Back on August 3, Chris Clarke wrote A paean to Charles Simic to note his getting a new job. It began:
I’ve read some of your poems.
You seem to notice birds a lot.
They show up in a lot of your poems
but you don’t say what kind of birds they are.
Are they warblers? Owls?
Robins, or big brooding hawks?
Whooping cranes? You don’t tell us.
And when the birds sit in a tree or shrub
you don’t tell us what kind of tree or shrub. It’s OK.
Not everyone is curious about that kind of thing,
and even if you told us it was a nightingale
and that it was on a Liquidambar branch
most of us wouldn’t know what either of those was.
I’m a huge fan of Charles Simic, especially of his earlier books, so I kind of bristled at the post. It seems unfair to single out Simic for something that so many poets are guilty of. On the other hand, Chris does address something I’ve thought about a lot in reference to my own work: how specific can we get in talking about nature without losing half our audience, which neither knows nor cares about such details?
It’s been interesting to read the submissions that have come into qarrtsiluni over the last twelve days. “Insecta” is the first theme we’ve had where carelessness about natural history can get otherwise stellar submissions rejected. Marly and Ivy made it clear in their call for submissions that they welcomed all manner of literary and artistic creations, including those that are merely inspired by insects; a poem doesn’t have to be what Chris Clarke might consider a nature poem in order to pass muster. But it can’t be about spiders! I really don’t think it’s too much to ask that a literate person at least be able to distinguish an insect from an arachnid.
I’d go further and suggest that it’s not too much to ask anyone who calls him- or herself a poet to take a strong interest in learning the English names of most of the common, macroscopic species that call their bioregion home, in the same way s/he should have a working knowledge of Greek mythology and the Bible. It’s basic knowledge that can only enrich one’s appreciation for the world. And poets are all about vocabulary, right? It doesn’t have to make it into your work, but for Christ’s sake, at least give a shit!
Simic, on the other hand, is unapologetically anthropocentric: “Human beings and what happen to them are much more of a presence in my poems than, let’s say, nature,” he told an interviewer in 1977. He went on:
The problem with the so-called nature poems is that they generate all that false, easy pantheism and mysticism. Sure, we have such experiences, but they are really rare. I distrust poets who have a mystical experience each time they look at a tree or a falling leaf. It just doesn’t happen. It’s a kind of fakery. I’m all for nature and all the good, wholesome thoughts it produces in human beings, but in moderation. I mean it’s harder to deal with a city and that totally fucked up world of super highways, slums, subways, and the poor bastards who have to go to work every day in that world. Religious emotions about nature are easy; this other thing — that’s very difficult. That’s why I always respected David Ignatow, who has written so many incredible portraits of poor unfortunates who make their living in this monstrous world. I see a kind of integrity there. We are surrounded by piles and piles of shit, and it’s not something we can dismiss. It’s where we live. You’ve got to look at it and do something about it.
That’s from Simic’s The Uncertain Certainty: Interviews, Essays, and Notes on Poetry (University of Michigan Press, 1985).
Again, as with Chris’ “Paean,” there are points here I do agree with, depending on what kind of “nature poems” we are talking about. However, his insistence that poets should be primarily concerned with the plight of modern, industrial humanity is eerily similar to the official position on poetry in most 20th-century communist regimes, inluding the one Simic and his family fled in Yugoslavia. To me, all good poetry is nature poetry; I’m not in the habit of sorting either the poems I read or the poems I write by subject matter. Some poets who treat nature as an ideological touchstone or an excuse for pseudo-mystical rambling do leave me cold, as do poets who — like many of the supposedly great English poets of the 18th century and before — rarely admit an unconventional natural image into their work, to say nothing of a named species. I agree that it’s difficult to write convincing poems about non-human subjects, having failed so many times in that regard myself. But it’s also rare that I write anything about plants or animals without at least alluding to “this monstrous world” in which we all, rural and urban alike, are complicit in. And of all the poets I admire who write with integrity about the natural world, I can’t think of any who “dismiss” the concerns of humanity, as Simic implies.
In fact, there are a lot of poets on my bookshelf who manage to write about non-human subjects without descending into “false, easy pantheism and mysticism” — and who don’t mind calling a species by its proper name on occasion. With these two guidelines in mind, I spent an enjoyable couple of hours this morning gathering a tall stack of books, and I thought it might be worthwhile if I wrote a little bit about each one, and/or found a good quote to share. Tomorrow I’ll begin a list of single-author books of poetry for nature-lovers, but first — speaking of pantheism — here are a few anthologies of poetry in which close attention to the natural world is a conspicuous feature.
1. The Honey Tree Song: Poems and Chants of the Sarawak Dayaks, by Carol Rubenstein (Ohio University Press, 1985)
Oral poetry of an agrarian or hunting-gathering people is often replete with natural imagery, and these poems are no exception. Rubenstein is a poet as well as an anthropologist, and she did a phenomenal amount of work gathering and translating oral poetry from seven distinct societies during a three-year residency in Borneo back in the 1970s; this is a lengthy work. In the introduction, she describes in some detail the procedures she used for trying to determine the exact meanings of words and allusions when the dialect changed every five miles and she had to work with a shifting cast of translators into Malay and English.
Here are a few lines from the title poem:
The rhinoceros beetle — the heavy gurgling sound.
The cricket — the high insisting sound.
The rhinoceros beetle says this comes first,
the cricket says that should be first —
the words of the honey tree song.
The seeds that come from the land near the sea
are big as that in the beak of the little kunchih bird. …
Honey tree found by my grandfather when he was lost in the jungle,
found by my grandmother when she was hunting with a blowpipe,
found by my father when he was out walking.
Planted by a tiny short-tailed porcupine and his wife,
planted by a big long-quilled porcupine and his wife,
planted by a pheasant on the edge of the jungle,
planted by a moonrat on the edge of the hill,
planted on the edge of the junction of two rivers,
planted between two ponds.
2. I Breathe a New Song: Poems of the Eskimo, edited by Richard Lewis (Simon and Schuster, 1971)
From Dayaks to kayaks! If Rubenstein’s work is a little too scholarly, this might be a little too popular in its presentation: the lack of notes identifying the exact source for each poem in the anthropological literature bothers me. Other than that, it’s a fine selection. The poems are arranged thematically, with the cultural/geographic provenance given at the end of each. Here’s one that demonstrates a good, earthy sense of humor (I take it that “turned its back” really means, “went bottoms-up,” i.e. mooned):
Then said the blowfly:
“Because you are bellyless — perhaps
You cannot reply at all!”
The little water beetle then said:
“Devoid of belly — maybe so!
Still, you may be sure that I will answer back!”
And with a grimace
It turned its back at once
Without making any attempt to answer back.
He was a bad one for arguing.
3. Singing for Power: The Song Magic of the Papago Indians of Southern Arizona, by Ruth Murray Underhill (University of California Press, 1938)
Despite the extreme simplicity of their material culture, the Tohono O’odham, as they now prefer to be called, have an extraordinarily rich oral literature. It’s been well documented but unfortunately rather poorly translated, with a few exceptions, and this popularly written study is one of them. As in many oral cultures, the O’odham had several different levels of performative speech, at least two of which might translate as “poetry,” and Underhill includes examples of both genres, along with just enough description at the beginning of each chapter to set the stage, describing the social circumstances from which the poems arose. My only criticism is that her selections are a bit on the short side, considering the length of the sequences from which they were drawn. The reader gets the mistaken impression that the O’odham specialized in verses of haiku or tanka length, where in fact they favored linked-verse sequences capable of continuing all night.
Quail children under the bushes
Our comrade Coyote heard them.
Softly he came padding up
And stood wriggling his ears
In all directions.
4. Yoruba Poetry: An Anthology of Traditional Poems, by Ulli Beier (Cambridge University Press, 1970)
This is the only book here I don’t own; I’ve only read the copy in the Penn State library, and don’t have it with me to quote from. As with the other books I’ve just listed, I can’t comment on the accuracy of the translations, only on their effectiveness in English, and in that respect they are superb. Yoruba poetry is full of concrete images, many derived from the natural world. Fortunately, some of the poems are included in a book I do own: The Penguin Book of Oral Poetry, by Ruth Finnegan — which by the way is a great anthology, flawed only by the author’s failure to include any African epics (which she mistakenly believed did not exist). Anyway, here’s one of Beier’s translations from Finnegan’s Yoruba section:
His tail plays on the ground
While he crushes the skull.
Who puts on a spotted robe
When he goes to his victim.
Whose loving embrace
Splits the antelope’s heart.