April 30, 2011
Poetry & Landscape
Poetry rises out of landscape. Of course. Landscape is inescapable; it is the ground beneath our feet, the air that we breathe, and it shapes us in profound ways. It is the enduring thing and yet it also changes.
The birds have vanished in the sky,
and now the last cloud drains away.
We sit together, the mountain and I
until only the mountain remains. --Li Po
This beautiful poem by Li Po resonates. It speaks of the timelessness and constancy of the mountain, but also says so much more. Poetry can not and should not be reduced to a single meaning. We need its ambiguity and multiple meanings. We can come back to the poem again and again. Poetry has the capacity to renew, to make new meanings, to resonate in deeper ways than we initially know.
In his book Crossing Open Ground (First Vintage Books, 1978), Barry Lopez has a wonderful essay "Landscape and Narrative." He traces the stories we tell, saying we learn about the external landscape by understanding the connections within it.
Landscape, wilderness, the outdoors always calls us out of ourselves. Sometimes talking about the weather is a way of keeping a superficial level of communication, but I'm not referring to that. I'm talking about recognizing the connection to a specific landscape, finding context physically as well as in other ways (culturally, for example).
Lopez describes the internal landscape as the one that we grow up in or live in that becomes part of our psyche. Here, "...the speculations, intuitions, and formal ideas we refer to as 'mind' are a set of relationships in the interior landscape with purpose and order; some of these are obvious, many impenetrably subtle. The shape and character of these relationships in a person's thinking, I believe, are deeply influenced by where on this earth one goes, what one touches, the patterns one observes in nature--the intricate history of one's life in the land...." Our personal landscape is integral to our writing.
As a writer living in the cold north, on the coast of Lake Superior, near or in the wilderness, witness to wildlife, I have a story that is different than the writer living on the prairie, in the desert, or on the east or west coast. The hawk migration along the edge of the Great Lake and the increase of the bear and wolf populations mark my consciousness. To take my road home, I cross over several rivers and pass by the sheer drops of granite outcroppings. The blue rim of Lake Superior forms a crescent to the east and north, the forest dark with shadow, fallen limbs, broken trees, and spruce and the lake light is always changing.
The animals that we encounter, the experiences that we have in the wilderness or in a city park, the life that we live within landscape contains a poetic element that renews, reanimates, recreates meaning in our lives. Landscape contains the things we don't know we know. The patterns of nature, for example, tell us about our human experience. The confluence of two rivers, for example, is turbulent. So is the joining of any two people or cultures. Change can happen gradually, as in erosion, or it can happen precipitously, as in earthquake or storm. Mary Oliver is a poet known for her attention to the landscape, sea coast, marsh, dune, and woods.
I search for the geologic. A good poem isn't about lessons or wisdom. A good poem has at least a few layers of meaning. It's about depth.
Writing is intuitive. It's wise to cultivate skills. As a writer, I know that I can get in the way of good writing by trying to insert ideas or explain or control the writing too much. Concepts usually get in the way and ruin a good poem. Poems that are ideas often don't work out as well as poems that are images and metaphors. "No ideas except in things," advised William Carlos Williams. This is the way forward. The best writing is a process of discovery. We might think of revision as form of orienteering, navigation using both compass and landmark.
In the poem by Li Po, the mountain's image is the most compelling. A poetry grounded in the landscape will take on the spirit of its beings and the shapes and structures where we live. The poet and writer Linda Hogan once told me that whatever we write about will make it stronger. If you write about a bear, it will make the bear stronger. I believe it's true. Writing about animals expresses how we value them. Animals and landscape are not mere figures of speech; they are beings and aspects of life that exist around and beyond human experience. I can speak of the bear, and the bear will speak of more things.
Good writing is in the body. The visceral body. The five senses. The physical body. The changing body. Increasingly, I'm aware of how much we are like that cloud or bird that so soon disappears.
The compass marks true north, magnetic north. For direction, there are maps. Markings. Natural boundaries. Landmarks. Stars. How does one travel as a poet?
Poetry, as Mary Oliver says, casts more than one shadow. In poetry, the landscape is internal. In it, we can trace a history. In it, the universe with its simultaneous creation and destruction. In it, pleasure and pain, awareness and blindness, hunger and sustenance. It offers maps. Erosions, eruptions, echos.
In its tensions, poetry has physics. Opposing forces, weights and counterweights, rising and falling. It contains the rhythm and breath of being. Language with its mellifluous, elastic, and startling juxtapositions of sound and image, with its literal and figurative capacities, delivers us from one to another, from root to seed, from wing to mouth, moment to moment.
When we develop relationships with the landscape and the other beings in it, or when we recognize those relationships and understand our context, we are stronger.