The poetry of earth is never dead

John Keats portrait by William HiltonFebruary 23, 2021 marks the 200 year anniversary of the death of John Keats. Although his life was short, he has had an outsized influence on English poetry and literature in the years since.

But he was not always so beloved, and like many artists before and after, he was anything but acclaimed during his lifetime. In a blistering review of his epic poem Endymion, the magazine Blackwood’s called him “the most worthless and affected of all the versifiers of our time” and his poem was described as “imperturbable drivelling idiocy.”*

There was a prevailing theory at the time that only aristocrats had the capacity and sophistication to be poets. Keats’s father managed a horse stable, and although he was by no means impoverished, Keats always felt the weight of his humble beginnings. He originally wanted to be a doctor and went to medical school, but quit the profession before he even started, in order to devote himself to poetry.

Keats was inspired by nature, like many poets of the time, but his works evolved to tackle many different themes as he tried to break free of the sentimental stylings of his early work. Throughout his life he fought an internal struggle between his ambition and his ability, but he continued to work hard to become a better writer.

Many events are being planned in commemoration of the anniversary of his death, including a BBC radio play and a virtual tours at the Keats-Shelley House in Rome.

But perhaps the best way to appreciate this poet on his anniversary is to read his work. The sonnets are perhaps the most accessible of his poems, taking on subjects as varied as nature, books and authors he liked, letters to friends, or even how he was feeling that day. In the poem “On the Grasshopper and Cricket” he muses on nature and how it persists in inspiring us:

The Poetry of earth is never dead:
  When all the birds are faint with the hot sun,
  And hide in cooling trees, a voice will run
From hedge to hedge about the new-mown mead;
That is the Grasshopper’s—he takes the lead
  In summer luxury,—he has never done
  With his delights; for when tired out with fun
He rests at ease beneath some pleasant weed.
The poetry of earth is ceasing never:
  On a lone winter evening, when the frost
    Has wrought a silence, from the stove there shrills
The Cricket’s song, in warmth increasing ever,
  And seems to one in drowsiness half lost,
    The Grasshopper’s among some grassy hills.
 
You can read more poetry by Keats here at the Poetry Foundation.

I also highly recommend the biography John Keats, The Making of a Poet by Aileen Ward, if you can find it. The biography won the National Book Award in 1964, and focuses on the poet’s creative development as well as the events in his life.

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Trees and plants in storytelling

Hawthorn Tree by Arthur Rackham

I’ve written on this website about trees before, they permeate the arts throughout history. There were trees in early cave paintings, and they appear in art traditions around the world. And they aren’t just background images, trees and plant are often characters in themselves. Trees have taken leading roles in myth and folklore. They inspire strength, resilience, wonder, and can even teach us about human relationships. (Above, illustration by Arthur Rackham who specialized in trees.) 

Author Richard Powers has expanded the mythology of trees by incorporating them into his novel The Overstory, which has won praise from both readers and scientists. In the following interview, appropriately conducted beneath a towering oak, he explains how his book was inspired by nature.

In one particular quote, Powers says, “This book is about taking the non-human seriously. It’s about realizing that we are not alone on this earth, and the rest of creation is not there simply to be a resource to us.”

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The Kingdom of Plants by Julie-Anne FountainFor the younger crowd, Julie-Anne Fountain’s middle grade novel The Curse Of The Nightshade: The Kingdom Of Plants Book One, is a fantasy where plants take center stage. In a hidden world known as The Kingdom of Plants, young Laurel discovers she comes from a long line of seedmages, who can control plants using magic. As she searches for her kidnapped mother and battles deadly Nightshades (half-human half-plant), she learns to harness her powers and gain confidence.

The book is full of botanical references, and the Latin names of plants are used to cast spells. Seeds are a powerful source of magic, and can be made to grow into nearly any shape while keeping the properties of the original plant. The city in this fantasy world is also built from plants, with towering trees that form ascending layers that hold streets and buildings. It’s a world that any plant-lover would want to step into.

Facts about trees and seeds are scattered throughout the book, without slowing down the story. This volume will inspire many a young reader to learn more about the natural world of plants around us.

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I’ve neglected this blog a bit lately, to work on other projects, but I hope to still update it once in a while with interesting examples of nature in art. You can also check out my personal website to learn more about my own stories and art.

 

Two great poets of nature

I began this year with high hopes of posting on this blog often, but life got in the way. Not that there hasn’t been a lot going on in the area of art and nature, it’s almost too much to keep up with.

As the year draws to a close, I want to remember two great poets of nature who passed away recently.

Mary OliverMary Oliver (1935–2019) inspired multiple generations with her keen observations of nature and the human spirit. She didn’t just write about nature, she lived it, often writing outdoors while walking through the woods.

In an appreciation in The New Yorker, Rachel Syme writes: “Oliver lived a profoundly simple life: she went on long walks through the woods and along the shoreline nearly every day, foraging for both greens and poetic material.”

She wrote of nature not only to celebrate its unique wonder, but to plumb the depths of the human condition, to understand life itself, as in this poem, “I Go Down to the Shore.”

I go down to the shore in the morning
and depending on the hour the waves
are rolling in or moving out,
and I say, oh, I am miserable,
what shall —
what should I do?
And the sea says
in its lovely voice:
Excuse me, I have work to do.

Here she reads one of her most famous poems, “The Summer Day”:

And here is a video of Mary Oliver reading another of her well-known poems “The Wild Geese”

Mary Oliver gave few interviews, but this 2015 interview from the radio program On Being provides a glimpse into her creative mind. She says that creativity is important, but so is discipline, the act of sitting down regularly to work. She says, “I think we’re creative all day long. And we have to have an appointment to have that work out on the page. Because the creative part of us gets tired of waiting or just gets tired.”

Listen or read the entire interview here. You can read more about her life and work at the Poetry Foundation.

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W.S. MerwinW.S. Merwin (1927-2019) was another acclaimed poet who passed away this year, who also wrote and cared about nature. He lived his final years in Hawaii, where he and his wife purchased land on an old pineapple plantation where the soil was depleted by chemicals and erosion. Together they planted trees and slowly restored the land into what is now The Merwin Conservancy, 19 acres of lush palm forest preserved as an arts and ecology center.

In his poem “October” he describes the magic of nature in autumn:

 What peace! To the sharp black poplar comes
a bird and sings. A cloud frays
colorless, and a single butterfly,
a light, sinks in the light…

Once asked about the role of the poet in today’s society, he said,

“We keep expressing our anger and our love, and we hope, hopelessly perhaps, that it will have some effect. But I certainly have moved beyond the despair, or the searing, dumb vision that I felt after writing The Lice; one can’t live only in despair and anger without eventually destroying the thing one is angry in defense of. The world is still here, and there are aspects of human life that are not purely destructive, and there is a need to pay attention to the things around us while they are still around us. And you know, in a way, if you don’t pay that attention, the anger is just bitterness.”

Here he is giving a talk about connections, between poetry and modern life, between humans and the earth we live on:


You can read more about Merwin’s life and work at the Poetry Foundation.

Despite the loss of these two great writers, poetry is still very much alive today, with countless poets pursuing their art. Here is a great online compilation of poems inspired by nature, many by contemporary poets. If I continue this blog in the future, I hope to highlight more of them.

Thanks for reading!

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Last of the Curlews, a book for the ages

Last of the Curlews book cover

There are some nonfiction books that encompass themes far beyond their particular subject matter. Last of the Curlews by Fred Bodsworth is one of those books.

On the surface, this little book is deceptively simple in its straightforward and observational narrative. It describes the everyday life of an Eskimo curlew as he arrives in the Arctic to stake out his nesting territory and look for a mate. The prose is precise, detailed, and often poetic, as in this passage from the first chapter:

The curlew set his wings and dropped stonelike in a series of zigzag sideslips. The rosy pink reflections of ice pans on the brown river rushed up toward him. Then he leveled off into a long glide that brought him to earth on the oozy shore of a snow-water puddle well back from the riverbank.

We soon learn that the curlew has come to this spot for three years without ever seeing another of his kind. Even as hundreds of other shore birds arrive and feed and nest, the curlew remains alone. As time passes and the short mating season comes to an end, the curlew instinctively knows it’s time to migrate south, and so begins his journey. Typically he would join a flock of other Eskimo curlews, but there are none to be found, so he takes off on his own.

In flight, he encounters a flock of golden plovers, powerful birds who follow a similar flight path as the curlew, and so he joins them and they accept him without question. Flying as part of a flock is hugely beneficial, especially during the most treacherous part of the flight, the 2,500 miles non-stop across the Atlantic ocean to South America. In the following passage, they face freezing temperatures and zero visibility.

The snow clung to their wings, packed into the air slots between the flight feathers. Wings that a few minutes before had responded deftly to the gentle, rhythmic flexing of the breast muscles were now heavy and stiff, and they beat the air futilely like lifeless paddles, driving air downward in a waste of energy instead of deflecting it rearward for the horizontal airflow essential to flight. Their flight speed dropped until they were hovering almost motionless in a disorganized, bewildered cluster, now almost a mile above the sea.

As the book continues, we witness the harrowing flight across the ocean, the arrival along the coast of Venezuela, and the continued journey south to Argentina. After this arduous trip of over 9,000 miles, it is soon time to head back northward again, back to the Arctic tundra in another attempt to find a mate. The descriptions of the journey are so immediate and harrowing, the narrative becomes an emotional page-turner, as you wonder if the lone curlew will survive.

Illustration from Last of the Curlews, © by Abigail Rorer
Illustration © by Abigail Rorer, based on original drawings by T.M. Shortt

Along the way, we learn many facts about curlews, migration, weather, and natural history. We encounter other birds on the journey, and a larger picture emerges of how millions of creatures cross the continents each year in a massive interconnected system that has continued for eons. Interspersed with the story are short excerpts from historical reports from the 1700s to the 1900s, and we hear firsthand how the great flocks of curlews steadily declined through unsustainable mass hunting. The Counterpoint Press edition of the book also includes exquisite drawings by Abigail Rorer, based on the original drawings by T.M. Shortt, that help bring the curlew’s journey to life. (See above.)

Although written in 1954, this book feels even more relevant today, and inspires larger questions about the meaning of existence. Why does the curlew continue to make this treacherous journey every year, with little or no hope of finding a mate? With the fate of his species on the line, wouldn’t it be wiser to play it safe, to adopt the habits of a less ambitious seabird? Or would that be giving up his true nature, his sole purpose in life?

There are so many moments along the journey where the curlew might easily perish, and yet he perseveres. Like so many other creatures facing extinction, he doesn’t give up. Would I be as steadfast in such a situation? Would any of us?

The beauty of this book is that it does not offer analysis or proselytizing, it simply tells a story with great detail and power, and the themes emerge naturally. It’s the story of one bird, but it’s also the story of all of us.

 

A few thoughts about H is for Hawk

H is for HawkI recently finished the audiobook of H is for Hawk, written and read by Helen Macdonald, and immediately wanted to write about it on my blog, to share this extraordinary book with the world. Then I discovered that it was an international bestseller, winner of numerous awards, and apparently everyone already did know about it, deservedly so.

I was actually surprised to learn it was a bestseller, not because it isn’t good, but because it’s so unique, so personal, so specific. For those of you who aren’t familiar with the book, it is a memoir about the author’s efforts to train a goshawk after her own father’s death, weaving in a biographical account of T.H. White and his less-successful attempts to train a goshawk while dealing with his own life issues.

What inspired me most about the book was that it combined such obscure and personal narratives into something universal. Most of us know very little about hawk training, much less about T.H. White. Yet these things were meaningful to the author, and brought out larger narrative themes that everyone can relate to, like love and loss, and primal instincts that have no name.

Some have argued that it isn’t really a nature book, because nature is something wild and untamed, while the main focus of this book is a tame and captive hawk, which does most of its hunting in suburbs and college campuses. But I think there is still a wildness to this hawk, and this book, which explores powerful themes of nature and what it means to be animal or human. Nature may be at its most elemental far from civilization, but sometimes a thing has to be pulled out of context in order to study it and see it in a new light. So while the book straddles the worlds of humans and animals, the themes of wildness and nature are still very much present.

So, what exactly constitutes “nature writing”? It depends on who you ask, and the topic has received much debate lately, but I will save that for another post. For now, you can read an interview with Helen Macdonald here, and also here.

And here’s a video interview at the Chicago Humanities Festival.

 

Happy Earth Day – poetry and plants

Spring Crocuses

Earth Day is a time when we celebrate and honor nature, in all its wild untamed beauty. We also search for ways to understand and appreciate nature, and one such way is poetry.

I have featured nature poetry on this website before, by the likes of Keats, Herrick, and of course Emily Dickinson. Recently I came across a wonderful article about the uses of Plants in Poetry, by Kelly Brenner of Native Plants and Wildlife Gardens. She demonstrates plants as symbolism in Shakespeare, plants as lessons and morals in Shel Silverstein, and plants as an appreciation of nature in the work of Dickinson.

It appears the poetic power of plants is timeless, as these works are just as potent today as when they were written. Perhaps they are even more powerful, as we seem to have grown distant as a species from the friendly flora around us. Plants are potted and mulched into neat corners of society, making our unconscious yearning for the natural world all the more powerful.

Luckily we have the poets to help bring us back, and remind us of our deep bond with the natural world. Nature poems are not always happy ones, which just goes to show how well nature reflects our inner selves.

One of the poems featured in the article above is The Withering Of The Boughs by William Butler Yeats. I’ll leave you with an excerpt, you can read the entire poem at the original post.

I cried when the moon was murmuring to the birds:
‘Let peewit call and curlew cry where they will,
I long for your merry and tender and pitiful words,
For the roads are unending, and there is no place to my mind.’
The honey-pale moon lay low on the sleepy hill,
And I fell asleep upon lonely Echtge of streams.

No boughs have withered because of the wintry wind;
The boughs have withered because I have told them my dreams.

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Autumn, in painting and poetry

Autumn Landscape With Four Trees - Vincent van Gogh
Autumn Landscape With Four Trees - Vincent van Gogh

Autumn is here once again! The changing of the seasons is a favorite topic here at The Untended Garden, perhaps because so many artists have been inspired by the seasons.

Today I present a famous painting by Vincent Van Gogh, appropriately entitled Autumn Landscape With Four Trees (click the image for a larger view.) What’s most interesting to me about this painting is the ordinariness of the scene. He did not choose a majestic vista or mountaintop, as so many landscape artists do, he chose a clump of very ordinary, almost misshapen trees – one of them has even lost its leaves. And yet the artist saw something beautiful in them, and chose to immortalize this view forever, so that we could all experience this moment the way he did.

Likewise, Emily Dickinson captured her own particular notion of autumn in the poem below. Even though autumn is beautiful, she seems to say, it also portends a passing of time that is not so easily accepted.

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As Summer into Autumn slips
And yet we sooner say
“The Summer” than “the Autumn,” lest
We turn the sun away,

And almost count it an Affront
The presence to concede
Of one however lovely, not
The one that we have loved —

So we evade the charge of Years
On one attempting shy
The Circumvention of the Shaft
Of Life’s Declivity.

– Emily Dickinson

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North by East: the woodcuts of Rockwell Kent

N by E coverLast summer I did a whole series of posts about the ocean, and how it was depicted in books, paintings and films. My post about Moby Dick featured artwork by Rockwell Kent, known for his dramatic woodcut illustrations for that story. A few months ago I came across another nautical book by Kent, this time written by him as well, called N by E.

Rockwell Kent was a traveler and adventurer who spent his life painting and drawing epic scenes of nature. N by E is, in the words of the preface, “the story of an actual voyage to Greenland in a small boat: of a shipwreck there and of what, if anything, happened afterwards.”

These illustrations are little gems of composition and line. They are all the more remarkable when you realize they are woodcuts, where the white is literally carved away and the black areas left alone. There is no “undo” in this process. There’s something stark and powerful about these images, which evoke more drama with two colors than many artists do with a full palette.

Illustration by Rockwell Kent

Illustration by Rockwell Kent

Illustration by Rockwell Kent

Illustration by Rockwell Kent

Illustration by Rockwell Kent

Illustration by Rockwell Kent

Illustration by Rockwell Kent

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Katy and the Big Snow – a children’s classic

Katy and the Big Snow

All this recent snow has reminded me of one of my favorite picture books from childhood, Katy and the Big Snow by Virginia Lee Burton. Though not as famous as some of her other books, I think it’s one of the best books about snow, and one of the best picture books ever made.

The story is deceptively simple – a city is buried in a blizzard of snow, and a tractor named Katy saves the day by plowing everyone out. But there are many remarkable things about this book, starting with the design. Burton was a designer and printmaker as well as an author and illustrator, and she uses pattern, shape and simplification to turn every page into a visual marvel. Take the city itself, designed as a map so intricate yet so understandable because of its simple design.

Katy and the Big Snow sample

This map becomes even more amazing when you realize that it is a template for all the scenes later in the book. When Katy plows out the railroad station, you can go back to the map and see how it matches up. Burton even adds a compass to many of the pages to help readers see where they are.

There is also a wonderful use of white space to emphasize the blanket of snow that envelopes the city. As the intrepid tractor plows through the snow, we see the city emerge from the whiteness. She plows each section of the city, eventually uncovering the entire map that we saw at the beginning of the book.

Katy and the Big Snow

There are many other layers to this book, for instance how it shows all the different parts of a city (fire department, water department, telephone company, etc) and how they work together. And it has great little details like the milk truck and bakery truck resuming their deliveries after Katy clears the way.

The repeating swirls and curves of the city establish a visual theme that is carried throughout the book. Even more so than The Little House or Mike Mulligan, this book uses the kind of decorative borders and patterns that Burton excelled at in her printmaking and fabric design. The simple palette of white and blue, set off with highlights of red, yellow and green for the buildings, makes for a vivid and memorable design.

Katy and the Big Snow

There are almost no close-ups in this book, something which goes against all the “rules” of book illustration that say you must vary your perspective. And yet it works here because it lets you follow Katy’s progress as she plows out each section of the city, and you can see not only where she is at that moment, but also the places she previously plowed out as they resume their business. Burton had an instinctive eye for how to tell a story visually, and how to show only what was necessary.

The story itself contains themes of patience and hard work. Katy is too big to plow during light storms, but when the big blizzard hits, she comes to the rescue and saves the entire city. The fact that Katy is a female tractor is never mentioned, which in itself is a quiet but powerful message about equality. Almost sixty years after its publication, children’s books about trucks and machines are still overwhelmingly aimed at boys, which is too bad. Katy was a pioneer, just like her creator, carving out new paths in storytelling and bookmaking. This is a true classic, far ahead of its time; and in some ways, ahead of ours.

Arthur Rackham’s Midsummer Night’s Dream

TreeNovember always puts me in the mind for Arthur Rackham, one of my favorite illustrators. I especially love how he draws trees, which are like living, breathing creatures with personalities all their own.

With a limited palette and spare lines, his paintings are full of raw emotion, and he finds beauty in the most gnarled and thorny landscapes. His palette was mostly due to the limited color printing process at the time, though you can tell he’s right at home with it, and can channel a thousand subtleties in its limited range.

These illustrations are all from A Midsummer Night’s Dream by William Shakespeare. For a tale so entwined with nature and magical creatures, Rackham is the perfect fit. Notice how the characters and backgrounds are seamlessly blended together, so that the landscape becomes a character in itself. When not illustrating, Rackham did a lot of sketching landscapes outdoors, and it shows in his work. I encourage you to find books with his illustrations, to see all the amazing detail.

Also see my post from last year about Arthur Rackham’s amazing trees.

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A Midsummer Night's Dream by Arthur Rackham

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A Midsummer Night's Dream by Arthur Rackham

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A Midsummer Night's Dream by Arthur Rackham

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A Midsummer Night's Dream by Arthur Rackham

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A Midsummer Night's Dream by Arthur Rackham

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