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,
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:
THE NORTH SEA
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:
IN A STATION OF THE METRO
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.