Nature and Subjectivity

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I used to work for someone who dismissed poetry as being about “watery pebbles”. What’s interesting is, sometimes she was right. Also she was wrong. When I think about the more successful poets of the last 20 years – by which I mean, the ones people ask for in libraries – there’s a rejection of watery pebblism from them, concentrating on the personal and the urban: Selima Hill’s reaction to nature is to interbreed it pictorially and linguistically with humans, creating a clash in the reader’s mind, a sort of surrealist painting through image association. When she says in Lou-Lou that the girls in the mental institute lie on their beds “like marsupials / refusing to admit they’ve been born”, the image is of marsupials and of hospital beds, as if they are there in the beds, or the girls are in the wild in their mothers’ wombs.

When Jorie Graham and Mark Doty read last night, it made me think that a reaction to this was coming: is nature poetry becoming our new way of reacting to contemporary life again? With climate change playing heavily on our minds, is the way we react to landscape the most modern a poet can be? Graham’s description of the sunrise – “the sky opens its magazine” – is (as Simon Turner mentions below) a damn excellent line, and perhaps a prime example of new nature poetry; the present-day concept of magazine culture describing something that has happened for millions of years. We connect with it again, because it’s not just a sunrise anymore: the sky is doing something we ourselves do. The poems that Graham read from Sea Change seemed to be saying – look, here is your planet, you are part of it, but do you feel part of it? She mentioned at the beginning of her reading that the book questions whether or not we feel emotionally connected to the loss of a species through extinction. Her poems use nature as a jumping-off point for her own thoughts, often tailing into memories of her own, but her subjective reactions are ones you can associate with – just as when Frank O’Hara says “I am standing in the bathtub crying” in ‘Mayakovsky’. Oh Frank, it’s not the 50s and I don’t know if I’ve ever stood in a bathtub crying, but we all know exactly where you are.

Doty’s poems also reacted to nature, but in a different way to Graham: whilst her poems took external surroundings and ventured introspectively toward her own experiences, thoughts and feelings, Doty posed questions: the opening poem in Theories and Apparitions, ‘Pipistrel’, questioned the different reactions to a bat by different writers. In the action of the poem, no two writers can see it at any one time, and towards the end of the poem Doty reveals that only he can hear it. One poet “strips it to lyric” whilst he writes about the whole experience and the questions that arise from this. He goes from one external – the nature around him – to another external, the different human experiences that come out of nature. Both poets invite the reader in, but in two different ways. And neither used watery pebbles.

People who don’t like poetry often reject it because they think it doesn’t speak to them – that it’s just someone on a hill with a pen and TB asking the lord who made the lamb. Doty and Graham proved that an average urban existence can take nature poetry into its sights; we just need a shift of perspective.

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