Living with the Truth Stranger than Fiction This Is Not About What You Think Milligan and Murphy Making Sense

Monday, 16 March 2009

I hate nature poetry


Deep_Solitude Now, there's a sweeping statement if ever there was one. Of course it's not completely accurate. I have read very little nature poetry and when I do run across one I rarely get more than a few lines through it before I've decided that it's not for me; time is precious. Regular users of the Internet like me understand that mentality. We don't read, we scan and make snap judgements based on a cursory examination. And we're fussy buggers too; a poor layout or the wrong font or colour scheme and we're off.

I've pretty much always been like that. When I was young I had no patience. One of my favourite expressions was: "I know three definitions of patience: a girl's name, a game of cards and an opera by Gilbert and Sullivan – I know no other." As I've aged I've learned patience but only in some things. Old habits die hard.

Let's go back a bit further, long before the poems, to my childhood, before the Internet and home computers, before colour television even. We lived, as I do now, on the very edge of the town although a different edge to a different town. Walk out our back door as a kid, leap over the wall – this is before the Council built the billboards – and I was in the country. There was a farm, not a very big concern (all I remember were chickens actually), and if I circumvented that there was the river with its salmon leap. If I went out the front door, down the street was a golf course and, once I was through that, a frog pond; the sea was only mile away. This was where I spent my days. I was hardly in the house – it was a filling station – and those were the days when no one worried where there kids were as long as they arrived home for meals and bed.

The thing I have to say is, although I had all this nature at my disposal I never really relished it. There is an old expression, familiarity breeds contempt, and although I've never become contemptuous of nature I've rarely felt in awe of it. Granted I've never seen the Grand Canyon and I am sure that would have some effect on me. It really does seem like one of those things that pictures don't do justice too. The same could be said of the Arctic, the Australian outback and the Aurora Borealis I have no doubt. Not that the Scottish highlands are unimpressive because I assure you they are. That said, when my wife's son was over a few years ago and we took I trip to Loch Lomond I pointed out some of the landscape and he said, "What, those hills?" Okay, so maybe it wasn't the Himalayas but it was nice, more than nice.

As I've grown older I do interact with nature less and less. I have a country walk literally next to my house, all you have to do is clamber up a wee hill (which I'm sure my son-in-law would call a hillock or probably just a mound) and you're there but in the last five years you'll be lucky if I've been up there half-a-dozen times. I've become Billy Connolly. He's also not much of a nature person, at least when he recorded this he wasn't. Now he's bought a Scottish castle and started wearing sandals maybe he's changed. Anyway, this is what he had to say at the Rainbow Theatre in London in 1977:

There was a guy, a Glasgow guy, and he was out for a walk and he was doing "out-for-walk things". I'm not a great "go-for-walk" person, but he was doing whatever people going for walks do ... Go for a walk, walking. Oh, a tree, I'm glad I came. Oh, there's a bird, what a walk this is turning out to be! And he was walking along some cliffs ... He went along those cliffs and the sea was pounding on the rocks beneath "POUND"! Oh, sea pounding on rock, it's great. What a walk! Right! So, look at that, pounding. My legs are walking and everything.

Now I get that. We didn't have any cliffs where I lived. Not even any cliffettes. But I will have spent months of my life wandering all over it usually late in the day when there was no one around. Now here's the thing. I wasn't out there being one with nature. I was out there because there wasn't in my house where I'd have to endure being with my family. Things changed dramatically when I got to thirteen and got to use the front room as my office. You could never get me out of it. I even took my meals in there. If I'd had a TV then I would probably have only left the room to answer the call of nature and sleep.

By about thirteen I was starting to search out stuff to read myself and that included poetry. And of course I inevitably came across poetry that dealt with nature. And it was boring. I didn't get most of it but then I never gave most of it a chance. All I had to see were a few lines like:

So will I build my altar in the fields,
And the blue sky my fretted dome shall be,
And the sweet fragrance that the wild flower yields
Shall be the incense I will yield to Thee,

and I'd be off over the page. That was from 'To Nature' by Samuel Taylor Coleridge by the way. I couldn't see its relevance to me. Yes, it's technically accomplished but so were Bach's suites for unaccompanied cello and I didn't get them either. I had to work my way through the exciting stuff like Rachmaninov and Bartók first of all before I learned to appreciate Bach.

Can I compare a nature poem to a still life painting? Well, I'm just going to.


Luis Meléndez: Still Life with Salmon, Lemon and three Vessels

It's a painting that does what it says on the tin. There a hunk of salmon, a whole lemon and what looks like a tin pan and a couple of jugs. But what does it mean?

Ah! Meaning, Jim. It doesn't have to mean anything. Can it not simply be? Well, yes, it can and it's boring. If it was beautiful at least then I could agree that it was something that gave me pleasure, which made me feel. But I don't know what to think or feel about this other than Luis was a competent enough artist.

At least Coleridge has done a bit more than just present me with a blue sky and some fields peppered with smelly flowers. At least there's a bit of metaphor going on there. The thing is I couldn't tell you the last time I stopped to smell the roses.

I just sat and went through my big red folder of poems – over thirty years of poems – and I found one poem that you could call a nature poem and it's pretty bad.


Yesterday, from a bus,
near Glassford,
I saw two young rams
methodically duelling over a ewe
like two elephant seals.

28 December 1978

I remember the incident quite clearly. I had taken a bus from East Kilbride to the village of Glassford to see a solicitor; I had some papers to sign. I had been reading William Carlos Williams at the time and was trying to work in a more minimal style. This was my first go at a 'Red Wheelbarrow' poem. I've written over 500 poems since then and never broached the subject again. It's not that I never mention nature in any of my poems because I do like this poem:


It's strange
how such a cold and formidable thing
reminds me of you,
its icy breakers failing
on a beach we've never walked on
nor likely ever will.

And yet perhaps that is it.
That after all these miles of travelling
defeat should come
at the final moment.

Aberdeen, 29 February 1995

It's called 'The North Sea' and was the only thing I wrote during such a miserable stay in Aberdeen that I swore I'd never return but it's not about the sea; it's a metaphor and not a bad one but it's no nature poem.

All my poetry focuses on the individual. He may be sitting in a park but I don't see the park. I see the person. Nature is a setting, the cloth upon which my still lives sit.

I don't completely avoid nature poetry. One of the sites I visit regularly is Art Durkee's and virtually all his poetry is focused on Nature with a capital N. Here's one I liked:


   ice rind on creek
   cutting its way through dunes:
   this floating world

Yes, I said I like it. I like the photo and the accompanying poem. The point I'm making is that I look at a photo like that and it doesn't move me to write about it. Art has an eye and there are not many of his photos that aren't accomplished and a few of them have graced my desktop from time to time. The fact is that I prefer his photography to his poetry even when he does a decent job of combining the two. I would have no problem putting a print of this on my wall. I'd even print out the poem in a nice font but it would be the picture I'd look at; the poem would just be there.

I think this is why I've struggled with writing a haiku, a proper haiku obeying all the rules.

When it comes to poetry I like to read about people. Take this famous poem by Ezra Pound:


The apparition of these faces in the crowd;
Petals on a wet, black bough.

It combines nature and humanity perfectly but it is about people not trees. To my mind the best kind of nature poetry for me is like this. Nature on its own seems to lack something for me – people.

Here's the first poem by Dick Jones I ever read and I immediately bookmarked his site and have enjoyed his work immensely ever since.


Up on Bell's Hill, hours
after sundown; watchless
thus timeless; starlight printed
on the earth below:

all the lights of Exeter
in a black bowl. We breathe
through our mouths. No wind
in the hillside beeches

or the hawthorn hedge
we crouch behind. Bob looms
at my side, log-still,
indistinct, yet electric

with attention, his cradled shotgun
staring at the ground,
round-eyed. An owl quavers
in the ice-heart of the wood.

Movement at the field's edge: shadow
on shadow; an elision of shape
and formlessness. The fox slides
along a dark rail, single-

purposed, the fanatic's way -
hand over hand through
the long grass
at the field's edge.

Bob's gun coughs twice,
dry-voiced. Night cracks
like slate; shards fly
and the world tips up.

We stare, bloodshot, jangling,
into the bright darkness.
Shadows realign at the field's edge.
Night self-heals, like water.

To my mind Dick has that same balance. He elevates the setting but the poem is still about people, people IN nature. This poem is not so far away from John Clare's 'March' from his collection The Shepherd's Calendar:

The stooping ditcher in the water stands
Letting the furrowd lakes from off the lands
Or splashing cleans the pasture brooks of mud
Where many a wild weed freshens into bud

The sneaking foxes from his thefts to fright
That often seizes the young lambs at night
These when they in their nightly watchings hear
The badgers shrieks can hardly stifle fear

They list the noise from woodlands dark recess
Like helpless shrieking woman in distress
And oft as such fears fancying mystery
Believes the dismal yelling sounds to be

For superstition hath its thousand tales
To people all his midnight woods and vales
And the dread spot from whence the dismal noise
Mars the night musings of their dark employs

Owns its sad tale to realize their fear
At which their hearts in boyhood achd to hear

In an article on Romantic Poetry I found this quote about Clare:

The essential element of Clare's distinctive style is his ability to identify with nature without imposing on it: "he can enter the bird's song, into its very existence . . . . He, the poet, has heard a truer poet, and he is happy to withdraw" – Review of The Problem of Poetry in the Romantic Period

The thing about the Romantics as I understand them is they really were focussed on people but the lens they were using was Nature. Nowadays most of us live unnatural lives. We spend hours in front of rectangular screens and never set foot on a piece of grass from one week to the next. Glasgow is actually a very green city. There are parks and bits of greenery all over the place, shaped to fit in with the architecture. It pleases me that it's there but if it vanished overnight I seriously wonder how long it would take before I would notice. And, if it did happen, how much would I care?

We're not talking about ecology here. I'm on about aesthetics. Of course we need to take care of the environment; if it dies then we die. I'm not daft. But just as I like someone to slaughter my animals for me I'm also happy for someone to plant my trees and trim my lawn for me. I don't garden. The one condition I placed on Carrie when she was looking for the flat we now live in was: "No garden." Apart from my parents' house I've never lived in a flat, tenement or maisonette with a garden attached.

What about when you were a kid then, didn't you help out with the gardening? Yes, I did. The mowing I didn't mind because there was a machine involved but anything that involved me getting my hands dirty I hated. Give me the dishes to do any day rather than the gardening.

Have I made my case yet? I'm sure that there will be those out there who will be aghast. Well, aghast away. And feel free to send me your lists of poems and poets who, if I only could come in contact with them, would change my mind. I'm open to epiphanies but don't hold your breath, okay?

P.S. For the record this is not a response to Dave King's recent post on nature poetry. I was already thinking about this. Reading his simply encouraged me to move writing mine to the top of my to-do list.

P.P.S. Since I wrote this Dick Jones has posted a poem called 'This Year's Daffodils' – I don't know what to say. It's about daffodils.


Dominic Rivron said...

I think the poem The North Sea is brilliant. (Did you read Dick's Sheep on the Brown Hill (March 9)? Brilliant, too, I thought).

Anonymous said...

I immediately connected with your title and can understand the feeling of 'gotta-be-going' when only a couple of lines into a nature poem.
I've lived in the countryside, one time for a period of around ten years, and I loved it. Did the walking, the whole gig, milked cows, plowed the earth.
But the relief when I finally found myself living in a city again was tremendous.
Yeah, it's the people. I read fiction, poetry, whatever because I'm insterested primarily in character. I want to know how I work, what motivates me; and I want to know how you work, what motivates you.
And sometimes, just sometimes, the written word gets very close.

Marion McCready said...

You never fail to make me laugh, Jim. I know my poems aren't up your street and I'm surprised you bother to keep reading them. Actually I'm not interested in nature poetry in itself, only a particular kind of nature poetry and mainly as a tool in the Romantic sense.

CS McClellan/Catana said...

In my youth, I was obsessed with poetry. Now, I hardly ever read it. Most modern poetry is factual and dry or too overburdened with emotion.

I've never given much thought to nature poetry, as such, but I can understand your response to Coleridge's verse--pretty vapid, however technically correct.

I like clarity in poetry, and a simplicity that hides complexity. Some of T. S. Eliot, as dry as his verse can be, can also evoke very complicated emotions.

Patrice said...

For the most part, I feel as you do about saccharine verses touting the splendor of nature. I find it predictable - and therefore a bore. But I often find a phrase or a passage that reaches deep inside and gives me that "spark of recognition" that binds me by a slender thread to the author/observer. I'm always surprised to find that person who sees the world as I do.

I don't always see the point of one writing a description - but then I'm a painter - and my observations are seen as extraneous by most people. (heh)

Jim Murdoch said...

Just a general comment first of all. Carrie and I are having some computer problems just now, a VERY intermittent connection – it took me an hour to get today's post up – and hence I've been even less conspicuous than I have been of late. We have no idea when the problem will be resolved. A nice fellow in India assured me that there was no problem with the signal so I expect it's a hardware problem closer to home. Anyway, just thought I'd let you know if it takes me a while to respond to you.

In the meantime, Dominic, glad you liked 'The North Sea' – not much for six months, eh? I've always thought that I wrote best when I was miserable but I get this puts that theory to bed. I can still remember standing on the shore looking out at the oil rigs in the distance (for some reason I never imagined I could see them from the shore) and it was SO COLD. Not a place to be in the middle of winter. As for Dick's poem, it's part of a long queue in my feedreader and I may never get round to it because the odds are when I do get online I'll just mark everything as read and start afresh.

Dick, we're on the same page there. People are endlessly fascinating. There are just so many to pick from. Oh, and you'll be pleased to hear that with all this dead computer time I'm doing a lot more reading. You know what I mean.

Why do I read your poems, Sorlil? That is a good question. For the same reason I'll play an operatic aria now and then. I don't get opera and I don't like that I don't get opera. I know it has a huge audience but I can't get excited over it. And so I stretch my ears a bit every now and then. I don't get a lot of what you write but you obviously do and, judging by a lot of the comments, I'm in the minority. So, I persist. It's obvious you have talent so I think I might be able to pick up a thing or two. Also, and this goes back to Dick's point, you write about people more than simply naturescapes.

And, Catana, interesting observation. I'm not sure I could lump all of modern poetry under a single umbrella like that. As with all the arts there are people working at both ends of the spectrum. You and I do appear to appreciate simplicity and clarity and I do get the feeling that more and more people are looking for that. Certainly it's what I set out to write. If you dig through the archives you'll find a smattering of my poetry, new and old, along with discussions of how the poems came about; you may find some to you liking. And there are a few on my website too, but without commentary,

Art Durkee said...

Thanks for the mention.

Lots of people make the mistake of not making a distinction between nature poetry and pastoral poetry. Just because a poem is placed in a natural setting doesn't mean it's a nature poem. Pastoral poetry is perhaps set in natural places, but it's romantic and human-centered. It frequently suffers from being overly sentimental. It's about the lives of people in nature; it's not always about nature itself, in fact it rarely is. Just another way humans tend to be human-centric. Saccharine verses about nature's beauty are pastoral poetry, made by visitors not natives.

The other attribute of pastoral poetry worth mentioning is that it often speaks in grand gestures, in philosophical generalities, in sweeping comparisons. By contrast, the best nature poetry tends to be very specific, finding the universal in the particular rather than making disconnected generalized comments about theoretical or ideological concepts the poet has. Pastoral poetry projects onto nature what the writer thinks he/she sees, not what is actually there. One major difference between the Lake Poets and the Zen poets is that the Lake Poets had big ideas that they projected out onto nature, whereas all Zen poetry begins in close observation of what's actually there, rather than what the poet thinks, or assumes, is there.

Nature poetry by contrast is often about nature itself, and while people may be in those poems, the poems are not about the peoples' concerns but about something else. One might think of Robinson Jeffers, or Gary Snyder, or a few others. Those poems aren't romantic in the slightest, nor sentimental. They're often as hard as the granite they might mention. Nature poetry might be devoid of humanity; except of course that a human wrote the poem. (I don't subscribe to the notion that all poetry is autobiographical, or that the artists' biography is determinative of the art. Such notions neglect to account for imagination. But I also know the artist is always in the work, in some way, since the artist does have something to do with the work's being created.)

Let's face it, most poets have no clue what goes in nature, or natural processes, life, death, and the other disturbing things that go on. That's why pastoral poetry is often so sentimental: it's usually written by urban poets who have spent some time away from the city and been charmed by the rural life, or by the resort they stayed at where the beach was pristine only because it's well-tended-to by local workers. Those of us who actually live outside the urban centers, in small towns, on farms, or other remote areas know better. ("Remote" being another judgment city poets make about what is where. The assumption is that all (artistic) culture is always urban, if not urbane.)

Humans are gregarious. (With some notable exceptions.) They like to hang out together, in packs, in cities, in tribes, etc. Sometimes being together is for mutual protection, but sometimes it's also habit or preference. Most human art is human-centric. Those of us who don't always make human-centric art, or want to, are often called misanthropic by others, but the truth is that we just don't think humans are the only or even principal subject of interest. It's a big galaxy, and we're just one small blue planet in it. What makes me chuckle is that being human-centric is ingrained in so many peoples' worldvews that they have a hard time seeing another perspective; that's where the judgments start.

Anybody who thinks that modern poetry is either too dry or too emotional—and both of these human-centered notions verge on the solipsistic in some brands of modern poetry, I quite agree—needs to read more of the poetry of the rest of the world. (Far too few poets outside their own language and culture traditions. That other stuff is now so readily available, though, that sometimes it's hard not see such reading gaps as mere laziness.) Gregarious people find other people fascinating. That's only natural. But it does affirm that mammalian psychology tends to be herd psychology.

There are a lot of nature poetries, and nature poems, out there in the rest of the world. Haiku as a tradition and genre, definitely, for starters; but also some wonderful ancient Celtic poetry, some African poetries, some Arabic poetry.

So, okay, let's assume the point that people write poems, people read poems, people like to learn about themselves and each other in poems. Granted. Most people ARE interested in other people. People are the lens through which people see the Universe: we are both viewers and the filters through which the world is viewed. Sort that out, it's not that hard: Basically, belief creates reality, and our assumptions about the nature of reality shape what we're interested in, in part.

And, there are other viewpoints, other traditions of poetry, that are not so human-centric. A lot of the assumptions about human nature I'm reading on this thread are stated as "all humans"—mine own not excepted. But in truth, those filters tend to make us assume that all human cultures think the same way we do. Human nature is universal, right?

Actually, it might not be. We just assume it is, because it's consistent within our own culture.

In fact, the long traditions of East Asian and Sanskrit poetry, which BTW are much older than Europe-Middle Eastern traditions of poetry, all share a perspective in which human needs and interests are NOT placed at the center of attention. Not all cultures are quite so human-centric or individualist-oriented as modern Euro-American culture. Our assumptions about what poetry's topics are, are not universal.

So here's the point, at last:

A lot of Asian poetry talks about the moon. A lot of Euro-American poetry talks about the person whose hand has on it the finger that is pointing at the moon—which is not the moon, but is only pointing at it. You see the difference?

Jim Murdoch said...

A valuable comment, Art, and one that underlines and compliments so much of my own post. It reveals my limitations but then I think I'm quite open about what I do and don't get.

As you know I read your blog all the time. Your articles are always encouraging and revealing but if I can just focus on your poems and your photographs for a moment, I love your photography - some of it is quite exceptional and even the not-so-quite-exceptional photos are still usually above-average; your poetry on the other hand almost always misses its mark with me.

This is not to say the poetry is bad because I don't think I'm qualified to make that judgment and that's my point. Even the example I include in the post, I'd be happy to frame that image and stick it on the wall in our living room along with the rest of our black and white images. I can see the image in my head right now but if you showed me an identity parade of your poems and asked me to pick the one that went with it I don't think I could do it. It had three lines, officer; I was distracted by a photo and I only saw it out of the corner of my eye.

So much of this comes down to culture and mindset. And this is a weakness of all writing which is why I think photography is a better medium for translating an experience of nature. It is limited. Even moving images are limited. I watched the first part of a documentary on Yellowstone National Park yesterday and they were talking about temperatures that were so cold it really didn't matter if you measured them in Centigrade or Fahrenheit and here I am sitting in my warm living room with my feet up nursing a hot cup of coffee. It was a sanitised experience. There were no humans in the programme apart from the soft-spoken narrator but he was enough to soil the experience. It felt like a guided tour to an art gallery. There were a number of images of the moon and the sky but he never quite shut up long enough for us to appreciate them for what they were.

What am I saying here, that you can't tame Nature? Certainly. I have to question whether or not we can even capture it. Sure, we can trap a jaguar and bung him in a cage for all the see but then what do we have, a jaguar or a jaguar-in-a-cage? Even Ted Hughes' famous poem is about people at the end of the day.

Ken Armstrong said...

You pull off this great trick where you set out to write about something you don't like and then end up telling us more about what you *do* like.

Perhaps you're a little like 'House' on the telly.

Damn! Every time I try to qualify the above statement in writing, it comes out wrong - let me just say it's meant as a compliment and then let it stand. :)

CS McClellan/Catana said...

This is a fascinating discussion. Art, as I said, I don't reach much poetry these days. In fact, I read only what I happen to stumble upon by accident, on the internet. That pretty much limits me to my own culture.

Call me a barbarian, but in a way, I've exhausted what I can get from poetry, just as I've pretty much exhausted what I can get from novels--maybe a result of overdosing on both in my youth and now seeing most of what's written as repetition, no matter how pretty, truthful, or well done.

Art Durkee said...

Hi, JIm, thanks for the reply. I appreciate the clarifications and further thoughts. (I may at some point expand on my own thoughts about pastoral vs. nature poetry, for a blog post of my own; you got me thinking about it, for which I'm grateful.)

There's a lot of meat here. Let's see.

I do understand what you say about not feeling qualified to judge some kinds of poetry (or art, or music, etc.). I'm certainly not qualified to judge much Language Poetry, although I've read a fair bit of it, trying to "get it." (Some of LangPo's theoretical underpinnings make total sense to me, which is why it's hard to comprehend why the poetry itself is pretty awful. But I digress.)

So I think we all have our strong areas of interest in which we can speak with some experience, and we have other areas which are not our main interests. There are plenty of poets who concentrate on human moments; I don't judge that poetry one way or another, I only wanted to point out that "people in natural settings" doesn't mean it's a nature poem.

I for one feel absolutely no connection to or competency to opine about what they call Nuyorican poetry: an ultra-urban, ultra-self-absorbed variety of inner-city Slam poetry. I have no feeling for it, and don't like most of it that I've encountered. (I have participated in a few Slams, just enough to realize that the venue is a bad fit for my own poetry.)

Obviously I'm more focused on nature poetry than some other poets: that is again a function of experience. Unlike many (city-based, human-interest-focused) poets, I spend a great deal of time outdoors, driving, photographing, traveling through the wild places. I spend time in the mountains just being silent; a poem might come later, or not. Maybe the photography is a better or more natural response; yet I can't help but want to try to put experiences into words, as well. I do a lot of haiku in part because they're portable containers that travel well; they're a lot more portable than Coleridge's or Wordsworth's big philosophical ramblings about Nature, as it were.

As an aside, BTW, I'm perfectly content to be considered by anyone to be a better photographer than poet. That doesn't bother me at all. I've always admitted that poetry was not my principal artform; I'm more than a dabbler, mind you, but I don't take writing as seriously as some other writers do. (Which I know you already knew.) It's of importance to me, but not absolutely central importance; if that makes sense. I also think that I got a quantum level better as a photographer over the last year or so; you and I talked about that, and the B&W work, over on my own blog.

You wrote: "So much of this comes down to culture and mindset. And this is a weakness of all writing which is why I think photography is a better medium for translating an experience of nature. It is limited. Even moving images are limited."

I agree with this comment, very much. I am very aware of the limitations of words; just as I am aware of the artifice of photography. I certainly agree with you about many nature documentary programs, in which the commentary is far too often distracting and foregrounded. That's one reason I've moved towards the DVD films I've been making, which are still photos with music; you can always turn off the music.

One point of clarification: I think it's less about trying to "tame" nature than about trying to "container" it in a way that people can comprehend, take in, be comfortable with. I think a lot people still are threatened by wildness, by wilderness, by the vast open spaces Out There. I agree with you that the documentary you watched was a sanitized experience of nature: completely safe, completely non-threatening. That's what I meant by when folks "container" nature into a safe package palatable to most people. Does that clarify why I think it's a better descriptor than "tame"?

I think of W.H. Auden's excellent little essay book about poetry, "The Enchaf'd Flood," in which he points out our cultural myths around City vs. Wilderness, and where poetry fits into that. It's very relevant to your topic here, and I think you might find some points of agreement. Anyway. Auden discusses how the dichotomies of urban/nature, city/wilderness, etc., are problematic yet drive a lot of art-making. He gets at, too, what I mentioned earlier, the differences between pastoral poetry and nature poetry.

Culture and mindset are really at the root of all this, I completely agree. And also for me it's all about experience transcending culture, and being able to inhabit more than one mindset.

Catana, I'd never call you or anyone else a barbarian. (Except in a good way. For myself. I don't mind the label at all, and it has been used towards me.) ;) I understand your sense of exhaustion; or maybe it's burnout?

My point about bringing in other cultures into the discussion, however, was in part to illustrate that when one's own well is dry, fresh waters can often be found elsewhere. I find other waters (other culture's poetries) rejuvenating, a balm for exactly the sort of exhaustion I imagine you're talking about. I find most of what I read online, just as I find most of what I read in English-language poetry journals to be fairly dry and repetitious these days; one thing I get from reading poetry in translation is windows into completely Other mindsets. It helps to reframe one's own experience from another perspective. It's refreshing and often inspirational.

Conda Douglas said...

Yeah, Jim, I agree, a lot of nature poetry leaves me out in the cold, too. Although some of Basho's haiku I like, this one for example:
On a withered branch
A crow has alighted:
Nightfall in autumn.

But of course, they are haiku, what's not to like?

Jim Murdoch said...

Ah, Ken, if only I were like House. For starters I'd use my phenomenal diagnostic abilities to find a cure for how I am just now. Anything else would be gravy. When I write these articles I really do set out to moan or rant. I'm not sure what goes wrong. But, as you yourself know, that's what's interesting about this form of writing.

Catana, I find it a little sad that you think you've exhausted what you can get from poems and novels. Maybe you need a bigger spade and need to dig a little deeper. I do admit that I'm not as well read as many writers but I'm always amazed with what I keep stumbling across. Sorlil made a comment about about why I keep reading her stuff when it's clearly not my style but the thing is that I like my reading to challenge me. I'm well beyond the stage where all I want is a good story or a neat moral. I take the same view with music and art and I simply refuse to believe you when you use the word "exhausted" – literature is inexhaustible and the simply fact is that I could stick with one author, Samuel Beckett, and read nothing else for the rest of my life and still never get to the bottom of him. I would encourage you to expand your horizons.

Nuyorican Poetry, eh, Art? This underline the point I was just making to Catana. A whole new school/approach to poetry and I've never heard of it I must see what I can find. I don't mind self-absorbed unless it turns into … the only expression I can think of is navel-gazing.

I didn’t think you'd mind being thought a better photographer than a writer but if I'm being honest I think of you as a multi-disciplinary artist (that's posh-speak for dabbler) because, although online you lean towards writing as a means of expression, I suspect that in the real world you're more rounded.

On the subject of mindsets I've always stretched myself but with little success. I have just finished watching a documentary series where Simon Rattle gives a personal overview of the musical progress of the 20th century basically from Mahler on and I listened very carefully to his enthusiastic presentation and then to the extracts most of which I found I owned – certainly there wasn't a composer he mentioned that I don't own something by – and yet I can't see what he's on about in the same way as I can't see the colour in Messiaen's music; he suffered from synaesthesia as you may well know. To me, and this Catana is where my own shallowness comes out, music never seems to be more than beautiful and essential noise to me, but that doesn’t stop me trying to see it from the perspectives of others.

And, Conda, yes, who doesn't like haiku? I could write a whole blog called 'Why I hate haiku' because I feel the same way about it. It has the plus that it's short and, as you know, I have next to no patience. But I find it hard to see the depth on the raindrop. I fully accept that a slight poem – like the example I gave by Pound – can be deep and that poem has stayed with me for thirty years but it's less cryptic than most haiku. The Philistine in me looks at the haiku you've just quoted and says, "So what?"

Art Durkee said...

"I didn’t think you'd mind being thought a better photographer than a writer but if I'm being honest I think of you as a multi-disciplinary artist (that's posh-speak for dabbler) because, although online you lean towards writing as a means of expression, I suspect that in the real world you're more rounded."

Thanks for that. You're right, of course. I'm a lot more verbal in this medium, since it is an inherently verbal medium, than I am in real life. I love a good conversation with one or two friends, when it happens; a lot of the rest of the time, though, I'm laconic. I hope I am well-rounded, I feel that way, but have no objective standard to judge that against; so it's up to others to judge, in the end.

I reserve a lot of my writing for online venues, although I am published; the Net has become a good venue for the spread of poetry, more people read this venue than ever read a chapbook of mine.

I look forward with pleasure to your forthcoming "Why I Hate Haiku" post. Take that as a request. :)

It's interesting to me, of course, because I've gone pretty deep into haiku. (I'm the first to admit there's a lot more going on than meets the eye; traditionally, haiku are associative, and what they don't say is filled in by the reader's own experience and cultural knowledge.) Haiku as you know was a big influence on the Imagists. The paradox of course is that many of your own short-form poems are quite effective. So I suspect it's not the short length of haiku that's at issue.

Anonymous said...

I was winding my way down the post - reading, not skimming, Jim, I must insist - and I was thinking defensively, 'I write stuff in natural settings, but its real focus is either the observer or one observed', so that lets me off Jim's hook. And then there you were saying the same thing, which was enormously gratifying. Grateful too for the exposure and the link. That's made my weekend.

I'm no great fan of a poem that states simply that things natural are beautiful, terrifying, grotesque, awe-inspiring. These things I know. What I need is a figure in the landscape, whether bold in the foreground or simply lurking in the background. It may be me or another, but I write from the relationship between the witness and the natural event. Art's pastoral poem, then. All of which springs from my own preference for living in rural surroundings, which, having done what John Baker describes only the other way round, I'm happy I do!

Jim Murdoch said...

Glad to be able to provide some encouragement, Dick. There's not a lot going around so make the most of it.

The way I think about your poetry is that it's the kind of thing our English teachers would copy and hand out to the class to dissect. I always hated when they did that but then they'd start to ask questions and open up the piece and it always left me amazed just how much a wee poem could actually contain.

If you ever plan to bring out a collection you can mark me down for a copy right now.

McGuire said...

I don't mind nature poems, or poems dealing with the 'outer landscape' but so much older poetry is dry and tedious, ode to the grass or bracken or some small stream. Dull!

I suppose it doesn't matter if it's about nature or the outerlandscape, i.e. of a city or a particular place. I love Walt Whitman and he writers of nature and of city.

There is a Scottish poet I love called Thomas A. Clark he writes in a momst minimal and clear manner about nature.

I have his bookcalled: Distance and Proximity. It is a series of sentences and small paragraphs describing nature, walking, visual perception with striking clarity. Pure amazing.

As for Billy Connolly, perhaps in 1977., he wasn't a going for a walk person, but these days he's travelled all over the world, in all sorts of landscapes, he has certianly become a lover of the world. A lover of nature. I've watched him in New Zealand, in the Artic, all over the shop. He evovled out of the Glaswegian insular attitude the minute he became a global funny man and wealthy ranconteur.

As for the painting, meaning is all too apparent, quite simply he renders the objects very well, they look akin to their objects. That painting would look great in a Scottish resturant or any resturant. I love Salmon with Lemon, delicious. At the very least he holds the objects highly and decided to painting them, they have rustic quality that one would never find in todays supermarket.

Always worth reading you Jim,
grazie tanto!

Dave King said...

I believe you Jim: just another example or our peculiar synchronicity. I can relate to pretty much all of what you say in your post, but beyond pointing out that nature poetry isn't all about the birds and the foxes and the flowers and the green hills and so forth, I don't think I have much more by way of answer than I gave in my post. I do think, though, that the way in which the sub 13 Jim went out into the country was the way in which we all did so back then. We did what came naturally. For some, maybe, it was face-to-face with nature, but not for most. Nature - like religion - comes with adolescence and shouldn't, I believe, be dished out before then.

Jim Murdoch said...

Of course, McGuire, Billy Connolly has made huge strides as a person and getting in touch with Nature has to be one of them. One has to wonder if he'd kept working in the shipyards and playing small clubs what he would have been like today. I'm pleased for him. I suppose being at one with Nature takes time and most of us cannot afford time whereas the rich can. Ironic considering Nature is free to all.

That said, I'm not sure that I agree with you when you say: "Nature … comes with adolescence and shouldn't, I believe, be dished out before then," Dave, because it was when I reached adolescence that I started to lose interest in outside places; they were an inconvenience, they kept all the insides apart. I do suspect that the child who was never in the house is still there within me but I'm not sure how to tap into him. Part of me wishes I could and I say that with all sincerity because I don't like that outside has become a thing to be endured, to be got through; I'm not so far gone not to know that that's unnatural.

Unknown said...

Could I twist your arm to try Jen Hadfield, who recoils from being called a nature poet, but who writes about critters and hills a lot.

I've just posted an interview with her here and a blog post about her here.

Jim Murdoch said...

Enjoyed the interview, William. Thanks for providing the link. I did look her up when I first heard she'd won the TS Eliot Award but there wasn't much on her at the time. I had better luck this time and found four poems here for those who are curious about her.

Dave King said...

I take your point, Jim, but when you were out and about you were not out and about for nature, if I've understood you aright. You didn't go off nature because you were never on it. Similarly we put kids in church and Sunday school before they are up to anything spiritual. They get kind of inoculated against it and never fall for the real dose.

My last teaching job was opening a purpose-built all-age school for slow learning kids. The architect gave us a splendid infants' section with integral playground, sandpit etc, etc,the works. Plus a section of wall lowered enough for them to be able to stand and admire the view across the fields. I never did see any child doing that!

Jim Murdoch said...

You're quite right, Dave, Nature was just a convenient place to escape to. Had I lived in an inner city I would have found other places to hang out. I'm long given up on the osmosis approach to learning. I am not going to acquire a taste for Guinness by forcing myself to drink it, nor am I going to suddenly start to appreciate opera by listening to The Ring night and day for a month, nor am I going to kindle a love of outdoors by running barefoot through every field of barley from here to John o' Groats. It frustrates the hell out of me but there are things I do appreciate like the Copland I'm listening to right this very minute.

Anglo Poet said...

Your article is too damn long to care whether you hate nature poetry or not.Ya loves what ya loves and ya hates what ya hates. Read Joyce Carol Oates' piece on the topic and maybe it'll get you up to the level of saying something intelligent and just not waste so much time giving us so much of yourself and your emotional reactions. Sorry, lad, but I'm not interested in you. The topic, yes, I'm interested in.

Chuck Taylor

Jim Murdoch said...

What can I say, Chuck? Thanks for at least having a look at my site. I'm sorry that it wasn't to your taste. This is a personal blog and so it does reflect my opinion and I write to the limit of my intelligence. I freely admit in other posts that I am often out of my depth but I do my research dilligently and share what I find. I'm always happy to be corrected. Yes, I'm a bit long-winded, I admit that but most people will know within a few paragraphs if what I'm saying is of any interest. No one is forcing anyone to read.

C. Marie Byars said...

(1) It is true that photographs don't do justice to the Grand Canyon. (2) I have a Christian Nature Poetry site (not all the stuff is mine). The religious character gives almost all these poems meaning. If you decide to visit, you can look for a silly ditty of mine that "waxes eloquent" on Poison Ivy or visit "Ode to Joy", a personification of Christian "Joy" filled with home-y, simple images. Take care!

Jim Murdoch said...

Thanks for stopping by, Marie. I had a wee look at your site and found the poems you mentioned but I'm afraid you've not managed to convince me. Nice try though.

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