What is “nature poetry”? How might it—or should it—operate in the world? Recently, Orion poet Derek Sheffield spoke with Christian Wiman, editor of Poetry magazine, about these questions and more. (On April 24, Wiman, who is the author, most recently, of the poetry collection Every Riven Thing, will join poets Pattiann Rogers and Maria Melendez for a conversation, via webcast, about the history and future of nature poetry. Register here.)
When you introduced Gary Snyder in 2008, after he won the Ruth Lilly Prize, you said, “Often when I hear the phrase ‘nature poetry,’ my heart sinks a little.” Could you say a little more about that?
Nature poetry is often sentimental. The poet loves nature to death, literally. But nature, the real thing, can’t be domesticated like that. It contains and expels us at the same time, and poetry must be true to this. In one of A. R. Ammons’s great poems (there are many), “Gravelly Run,” the speaker wants to have some sort of transcendent experience of nature, wants to feel his soul merging with, I guess, an oversoul. Here’s what happens:
no use to make any philosophies here:
I see no
god in the holly, hear no song from
the snowbroken weeds: Hegel is not the winter
yellow in the pines: the sunlight has never
heard of trees: surrendered self among
unwelcoming forms: stranger,
hoist your burdens, get on down the road.
That seems to me about right.
Nature poetry often invokes the spiritual. One thinks about the Romantics, Hopkins, Jane Hirshfield, Mary Oliver. “The sky is the daily bread of the eyes,” writes Emerson. Why do you think this is? Why should poetry about the natural world also so often engage our spiritual natures?
Quantum entanglement teaches us that related molecules can “communicate” with each other over immense distances. We are made of molecules ourselves and are perforce part of this communication. You might say that we are being articulated by eternity, even as we articulate our existences in time. There is no distinction between the physical world and the spiritual world. It is not possible to write truly of the world that’s in front of our eyes without acknowledging (even, in the best poems, summoning) the one that isn’t.
From my perspective as a reader, place, especially West Texas, has been one of your abiding poetic concerns. From driving “all day on roads without / a speck of paving” in The Long Home to “A town so flat a grave’s a hill / A dusk the color of beer” in Hard Night to the “eyesore opulence” of the neighbor’s yard “Five Houses Down” in Every Riven Thing. Can you say a bit about how place, whether urban or rural, operates in your poems?
I’ve begun to think that anything that abstracts us from the physical world, including some poetry, is “of the devil,” as we used to say in the baked—and often half-baked—plains of West Texas where I was raised. I do love poems that manage to arrive at some sort of summative statement about the human condition, some sort of hitherto unarticulated wisdom (“Glimmerings are what the soul’s composed of”—Seamus Heaney). But the credibility of such statements is contingent upon the extent to which they have made us feel the physical world they’re stepping away from. That line from Heaney is from a poem called “Old Pewter,” which also contains lines like these:
Not the age of silver, more a slither
of illiteracy under rafters:
a dented hand-me-down old smoky plate
full of blizzards, sullied and temperate.
As editor of Poetry, you read more contemporary poems than maybe anyone else on earth. Also, I’m betting that you’ve read all the issues of Poetry ever published. If you had to guess, what percentage of your recent submissions could be classified as “nature poetry”? Are poets now writing about the non-human world differently than poets thirty or forty years ago?
The percentage of nature poems we get is still quite high, though you’re right to suspect that they have changed over the years. I thought immediately of Kathy Nilsson’s haunting poem “Still Life” in our April issue.
Seventeen years ago, I was at a workshop in Montana with Bill McKibben where he threw down a big green gardening glove. He challenged us to use our poetry to combat climate change, to raise awareness and encourage action. This makes me think of the poetic response to the war in Vietnam and poets like Denise Levertov, Robert Bly, and William Stafford. Considering the drastic state of the environment, that two hundred species go extinct every twenty-four hours, what do you think of Bill’s charge? Can poetry and propaganda be good bedfellows?
Writing poems to “combat climate change” is a bit like whittling little animals to combat climate change—not useless, I guess, but a little weird. Three problems: first, you can’t just squeeze poetry out of your mind the way you can your opinions; in fact, poetry often turns out to contradict some of the very things you hold most dearly to heart, or thought you held most dearly to heart. Second, just about everyone who reads a poem inveighing against climate change is going to agree with what the poem is saying. Third, poetry saves the world (I do believe this) not by the force of its ideas but by the intensity of its consciousness. That intensity, though, can have real and ramifying effects far beyond what the poet ever could have intended. That Kathy Nilsson poem above is so powerful because of its coruscating, self-incriminating consciousness: “I’m having trouble looking animals in the eye.”
Derek Sheffield teaches poetry and nature writing at Wenatchee Valley College in central Washington. His poems have appeared or are forthcoming in Poetry, Orion, The Georgia Review, Terrain.org, Wilderness, and The Southern Review.