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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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.


Writing books and pruning trees

Apple trees in spring

Spring is here, and that means gardening season.  The parallels between writing and gardening are many, and have been appreciated by writers for generations – planting a seed, nurturing the sprouts, weeding out what is unnecessary, watching it blossom, etc.

A few weeks ago, I set out to prune an apple tree and was confronted by a massive maze of branches. The spindly sticks overlapped in all directions, making it nearly impossible to see which branches constituted the main structure of the tree, the ones that formed the backbone and needed room to grow.

I could not think how to begin, but I did notice one branch that obviously needed to go. It twisted up against another branch so that they seemed to be wrestling to the death. So I picked up the shears and lopped it off, and it came down with all its spindly branches like a giant urchin.

As soon as this branch was gone, my view of the tree became much clearer, I could see the main shape as it should be, and noticed other branches that could be taken away. With each branch I cut, the true nature of the tree became clearer.

So it is with editing a manuscript, sometimes just taking away one piece will allow you to see the rest with more clarity. And pruning a manuscript has one distinct advantage over pruning a tree – if you change your mind, you can always put the words back.