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Violet Nesdoly PhotoNature Poetry
Copyright©2009 by Violet Nesdoly

This is our twelfth column in the "Poet's Classroom" series.

"I think that I shall never see
 a poem as lovely as a tree…"

"Slowly, silently now the moon
  walks the night in her silver shoon…"

"When I see birches bend to left and right
  Across the lines of straighter darker trees…"

You probably recognize these opening lines of well-loved nature poems. Our literature is full of them—poems that celebrate plants, study the heavens, and muse about our connection with the natural world. Over the years such poems have helped poets and readers experience and express appreciation for the earth. Aspects of nature often supply metaphors and symbols for life. Admiration of nature can lead us to our noblest expressions of awe and worship of God. Nature poetry is a body of writing well worth our study.

In this column we’ll spend time doing just that. First we’ll define what nature poetry is. Next we’ll look at ten types of nature poems poets commonly write. Finally we’ll discover tools poets can use to help them write memorable nature poems.

Nature poetry—what is it?

What is a nature poem? Wouldn’t every poem that deals with life (human to plant) qualify? I suppose we could define the genre so broadly. However, for our purpose, we'll narrow the definition. I like the balance in Michael Bugeja’s definition from the book, The Art and Craft of Poetry. He describes a nature poem as, "A poem in which nature plays an integral role, emphasizing terrain and life (including humans) in a natural setting, season, metaphor, symbol, situation or theme."1

Ten Types of Nature Poems

Poets who write about nature approach it in many ways. Here are ten types of nature poems.

1. To the season

A tribute to the season is one of the oldest and most common types of nature poetry. Such poems usually praise he season's positive qualities and express hope that it will be joyous and fruitful. Seasonal tributes are easy to find. All the seasons are represented in Utmost’s Gallery and Archives.

            I find that Spring is like an actress, bold,
            who enter Nature's stage on perfect cue,

                        begins Linda Neff's "Spring Sonnet."

Faith Lewis Moffat begins her poem about summer:
            When day beneath sun’s blanket stretches long
             And sights and sounds are liquid on the tongue…

                         from "Summer."

            Autumn stretches, rubs his eyes
            Spits foggy plumes and frosty sighs…

                         is how Kristine K. Lowder begins "Ache for Autumn.”

Daphne Dykeman starts her poem about winter by introducing us to the shocking cold:
            The scratch of Winter’s icy claws
            Against my forehead made me pause

                        from “A Winter’s Night.”

2. Human-Nature Conflict

Human-nature conflict poems can show a human in a perilous situation and at nature’s mercy, or nature in a perilous situation and at a human’s mercy.

“Spider on the Porch” is an example of nature at a human’s mercy. Who of us hasn’t participated in destroying nature the way Gilman describes? She watches a spider spin her web and then devour the insects that come her way until…
            Her lawn was littered with dead
            carcasses, half-eaten hulks.
            It was business as usual for her.
            One day, with an old New Yorker,
            I relieved her from dull duty.

Of course the poem doesn’t end quite there. Read all of “Spider on the Porch.”

3. Human-Nature relationship

In a human/nature relationship poem the poet contemplates some aspect of nature and longs for its qualities.

“The Dawn Is Sacred” by Rachel E. Hicks hints at such a relationship and subsequent longing. In it Hicks uses vivid and intensifying color words to illustrate the coming of the dawn and ends each stanza with,
            The dawn is sacred –
            Sing!

In an introduction to the poem, she explains what the dawn means to her: “Drinking in the beauty of a new morning reminds me of newness of life in Christ through His complete forgiveness as a depiction of longed-for new life.” Read all of “The Dawn Is Sacred.”

4. Nature as metaphor

In a metaphoric nature poem the poet chooses some aspect or element of nature as a metaphor to express how it feels to be mortal.

Note how poet Mary Lou Cornish characterizes one human’s condition as ravaged by a locust plague of fate and circumstances:
            Locusts of misfortune
            Have swarmed across this field,
            Swarmed and swept and swallowed up
            Ravaged, raged and recklessly kept
            My heart’s desires from glorious fruition.

Fortunately, that’s not the end of the story. Read all of “Locusts of Misfortune.”

5. Nature as symbol

The symbolic nature poem uses some aspect or element of nature as a symbol of the human condition.

“Market Day” by Rev. Penelope Ann Thoms is a moving example of the power of symbol in a poem. In it Thoms hears the bawling of the neighbor’s cows on the day the cows and calves are separated to be shipped to market. Their cries never bother her until she sends her son off to war. Then that bellowing takes on a whole new meaning:
            That day I heard them.
            And my keening mixed with theirs
            to fill the fields and valley, echo off the mountains
            and float out to sea.

All mothers, indeed all parents who have had their children torn from them will understand the powerful symbol of the cows’ laments. Read all of “Market Day.”

6. Human encountering nature

In the human encountering nature poem the poet suddenly notices an aspect or element of nature as if for the first time and with keen perception.

Megan Elaine Davis’s poem “I Look at Leaves” describes her encounter with the very ordinary phenomenon of leaves:
            I look at leaves
            brown, burdened with water
            dead on the ground
            grey, shackled by lichen…

Of course her epiphany at the end takes the poem to a whole new level. Read all of “I Look at Leaves.”

7. Nature macro-shot

The macro-shot poem differs from the human-encountering type above in the way it hones in on some element of nature, seeking to describe and praise its beauty or essence.

One of my favourite macro-shot poems is Stephanie Adjemian’s “Daffodils.” Who won’t have a new appreciation for daffodils after reading:
            Watch the daffodils
            see the sweet gold voices lifted toward the sky
            laughter embodied in delicate petals…

                        Read all of “Daffodils.”

8. Celebrating one’s place in nature

In this type of poem the poet celebrates himself or herself as part of nature.
Many poems about gardening and farming would fit here. “Mr. Domingo’s Garden” by Pat Hegnauer provides an example. Here Hegnauer talks about Mr. Domingo’s devotion to his garden and the ecstatic responses of his plants:
            Leaves shiver as he nears,
            sprout to fruit reaching
            to kiss the old man’s hands,…
            … Tomatoes swoon off stems
            falling heavy in his palm,
            peas grow attentive on string…

                        Read all of “Mr. Domingo’s Garden.”

9. Mourning isolation from nature

A poem mourning the poet’s isolation from nature typically describes how the poet feels separated from the natural world and excluded from its essence or beauty.

Hetty White confesses such feelings in “Tree Jazz” where she recounts how her busy schedule has robbed her of the ability to enjoy nature and life as she once did:
            And now that I have gotten so good at planning,
            scheduling and memorizing beats and measures – the tree jazz
            has faded into classical acuteness and individual picks of
            high-strung strings creating predestined melodies…

                        Read all of “Tree Jazz.”

10. Nature as reflection of God

This popular type of nature poem recalls aspects or elements of nature that remind us of God. Bible passages like Psalm 104 and Job 40 – 41 are Bible poems that brim with references to God’s creativity and grandeur as illustrated in nature.

Susannah Childress’s poem “We Take the Sky” is a modern poem of this type. In it Childress describes the sustenance we get from nature. But it is not enough. Only when the poet reviews the resurrection story does life stir:
            …and somewhere inside us a small green seed pricks the dirt,
            coiling for air. He soothes and stirs, fingertip-sized holes in His
            hands, roaming the soil and the sky for our broken bones.
            And the shaking on earth is our brand new lives.

                        Read all of “We Take the Sky.”

What a variety of approaches! After reading the mosaic of nature poems above, it may surprise you to discover that poets don’t need a lot of tools to create such varied effects. Two may be enough.

Nature poet’s wish list

“The nature poet is, in part, a chronicler of the outdoors and, in part, an interpreter of what is sensed and experienced,” says Micheal Bugja. “The poet uses perception to chronicle nature and perspective to interpret it” (emphases mine).2 Perception and perspective—what are these tools and how can the nature poet put them to use?

1. Perception

Perception is the ability to see, hear or become aware of something through the senses. Some perception-related poet qualities that kept reappearing in my reading about nature poets were concentration, focus and precision.

Poet Tom Andrews says, “I discovered that to be precise, I needed to develop greater powers of concentration and attention.”3

In a review of nature poet Mary Oliver’s book Earth Saint, Jeanne Lohmann says, “Her attention is focused, precise, contemplative. She learns, and well, from an immense variety of creatures, trees, plants, the ponds.”4

Another perception quality that poets need is objectivity.

Poet and teacher Sharon Klander says, “…look out the window and write what you see.”5

Andrews suggests writers refrain from “using nature” and allow it to present itself without ornamentation.6

“The trouble with most nature poetry is that it doesn’t sufficiently acknowledge nature’s ugliness and perversity,” says poet Stephen Dunn.7

Nature poems that lack detail, precision and objectivity run the risk of being dismissed as cliché and forgettable. So how can you tone up your perception muscle? Besides learning the names of plants and animals, consult encyclopedias, field guides and books to discover and understand nature’s processes. Read what other writers and naturalists have written. Take courses and join organizations like naturalist and bird-watching clubs. Then include some of this detail in your poems.

2. Perspective

Perspective is a particular attitude toward or way of regarding something; a point of view. It can also include a sense of the true understanding and relative importance of a thing or things.

Your perspective is influenced by filters of culture and experience. Did you grow up in the city or on an isolated mountain? Do you believe God created the natural world or are you an atheist? What is your experience with nature? If your home was destroyed by a hurricane or flood, your view is bound to be different from the person who has experienced it solely in a park or butterfly museum. All these things and more will affect how you perceive and interpret nature.

Filters are a fact of life for all writers. But you mustn’t let the consciousness of your filters keep you from taking a stand—that is, writing toward an epiphany or experience. When the poet merely describes nature without reaching an epiphany or describing a peak experience, he risks writing an inconsequential and clichéd poem.

Try rereading the poems above with a view to how each poet paid attention to nature. Can you detect their filters. Did each poem provide a satisfying epiphany or peak experience?

This month go outdoors and enjoy nature. Then turn inward to craft the memorable nature poems that will share your bit of terra firma and yourself with the world.

Coming August 1:
Come back in August when we’ll discuss the tricky business of line breaks in free verse poetry.

Did you find this article helpful? Please let us know.

Copyright ©2009 by Violet Nesdoly


Endnotes:

[1] Michael Bugeja, The Art and Craft of Poetry, Writer’s Digest Books, Cincinnati OH, 1994, p. 43.
[2] Bugeja, p. 47.
[3] Bugeja, p. 47
[4] Jeanne Lohmann, “Mary Oliver, EarthSaint” EarthLight: Journal for Ecological and Spiritual Living, http://www.earthlight.org/earthsaint28.html accessed August 6, 2008.
[5] Quoted in Bugeja, p. 53
[6] Quoted in Bugeja, p. 47
[7] Quoted in Lohmann.