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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

Eco-Poets: Voices in the Wilderness

Air Date: Week of

Many poets look to the natural world for inspiration and internal reflection. Living On Earth producer Kim Motylewski recently traveled to an "Eco-Poetry" festival and spoke with four ecology oriented poets about their work and writings.


CURWOOD: It's Living on Earth. I'm Steve Curwood. For those who write poetry, expressing what's going on inside sometimes means looking outside: to the forest, the beach, or the desert. What poets find there among the trees and fish and heat can satisfy curiosity, salve a wound, or speak for a soul. Nature is a long-recurring theme in poetry, and recently Living on Earth's Kim Motylewski traveled to the Geraldine R. Dodge Poetry Festival in search of eco-poetry. It wasn't hard to find at this biennial event in northern New Jersey, that features some of the nation's most famous poets and attracts a thousand or so spectators to its panels, workshops, and readings.

ROGERS: If I were a female hummingbird perched still and quiet on an upper myrtle branch...

KOMENYAKA: Brother the blow fly and godhead, you worked magic over battlefields, and slashed...

DOTY: Something retrieved from a Greco-Roman wreck, patinated and oddly muscular...

ROGERS: And I would bless the base of each of your feathers and touch the time...

MOTYLEWSKI: These are the voices of poets reading their work at a panel on poetry and the earth beneath a giant striped tent at the center of the festival. Yusef Komunyakaa, Mark Doty, and Pattiann Rogers, all of them turn to nature for image and metaphor. But it's not enough just to think of them as nature poets and be done. Better to start by thinking of them as investigators. Their tools are observation and language. Poet Pattiann Rogers has always been fascinated with the smallest details of nature: the shape of a pine cone, the texture of a mushroom. Ms. Rogers grew up in rural Missouri exploring the woods. As an adult she's lived in the Texas desert and the Colorado Rockies. She wonders about her relationship to these vastly different places and that overwhelming feeling when she encounters something new and wonderful in the landscape.

ROGERS: We want to possess it but we also want it to maintain its mystery at the same time. So this is a poem that kind of addresses that issue and how we assimilate the beauty we see around us: A giant has swallowed the earth. What will it do for him to have internalized the many slender stems of rivulets and funnels? The blunt toes of the pine cone fallen, to have ingested lakes and gold slabs at dawn and the peak branches of the fir under snow. He has taken into himself the mist of the hazelnut, the white hairs of the moth and the mole's velvet snout. He remembers by inner voice alone fogs over frozen gray marshes, fine salt on the blunt of the cliff. What will it mean to him to perceive things first from within? The mushroom's fold, the marten's tongue, the spotted orange of the wallaby's ear? To become the object himself before he comprehends it, putting into perfect concept without experience the den of green gully and spring mosses. And when he stretches on his bed and closes his eyes, what patterns will appear to him naturally? The schematic tracings of the vanessa butterfly and migration? Packs and red strings marking the path of each mouse in the field? New clay chromosomes aligning their cylinders in purple before their separation? The wind must settle all that it carries behind his face and rise again in his vision like morning. A giant has swallowed the earth. And when he sleeps now, oh, when he sleeps, how his eyelids murmur. How we envy his dream.

(Music up and under: Bach cello)

DOTY: It's almost over now. Late summer's accomplishment. And I can stand face to face with this music, eye to seed-paved eye with the sunflower's architecture. Such muscular leaves, the thick stem's surge. Though some are still shiningly confident, others can barely hold their heads up. Their great leaves wrap the stalks like lowered shields. This one shrugs its shoulders. This one's in a rush to be nothing but form.

MOTYLEWSKI: This is Mark Doty reading me his poem "In the Community Garden." We've slipped away from the admiring crowd to a quiet spot behind the main tent. At first, it seems to me that like Pattiann Rogers, he's moved by a sense of wonder to detail this stand of sunflowers. But many of Mark Doty's poems, including this one, are really attempts to deal with death. Three years ago he lost his partner to AIDS.

DOTY: Even at their zenith you could see beneath the gold the end they've come to. So what's the use of elegy? If their work is this skyrocket passage through the world, is it mine to lament them? Do you think they'd want to bloom forever? It's the trajectory they desire. Believe me, they do desire. You could say they are one intent, finally, to be this leaping green, this bronze haze bending down. How could they stand apart from themselves and regret their passing when they're a field of lifting and bowing faces? Faces ringed in flames.

MOTYLEWSKI: That's a wonderful one.

DOTY: Thank you. Thanks.

MOTYLEWSKI: Mark Doty says he survived his grief because nature provided so many powerful metaphors for his feelings.

DOTY: You can watch something move from seed to brilliant flowering to decline to death over such a short period of time, and see the progress and pattern of your own life and the lives of those you love, therein mirrored back.

(Cello music up and under)

MAN: He has taught at the University of Indiana and next year will be coming to New Jersey as a permanent member of the faculty at Princeton. Yusef Komunyakaa.

MOTYLEWSKI: For Yusef Komunyakaa, nature is almost background to his poems about human experience: black identity, racial and economic injustice, and jazz. It's rare that he singles out one creature or event to write about. Rather, the poet intends for his work to bridge the divide between people and the rest of life. Yusef Komunyakaa is a Vietnam veteran, and in his poem called "Thanks," his sense of belonging to nature comes through, even though he's writing about surviving in enemy territory.

KOMUNYAKAA: Thanks for the tree between me and a sniper's bullet. I don't know what made the grass wait seconds before the Vietcong raised his soundless rifle. Some voice always followed, telling me which foot to put down first. Thanks for deflecting the ricochet against that anarchy of dust I was back in San Francisco wrapped up in a woman's wild colors, causing some dark bird's love call to be shattered by daylight when my hands reached up and pulled the branch away from my face. Thanks for the vague white flower that pointed to the gleaming metal reflecting how it is to be broken like mist over the grass as we played some deadly game for blind gods. What made me spot the monarch on a single thread tied to a farmer's gate hauling the day together like an unfingered guitar string is beyond me. Maybe the hills grew weary and leaned a little in the heat. Again, thanks for the dud hand grenade tossed at my feet outside Chu Lai. I'm still falling through its silence. I don't know why the intrepid sun touched the bayonet, but I know that something stood among those lost trees and moved only when I moved.

It's interesting, because when I went to Vietnam I didn't really feel extremely threatened by the landscape. And I think it has a lot to do with growing up in Louisiana, where I was used to tall grass. I was used to vines. I knew about snakes, you know. But if I had come out of a totally urban environment, it would have been entirely different, I think.

MOTYLEWSKI: Yusef Komunyakaa, Patti Ann Rogers, and Mark Doty. Each is writing in response to his or her place in the world, from the dark waters of Louisiana to the woods of Missouri to the shores of Cape Cod. Nature poets are as varied as the landscape itself.

HASS: It's a very, very old tradition, maybe the oldest...

MOTYLEWSKI: One person who's thought a lot about the use of this poetry is Robert Hass, the nation's poet laureate. Back at the festival's panel on Poetry and the Earth, Mr. Hass remarks that poetry can have a powerful influence on thought and action. For example, he says, it helped create the country's conservation ethic.

HASS: Wordsworth was read by Thoreau, and by Muir. So when John Muir walked into Yosemite, he had this English romantic idea that he was in a holy place.

MOTYLEWSKI: The effect of that idea on the American landscape has been long-lived, says Robert Hass. John Muir shared his sense of reverence for the land with Teddy Roosevelt, whom he took camping in the Sierras. Soon after, all of Yosemite became a national park. And in 1906, President Roosevelt pushed the Antiquities Act through Congress. The act gave presidents the power to create national monuments, and, Hass reminds us, President Clinton recently used it to set aside nearly 2 million acres in the Utah desert.

HASS: ...desert and extract it. So the power of this turning to nature that happened in Blake and Wordsworth is still bearing fruit 200 years later. Which is to say that the power of poetry is the only case where trickle down theory actually works. (Audience laughter)

MOTYLEWSKI: Joking aside, poet laureate Hass says with our global worries about climate change and ozone hole and species loss, the need for a new idea about the human place in the world has never been greater. Poets, he believes, could write the new story, provide the new insights and perceptions we'll need to survive.

MAN: William Butler Yeats. I will arise and go now...

MOTYLEWSKI: As the day at the Dodge Poetry Festival draws to a close, the poets and their fans gather to celebrate the power of the craft and draw inspiration for the future.

(Music in the background)

DOTY: (From Yeats)... nine bean rows will I have there. A hive for the honeybee. And live alone in the bee loud glade.

MOTYLEWSKI: For Living on Earth, I'm Kim Motylewski.

DOTY: And I shall have some peace there, for peace comes dropping slow. Dropping from the veils of the morning to where the cricket sings. There midnights all a-glimmer, and noon a purple glow. And evening full of the linnet's wings.

(Music up and under; applause and cheers; more Paul Winter Consort music)



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