I know all the dark places
where the sun hasn’t reached yet,
where the last cricket
has just hushed; anthills
where it sounds like it’s raining….
Charles Simic does write crows and cockroaches and Great Horned Owls into his poetry. He certainly writes late night mannequins and butcher’s blocks and smeared diner menues into it too. I’ve heard him tell stories about his 3 a.m. walks around New York, and steak houses in North Dakota, and I’d happily listen to them for hours, but he’s lived in rural New Hampshire the last 30 years, and he has an eerily fine eye for detail.
I was lucky enough to take a class with Simic at UNH two years back. He based it around the idea that nearly everyone uses too many words. He wanted people to keep to the point, and he taught me that in order to keep control of my rhythm and images, to emphasize with the placement of a word, the speed of a phrase, a pause, I had to pare down. He wanted us to use the names for things; he wanted us to be specific.
The vagueness Chris Clark complains of up there, and the vagueness Simic complains of in nature poetry, sound to me like two chambers in the same honeycomb. Simic is is criticizing a hazy praising of general trees, not a deep, jagged grasp at one specific juniper.
I write a lot about trees myself, and whippoorwills and water striders and green corn. He supported any of us who did. But I’ve found for myself that if I repeat the names of every ash and larch and larkspur on my road without telling any story, without giving them any place and context and feeling on the page, even I stop feeling the wonder of them.
I don’t like the name “nature writing” much, because it suggests that the writing is limited, that talking about nature automatically makes me interesting only to backyard birders and garden enthusiasts and through hikers on the AT. I do want to talk to them. But I want to talk as much, maybe more, to the people who don’t know yet why they should care what an oriel sounds like.
I want to wake people who aren’t awake yet. A sense of connected life or loneliness or space, a sense of wonder at the sound of bats or the brightness of an oak gall, all that is human. The only way I know to get people to feel it, when they don’t already, is to make them feel how human it is.