the fish disdaining his water.  What we need are new definitions of “consciousness” and “instinct”—both in poetry and ethology—to get beyond semantic impasses and quibbles over terms and on to more meaningful analysis about the “gulf” between humans and other living things.  Clare, whose mind was even more disturbed that Lowell’s, always came back to the details of nature the way a painter might come back to paint, not as easy consolation, but as medium itself, as bone-shop.  If he could enter the consciousness of the dragonfly or the cowslap, he could escape his own.
    As I sit at my table and observe the life in and around the pond, I find it difficult to enter that world beyond the glass without being fully inside it — paddling the boat and quietly observing, digging post-holes to fence off one side of it to keep the horses out, or looking for mushrooms in the cottonwoods just beyond. Clare’s understanding came as the benefit of countless hours working in the landscape and yielding to his curiosity like that boy dancing to shadows when no one is looking.
    There are a number of poets writing poems about nature who abandon the clichés and try to understand its value in sincere and personal ways. Stephen Dunn, Maxine Kumin, and Ted Hughes are especially wary of making it mean too much or are thorough in their contexts and clear about how they attach meaning to it.  Dunn, in poems like “Workers,” “Nova Scotia,” “Letting the Puma Go,” “About the Elk and the Coyotes That Killed Her Calf,” “Walking the Marshland,” “Turning Fifty,” “This Far Out in the Country,” “Hawk,” and “Landscape at the End of the Century,” refuses to be consoled, to feel “free,” to contrast the placid beauties of nature with grey pavements and the din of civilization.  He sees the violence in nature and understands that we also have an instinct for brutality.  In “Nova Scotia” the speaker and his lover dig clams and fall easily “into that smug summer sleep / of people vacationing in the north”; later in the summer when they are “out of love with each other,” they make love, the “sad masters of technique.”  When they go for a walk they discover

        a crane dragged
        its damaged leg into the tall reeds,
        snapped and hissed
        when we got near, would not
        let itself be saved.
        In the morning
        we found its neck ripped—
        a weasel’s work, pure mischief,
        and we felt, no, we were sure
        nothing we did or didn’t do
        could have changed a thing.” (154)

Human nature here is as “unwilling to be saved,” is as brutal, as full of mischief as the natural world; that despite our pledges of love, our smug comforts, we don’t deal with our damage any better than the crane does.  For Dunn, “nature” and its collection of assumptions are ideas he wishes to challenge.  He’s not smitten by its beauties, for he clearly sees its bloody heart and our own bloody impulses.  He is a poet of the suburbs into whose garden, whose well-lit living room, it occasionally invades.  Perhaps one could argue that he too eagerly excuses bad behavior in humans as “natural,” is too impressed by the transparency of most ethical systems, the hypocrisy of moral codes and instruction, but at least that is a fresh point of view. 
    Maxine Kumin has expended much of her poetic effort on analyzing the relation between human and animal natures; she recognizes the brutality at the center of the foodchain and our own sustenance, and deals with the emotional costs and contradictions of loving the animals we nurture and having to make hard choices about their uses.  She doesn’t sentimentalize; instead, she allows herself emotional attachments in full knowledge of the burdens they place on her.  There are really too many poems like this to list, but “The Presence,” “The Vealers,” “Eyes,” “Thinking of Death and Dogfood,” “The Retrieval System,” “The Food Chain,” “July Against Hunger,” “Family Reunion,” and “You Are in Bear Country” illustrate her concerns about these issues well.  Her most anthologized poem, “Woodchucks,” acknowledges the “hawkeyed killer” inside us that gets more and more inured to the killing and possessed by the enemy, making us all potential Nazis.  Over the years, I’ve had a number of female students insist that this is a persona poem from a man’s point of view, despite the lack of other evidence and Kumin’s cold eye for truth and detail in other poems.  Historically, there are plenty of female hawkeyed killers and would-be Nazis to choose from, but our gender stereotypes are as comforting as the peace of wild things.  Kumin does not let herself off easy and marches directly into the complication and muck of our allegiances and pains, the costs of our comforts.  In a poem called “Territory,” she describes running over a toad with her mower, “mistaking him for a leaf.”  She doesn’t deliberately run over it, nor does she pick up its parts and try to run to the vet.  She notices that “he goes on / lopsidedly hopping until his motor runs out” and calls it “my carnage.”  She ends the poem this way:

        We are not of it, but in it.  We are
        in it willynilly with our machinery
        and measurements, and all for the good.

        One rarely sees the blood of the toad. (162)

Like Keats, she acknowledges that we are not “of” the world in the way animals seem to be, but we are “in it” nonetheless.  She sees that gulf between human and animal, but recommends narrowing it and seeing our similarities more clearly.  In her scheme of things, our “measurements” and “machinery” help protect us from the “blood of the toad,” from the grosser physical realities at the center of daily commerce.  In this Romantic age we live in, it is a cultural cliché to assume that all thinking, all “measurement,” limits our participation in and embrace of life, that if we were passionate all the time, we could really seize that day.  But without a situational context, this advice is just more roaring bull.  In this poem, however, there is a clear context; she is speaking of the wolf-like habit of marking our territory, of mowing around the “perimeter / declaring this far the grass is tamed.” This kind of measurement excludes, sets up false divisions, and increases animosity toward anything that intrudes.  Kumin uses the same word at the end of “Family Reunion” where they have killed a “home-grown pig, the chine garlicked and crisped, the applesauce / hand-pressed” in honor of the arrival of her children who are “adult, professional, and aloof” (177).  She does not apologize for “kindness’s one bullet” that killed the pig or paying Jake Mott to do the butchering, but bemoans the adult reticence of her children during the reunion that this death was meant to honor.  The poem ends “So briefly having you back to measure us / is harder than having let you go” (178).  Like the measuring in “Territory” that set up arbitrary divisions, the measuring here is a division between parents and children; the “defenses” were temporarily “down” after the meal but a more complete embrace is made difficult by our adult, professional priorities.  This is not an indictment against reason or thinking in general, only the kind that builds fences (in this case electric ones) and distances us from our loved ones.
    In the poems about her horse Amanda, Kumin explores the human connection to animals, the way we can use them for solace, as images of constancy and self-reliance in times of weakness and sorrow, yet she does this while keeping a Clare-like eye on the details and understanding that much of the value is merely imputed from the source, from our need to touch some tolerant and warm other.  In the poem titled “Amanda Dreams She Has Died and Gone to the Elysian Fields,” Kumin notes that “The sun sleeps on her back / as it did on the spine / of the dinosaur / the fossil bat / the first fish with feet / she was once,” fully recognizing the Darwinian order of things, yet at the end
        We sit together.   
        In this time and place
        we are heart and bone.
        For an hour
        we are incorruptible. (117)

The mare almost “startles,” but allows herself to be fed lying down, to be sat next to.  The mare seems to enjoy the company.  It’s a fiction that truly comforts; the affection might be, probably is, mutual, but is the hour a product of the horse’s laziness, its regard, or the pleasures of simple satisfactions? Does the cause matter when the effect is felt in this way and the essential point of the scene? For a short time the emotional connection between them seems pure.  Sentimental poems also find comforts in fictions, but never so circumspectly, never so cautiously aware of their own fictions.
    A Kumin poem in the same sequence called “Eyes” develops this emotional theme further.  When Kumin comes home from wrangling with the “anguish” of her “dearest friend,” she understands that there are certain “natural” problems and emotions in our animal existence which are unavoidable, despite our best efforts.  She says,

        Today a sparrow has been put
        in the hawk’s hands and in the net
        a monarch crazes its wings on gauze.
        A doe run down by the dogs
        commonly dies of fright before
        its jugular opens at the fang hole.
        In my friend’s eyes, hunger
        holds an empty rice bowl. (120)

Clearly, some of the anguish is self-induced if we read the imagery as parallel to the friend’s condition.  The butterfly “crazes” its own wings, the doe dies of fright, yet the sparrow “has been put” in the “hawk’s hands.”  External circumstances seem to have forced the friend into a dangerous and precarious situation, but her own fright exacerbates the problems as it does in the natural world, and there is nothing Kumin can do as a friend but worry, for she can’t sleep.  She goes out at night to see the horse, Amanda, whose eyes in this artificial light are “rage red with toy worlds inside.”  The animal world is a “toy” world compared to ours, the rage is imputed rather than real, it’s less complicated, though in other poems she acknowledges that there is anguish in their world as well, even if it doesn’t last as long.  The poem ends in a kind of prayer:

        O Amanda, burn out my dark.
        Press the warm suede of your horseflesh
        against my cold palm.
        Take away all that is human. (121)

If we compare this with Oliver’s prayer at the end of “Ghosts,” Kumin’s is more specific and contextual; she knows she is talking to “horseflesh” and not some mysterious spirit of the universe, knows it’s a temporary balm whose most likely real effect is just a warming of her hands.  She knows Amanda understands little or nothing of her plea, that “warmth” is the metaphor she needs and the horse unwittingly provides.  The tone is sentimental, but at least the reader is aware that the poet knows she is indulging herself and her emotions. In the poem, she doesn’t wait for the clarities of day, but goes out in the night to a specific and real source of “heat” and presence.  The gesture seems more immediate and personal, despite the post-Darwinian world she lives in.  
    Ted Hughes, on the other hand, plugs into nature like an electrical current.  It drives his poetry, revs his emotional motor.  It is the one entry into the realm of the spiritual, yet he reads it the way Clare does, in exacting and observant detail.  There is a tension in his poems between “getting it right,” telling about it with a severe exactitude, and using it as access to myth, the rhythms of the past, and the demonstration of spiritual meaning.  In the myth poems, he has a tendency to sound like Mary Oliver: overstated verbs, short muscled declarative sentences, frequent fragments, tonally magisterial.  The bird and animal imagery in Crow, Cave Birds, Gaudette, and Adam and the Sacred Nine is like this.  The books are ambitious, imagistically complicated and symbolic, but the individual poems do not function well in a Selected Poems.  They seem overwrought, dramatic, disconnected to any kind of reality; their best function is as an advertisement or trailer for the whole show.  Ekbert Faas in his book on Ted Hughes, The Unaccommodated Universe, calls these poems “eclectic fantasizings” (25), “nightmare fantasies” (26), “radical primitivism” (29), and “mythopoetic dream(s)” (14). But I must admit, I tire of the drama and tone of these manufactured worlds.  He’s one of the most exciting poets of the twentieth century, but these are not the poems or books I return to with any frequency.  Poems like “The Wild Duck,” “The Swift Comes the Swift,” “And Owl,” “The Dove Came,” and “Crow and the Birds” which are included in his Selected Poems cannot really stand alone as poems.  Hughes was a prolific poet, and there are many poems about nature outside these symbolic sequences.  He is a poet of clamor and spondees, and we can read his best work as a long ode to life’s “travail of raptures and rendings” (233).  
    His non-symbolic or non-mythic poems about nature seek to understand the object under his awesome gaze; they don’t dismiss or trivialize the complexities of an animal’s life.  One might argue that he makes too much of them, that he endows them with an immensity that doesn’t really exist.  Yet it is an immensity of otherness that is tonally different from Keats’s nightingale and its “ecstasy.”  Hughes praises the intensity of the animals’ unrational and uncivilized world, the way they inhabit themselves, yet they are given imaginations, depths of feeling that are complex and not necessarily enviable.  They are chillingly efficient killers, ruthless in both their attention and consequence; their poised bulk and power are scary in their idleness and restraint. They bear terrific pain and suffering.
    In his poem called “Sheep” there are two sections.  The first is about a ewe that gives birth to a lamb that was “born / with everything but the will” to live, and how “life could not get his attention.”  After he dies the ewe starts “crying again” like the ones in the second section who, after the shearing, have lost their lambs:

        Their hearts are in panic, their bodies
        Are a mess of woe, woe they cry,
        They mingle their trouble, a music
        Of worse and worse distress, a worse entangling,
        They hurry out little notes
        With all their strength, cries searching this way and that.
        . . .
        Their anguish goes on and on, in the June heat.
        Only slowly their hurt dies, cry by cry,
        As they fit themselves to what has happened. (195)

With Clare’s accuracy of observation, he attends their emotional distress: the lambs “hurry out little notes / With all their strength, cries searching this way and that” is a fine rendering of how it happens, how it feels to listen to it.  He admires both the depth of their anguish as well as the resilience by which they “fit themselves to what happened.”  In a number of poems, Hughes records the emotion felt by animals without trivializing or sentimentalizing it; he merely lends it a compassionate regard.
    In “The Jaguar” he is struck by its caged restlessness, its “hurrying enraged / through prison darkness,” and yet it is not boredom that keeps him pacing there:  “He spins from the bars, but there’s no cage to him / More than the visionary his cell: / His stride is wildernesses of freedom: The world rolls under the long thrust of his heel” (15).  Well, the jaguar probably is bored to distraction, but we are “mesmerized” by its restlessness which makes us curious about what’s going on in its brain.  Hughes suggests it’s his imaginative life that keeps him uncaged, it’s the jaguar’s remembrance of freedom and wildness and the way he can retreat and live there rather than the prison he’s in.  Of course, this is subjective speculation, but the jaguar’s restlessness is a powerful image of wildness, the absolute refusal to be domesticated. Unlike lions or tigers, most jaguars and cougars in a small cage seem to illustrate a barely subdued panic; their determined pacing at the cage’s borders is unsettling to watch, yet “mesmerizing.”  However much we are attracted to his reading of their restlessness, Hughes does push the argument a little too hard.  When he says the jaguar’s stride is “wildernesses of freedom,” or “there’s no cage to him,” he overstates his case for dramatic effects.  And the introduction of a vague, complicated abstraction like “freedom,” with all its human properties and associations, strikes a rather sentimental chord.
    His “Pike” has similar qualities.  It is an image of  “submarine delicacy and horror” (59); it is “a life subdued to its instrument,” a cannibalistic killing machine.  The pike “spare nobody,” and he describes one “jammed past its gills down the other’s gullet.”  The pond that held the pike was “as deep as England,” and the pike themselves were so “immense and old” that fishing past nightfall was scary and released a “dream / darkness beneath night’s darkness had freed / That rose slowly towards me, watching” (60).  Although he says he is frightened to fish there at night, he does anyway.  He chooses to participate in the old relation of the world, a pre-civilization rending and rapture, is willing to kill the killer, in full understanding of the costs.
    The most direct comparison between human killing and that of the animal is in his “Tiger-Psalm.” He says, “The tiger kills hungry.  The machine-guns / Talk, talk, talk across their Acropolis”; the tiger kills “expertly,” “frugally,” “one-sinewed with the earth.”  In fact, he “Does not kill” but “blesses with a fang” and “opens a path / Neither of Life nor Death.”  The machine-guns, in contrast, keep talking, “shake their heads,” “chattering statistics”; they “Proclaim the Absolute, according to morse, / In a code of bangs and holes”; they carry the argument on into heaven “where there is no blood” (277-8).  This is Lowell’s “poor, measured” man, Auden’s “going round” a thing rather than straight toward it, Kumin’s measuring, but Hughes is making a more specific point about the way we kill in war, the way we rationalize it, the way we invoke religion to disguise it, the way we hide or try to ignore the blood, the way we try to remain “uninterested” in it, the way a president might not want soldiers’ coffins photographed for the news.  The tiger kills “exalted,” and we kill diminished.  Like Lowell, Hughes uses animal vitality to contrast with human weakness, but Hughes isn’t making a general indictment of our capacity to reason, our consciousness, our lack of spontaneity.  He focuses very precisely on the way we rationalize the horror we perpetrate, the way we use numbers and statistics to do the unspeakable, the ruin we cause from our Acropolis.  Animals do kill for sport and can waste what they kill.  We had a dog get in a pig pen and kill nineteen piglets; a great horned owl got in our chicken coop and killed eleven chickens and a goose, considerably more than it could possibly eat.  It’s hard to see this carnage as “exalted,” but certainly animals don’t try to rationalize killing with religion and more honestly inhabit the cycle of eat and eaten.
    In a poem like “That Morning,” he does invoke the old saw about the mind/body split where “doubting thought” is the alien, dividing force, and where the body provides the way back to the spirit.  He is standing

        Waist-deep in wild salmon swaying massed
        As from the hand of God.  There the body

        Separated, golden and imperishable,
        From its doubting thought—a spirit beacon
        Lit by the power of the salmon

        That came on, came on, and kept on coming
        As if we flew slowly, their formations
        Lifting us toward some dazzle of blessing

        One wrong thought might darken. (234)

For Hughes, the “spirit” is not doctrinal, not religious in any sense other than a connection to the Life-Force, the “tingling atoms,” standing “alive in the river of light / among the creatures of light, creatures of light” (235).  The completion of being is to enter the stream fully, willingly, to enter the cycle of predator and prey without squeamishness, without rancor, without guile.  To enter this stream without doubt was “the end of our journey” (235).  I suppose it helped his spirit-communion to be a fisherman, to love fish and fishing, before making a metaphor out of it.  He does use the language of Christianity  (“hand of God,” “spirit,” “blessing,” a “sign,” “light”) to illustrate what he feels, but because he sees so clearly the “raptures and rendings,” and in fact embraces both, the emotion doesn’t seem as sentimental, as one-sided, as built on a fragile foundation.  Perhaps the best illustration of the contrast to the sentiment in Oliver’s “May” is Hughes’s “The Green Wolf”:

        My neighbor moves less and less, attempts less
        If his right hand still moves, it is a farewell
        Already days posthumous.

        But the left hand seems to freeze,
        And the left leg with its crude plumbing,
        And the left half jaw and the left eyelid and words all the huge cries

        Frozen in his brain his tongue cannot unfreeze—
        While somewhere through a dark heaven
        The dark bloodclot moves in.

        I watch it approach but I cannot fear it.
        The punctual evening star,
        Worse, the warm hawthorn blossoms, their foam,

        Their palls of deathly perfume,
        Worst of all the beanflower
        Badged with jet like the ear of the tiger

        Unmake and remake me.  That star
        And that flower and that flower
        And living mouth and living mouth all

        One smouldering annihilation
        Of old brains, old bowels, old bodies
        In the scarves of dew, the wet hair of nightfall. (81)

He looks squarely at his own assumptions and the consequences of his ideas and chooses.  He starts in the “dark place” of his neighbor’s stroke and aphasia, knowing a bloodclot is coming; he says how the “luminous” isn’t exactly providing “spiritual honey” here.  The blossoms elicit a “pall of deathly perfume,” and the more exotically wonderful the natural world gets, the worse it is for the dying person and the speaker of the poem — unless that person embraces the “smouldering annihilation” at the center of all things.  He “cannot fear it” even though he sees it approaching.  One has to be unmade and remade to get to this point because it is emotionally antithetical to our attachments to the world.  In the end the “green wolf” comes to every door, despite the “scarves of dew” and the “wet hair of nightfall.”  Despite our attachments to language, to things, to beauty, to buds, the night falls.  We can choose, like Dylan Thomas in “Do Not Go Gentle,” to “rage against the dying of the light” (128), but Hughes tries to come to terms with it in another way, especially because the entry into his spiritual journey is nature itself without the consolations of heaven or a beatific afterlife.  He praises the cycle of life and death, knows he’s part of it, has to learn to not fear it, has to unmake himself to do it. 
    The tension in his work is always between the intricate and interfused beauty of nature, that seeming “miracle of purpose,” and what lies just beneath the surface, keeping it all going.  A typical expression of this idea is Hughes’s “To Paint a Water Lily”:

        A green level of lily leaves
        Roofs the pond’s chamber and paves
        The flies’ furious arena: study
        These, the two minds of this lady.

        First observe the air’s dragonfly
        That eats meat, that bullets by

        Or stands in space to take aim;
        Others as dangerous comb the hum

        Under the trees.  There are battle-shouts
        And death-cries everywhere hereabouts

        But inaudible, so the eyes praise
        To see the colours of these flies

        Rainbow their arcs, spark, or settle
        Cooling like beads of molten metal

        Through the spectrum.  Think what worse
        Is the pond-bed’s matter of course;

        Prehistoric bedragonned times
        Crawl that darkness with Latin names,

        Have evolved no improvements there,
        Jaws for heads, the set stare,

        Ignorant of age as of hour—
        Now paint the long-necked lily-flower

        Which, deep in both worlds, can be still
        As a painting, trembling hardly at all

        Though the dragonfly alight,
        Whatever horror nudge her root.
                                (Collected, 70-71)    

In a sense this poem is a complaint against most nature writing and landscape painting; the tone is slightly impatient and mildly pedantic, imperatively commanding us to “study these,” to “observe,” to “think,” and finally to “paint” this scene.  The two minds of this “lady,” the pond lily, are the serene and enameled beauty of the pond in bloom with its bright dragonflies, and the inaudible horror underneath the serenity.  He characterizes the beauty as “a green level of lily leaves,” the rainbowed arcs of the dragonflies, and the “long-necked lily flower”; he characterizes the “subterranean horror” as dragonflies eating meat, the way they “comb the hum” for food, and says there are “battle-shouts and death-cries everywhere.”  It’s the quiet surface that dupes us into thinking of peace and stillness and beauty, but Hughes is telling us to paint it so that “both worlds” are evident, to look underneath at the horror nudging the pond lily’s roots as well as at the blossom, that long-necked flower.  It is still possible to find beauty there, but it’s a more accurate beauty, Janus given his second face, a smile with the teeth behind it.  The painting can still be “trembling hardly at all,” but it ought to tremble, there should be some slight disturbance in the scene, some after-horror, some aimed intention poised to strike. 
    Pinsky does not directly explain why description is the post-modern poet’s great “burden.” He says in his chapter called “Conventions of Wonder” that poetic description finds “limits more severely constricting than those of the heroic couplet” (97).  We can speculate that for him a narrative copy of the world is meaningless because the world is, and if a poet were merely to describe what he sees in the way that Clare does, it’s already a falsification, an assumption of meaning where none exists.  The burden, then, is to earn the “respect or awe for natural creation” (97) when no inherent value is contained within the particulars.  Robert Hass makes a similar point in Twentieth Century Pleasures when he contradicts Wordsworth’s notion that the imagination works “but in alliance with the works which it beholds,” and says “it seems to me, rather, that we make our forms because there is no absolute continuity, because those first assurances [of the world’s great order] are broken.  The mind in the act of recovery creates” (63).   Nature poems that lovingly describe the pond lily, the alpine flower, the bear in the meadow, the ant on the sidewalk, not only get half the picture as Hughes would remind us, but often tie into stereotype and historically accepted ways of feeling without a new spiritual framework or invoking the old Christian one.  However, I’m not so sure that Pinsky and Hass have it entirely right, for as Stevens makes clear in many of his poems, no verbal artifact can present a “narrative copy” of the world; any description is overlaid with personal meaning, each word is a choice reflecting tone, perspective, judgment.  We cannot objectively describe the “spruces rough in the distant glitter / of the January sun”(10), as Stevens says in “The Snow Man,” without imputing how we feel onto the scene or suggesting some relation to the world; we can only be one with nature when we are a “snow man” or dead, as Pinsky has pointed out.  
    Description is more of a burden now because we typically have to do more with it than Clare did. Pinsky’s idea that it is more “severely constricting” than the heroic couplet is certainly an exaggeration to make his point, but at least it convinces us to worry about the uses and effects to which we put our description and to not be too easily satisfied with merely describing something well.  Frost’s “The Pasture” is a sweet but unambitious nature poem with two nicely observed details — until it is put at the front of You Come Too edited by Hyde Cox, or The Poetry of Robert Frost edited by Edward Connery Lathem.  It then becomes a metaphor for reading his book, but even that is a picturesque fiction, for his book is anything but a stroll through the pasture.
    As Frost has pointed out in “The Oven Bird,” the burden of description, of consciousness itself, is “what to make of a diminished thing” (120).  Non-narrative, non-descriptive writing has its own stricter burdens — like solipsism, irrelevance, meaninglessness.  When the foliage is meaningless, is it enough to merely recreate meaninglessness?  Or must we make something out of this diminished thing, something that holds for us despite ready arguments to the contrary?  Snug nature poems, especially those that contrast wilderness with cityscape, keep cropping up generation after generation, despite the post-Darwinian problems with meaning, danger combing the hum of our existence, and eons of redundancy.  
    What is it about the “wilderness” or the rural that makes us feel differently than we do in the city?  One simple answer is the refreshing lack of people:  the effects of our manipulations of the landscape seem to dissolve, our ubiquitous constructions vanish, the swirl of refuse we usually live among disappears, and we enter the comforting illusion that landscape exists which has not been wholly colonized by our fellows.  The eye isn’t over-crowded by the repetitive boxes it usually inhabits.  A parallel emotion occurs after we have been jostled all day by mall shoppers and then enter the quiet, unassertive sanctuary of our own apartments and houses where our eyes and minds are suddenly not surrounded by otherness, not making a thousand split-second choices to engage or judge or avoid that swell of people coming at us.  Yet many poets magnify this temporary “peace” beyond its cause, connecting it to Freedom, Beauty, Spirit, Goodness, or Seize-the-Day ethics.  Or they use a stanza of honeyed nature description as an ipso facto contrast to the emotional complexity of human endeavor, to give their own or their characters’ struggles with difficult emotions an easily ironic turn.
    Another response to the rural world is to the unimaginable variety in nature, the millions of life forms sprouting, flitting, crawling, leaping, soaring, swaying, slithering, swimming, floating; the impossible plurality of it all, the ingenious subtlety, the mawkish garishness, the wild genetic burgeoning everywhere and in the most hostile environs. Darwin refers to this satisfying abundance in On the Origin of Species as “the great Tree of Life, which fills with its dead and broken branches the crust of the earth, and covers the surface with its ever-branching and beautiful ramifications”(94).  
    Human invention is also mind-boggling in its imitative adaptations, its boundless cleverness, but nothing quite compares to the vast ingenuity up and down the scale of size and shape that nature displays.  It clearly is the high-dive plank one climbs to before that leap of faith — that impulse to praise the One who begets “all things counter, original, spare, strange”(70) as Hopkins wrote in “Pied Beauty.”  Yet for those who can’t make this jump, it also sponsors a newer kind of faith, in the earth’s power to survive, in regeneration and its multiplicity of forms.  Wallace Stevens said in “Sunday Morning,” no myth system endures like “April’s green endures” (69).  Maxine Kumin in “Shelling Jacobs Cattle Beans” describes these beans fondly and remarks that there are “no two exactly alike / yet close as snowflakes” (227), but goes on to consider the historical role of beans at Pompeii, the Egyptians’ use of Jews, the way Semites fight Semites in the Middle East, then asks “Where is the God of / my fathers, that I / might pluck Him out of the lineup?” (228).  She says at the end, “Let me put faith in the bean” (229) while Ted Hughes wants to be unmade and remade by the beanflower, to enter that evolutionary cycle of things.
    For those less willing to go that far, there are minor ports of entry, little harbors along the way.  William Least Heat Moon in Blue Highways says one of the attractions of nature is space:  “The true West differs from the East in one great, pervasive, influential, and awesome way: space.  The vast openness changes the roads, town, houses, farms, crops, machinery, politics, economics, and, naturally, ways of thinking.  How could it do otherwise?  Space west of the line is perceptible and often palpable, especially when it appears empty, and it’s that apparent emptiness which makes matter look alone, exiled, and unconnected.  Those spaces diminish man and reduce his blindness to the immensity of the universe; they push him toward a greater reliance on himself, and, at the same time, to a greater awareness of others and what they do.  But, as the space diminishes man and his constructions in a material fashion, it also — paradoxically — makes them more noticeable.  Things show up out here.  No one, not even the sojourner, escapes the expanses.  You can’t get away from them by rolling up the safety-glass and speeding through, because the terrible distances eat up speed.  Even dawn takes nearly an hour just to cross Texas.  Still, drivers race along; but when you get down to it, they are people uneasy about space” (136).  The vastness of space is parallel to the vastness of nature, a significant corollary of it.  The space of the West forces us to pay attention to the vastness, to our own insignificance, and out of that we have to come to new conclusions about how we fit in.   To say, as Gretel Erlich does in The Solace of Open Spaces, that “space has a spiritual equivalent and can heal what is divided and burdensome in us... Space represents sanity, not a life purified, dull, or ‘spaced out’ but one that might accommodate intelligently any idea or situation” (15) is to paint water lilies without the horror at the root.  It’s an empty kind of spirituality, a little too disconnected to the larger implications.  
    New conclusions can go every which way and “healing” is only one of them; space does not represent sanity and can as easily make you go insane, shoot people, even yourself.   We may find that we are not “self-reliant” and cannot live on the beans and honey of our own divising, are afraid of our insignificance, jealous of what other people are and have, how they’ve colonized their space within and without.  Most people do roll up the safety-glass, and Erlich’s assumptions about space are a fine electric window, despite the soft retractions in “can heal” and “might accommodate.”   We often find our distances “terrible” and frightening, significant threats to our habitual ways of thinking and doing things.  But just as frequently this sense of space can lead to vanity, either a facile spirituality or a sense of dominion.  In The Voyage of the Beagle, Darwin notes this when he says, “Everyone must know the feeling of triumph and pride which a grand view from a height communicates to the mind.  In these little frequented countries there is also joined to it some vanity, that you perhaps are the first man who ever stood on this pinnacle or admired this view” (300).  Although we are culturally more suspect of his unabashed ethnocentrism, he’s right about the vanity that inheres in our perceptions of space.  We do like to think we were the first to claim this view, that valley or mountain or tree; there is in all of us a little Cortez who swashbuckles through our worlds, claiming dominion where none exists.  It’s the vanity of belonging everywhere despite being social aliens; it’s what drove Whitman to proclaim “O to realize space / the plenteousness of it all, that there are no bounds / To emerge and be of the sky, of the sun and moon and flying clouds, as one with them” (196).  It’s the feeling that drives Keats’s “Ode to a Nightingale”: he can’t bear to sit outside of life, to be a mere observer, to have a bit part and not claim the whole show.  
    Wide spaces can as often lead to the vanity of dominion, of wanting to claim this uncharted land or view, as it can lead to humility, to the idea that we are “alone, exiled, and unconnected,” that it takes an effort to reach across to the next person, the one house with a light on in all that darkness.  Often our poets pick and choose their way through the rubble of the post-Darwinian, post-Holocaust world, trying to find what personally matters, on what to put their little stack of chips as the vast roulette wheel turns.
    Jack Gilbert has a poem in Monolithos called “Siege” where he discusses this dilemma of valuing the space of nature, finding a presence in it, and understanding that many of our assumptions are wrong, yet needing to feel deeply the “nipple and music” of life.   

        We think there is a sweetness concealed in the rain,
        a presence in the ebullient wet thicket.
        And we are wrong.
        Summer, the rain, oh Lord, the rain
        hammers us into a joy,
        which we call divinity.
        And we are mistaken.
        The heart’s weather of nipple and music
        Condenses only on the soft metal of personal knowledge.
        Our presence is the savor.
        We must get to the iron valve in the center
        of that meaningless leafage.
        Going past even the statuary and the unnaturalness
        our faith is founded on.
        To close it down.
        To reduce that earthquake of flux.
        Reducing it to human use. (58)

This poem rejects the pleasantries of summer abundance and the seductions of meaning implied by this.  He suggests we forget the “sweetness” and “presence” we feel in summer rain, and to find our own “presence” there, beyond faith and divinity.  The central imagery of the “soft metal” and the “iron valve” is curious and vague.  Our “personal knowledge” is stiffly pliable, but the meaning at the center is an “iron valve,” an inflexible conduit from which we can derive some personal meaning if we “close it down” and reduce the flux. He rejects Whitman’s embrace of all things in some grand pantheistic way, which invites in as much flux as possible.  For Gilbert meaning is small and personal, reduced to “human use.”  When he advocates getting beyond the “statuary and the unnaturalness,” he seems to be referring to getting beyond organized religion, the icons of our myth systems and any other human constructions we might have “faith” in.  The foliage is meaningless in that Darwinian sense, but given our prejudices about the human versus non-human world, shedding “unnaturalness” may not be as easy as it sounds.  Our only guidepost in this poem is “human use.”  We must personally find what avails, what connects to the “heart’s weather.”  It’s a romantic poem, rejecting global meaning for personal “presence” in the world, an emotional savoring.  It’s essentially a carpe diem poem that involves a modest paradigm shift, from macro to micro, but is rather vague about the recipe for accomplishing this, yet we are to understand it takes some “siege” of priorities to do it. It’s romanticism made more pragmatic by founding faith on nipples and music, bodily pleasures and art.  Certainly sexuality is “natural,” but it’s hard to make a case that art is; presumably, it is a good under the “human use” column.  In order to make more sense of these “divisions,” we will need to come to clearer terms about our relationship to the animal and natural world, to get behind the dark wall called “instinct,” to stop sentimentalizing with easy, inflated description, to work harder at finding significant personal value in an otherwise valueless universe.
    Other observers on the subject have made different, less personal and romantic appeals.  Michael Pollan presents his conclusions straight-forwardly in the introduction of Botany of Desire:

    “For a long time now the Man in these stories [about man and nature] has gazed at Nature across a gulf of awe or mystery or shame.  Even when the tenor of these narratives changes, as it has over time, the gulf remains.  There’s the old heroic story, where Man is at war with Nature; the romantic version, where Man merges spiritually with Nature (usually with some help from the pathetic fallacy); and, more recently, the environmental morality tale, in which Nature pays Man back for his transgressions, usually in the coin of disaster — three different narratives (at least), yet all of them share a premise we know to be false but can’t seem to shake: that we somehow stand outside, or apart from, nature” (xxv).  

His book shows how the apple, tulip, marijuana, and potato have evolved in an intimate partnership with man, that we live in a “great reciprocal web that is life on Earth” (xxv).    He advocates that we change perspectives and see ourselves as “objects of other species’ designs and desires, as one of the newer bees in Darwin’s garden” (xxv).  This represents an engaging mental reversal, one that will take us a long way toward understanding the configurations of animal and plant life around us.  His “reciprocal web” presents an awkward metaphor, but the idea is similar to Hughes’s cycle of life, the journey along the “river of light” that is both grand and horrifying.  We need to narrow the gulf between us and them, to understand and honor what we and they eat, to praise the language and history of consciousness that would allow us to “unmake” ourselves and our ideas, even if we may not be able to do it as completely as Hughes suggests.  Certainly thinking and consciousness can enhance experience, make it more vivid and pleasurable and meaningful.  
    As I was reading over my morning coffee, a robin hit the glass, fell to the grass, mouthed air for a second or two, then got up and flew away.  My dog, who had misinterpreted the ringing thud as the back door opening, ran around to the pond side of the house.  The hen mallard saw the dog and swam to the center, calling in her brood, the hackle on her neck raised, her quacking frantically shrill, as the two surviving ducklings skimmed back to her.  I was fond of the glass between us, the doors, the shoes on my feet, the book poised and waiting in my hands, as this rural city awoke.
Works Cited

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© by Joseph Powell


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