September’s Poems

So having established what nature writing is, I wanted to do some of my own.  I’ve been gathering prompts and ideas for a few weeks and have decided to focus mostly on poetry.  As such, I’ve read a number of nature poems and decided on a handful to look at more closely:

I’ve chosen poems from a range of dates since the Romanticism era so that I can consider a range of styles and contents.  I don’t intend to write long critques of these poems but in order to help me consider them more careful, I have written down some thoughts.

Derry Derry Down, Seamus Heaney

I love the use of syllables in this poem. We have the one syllable rhyming words – lush, blush, bush – which are interspersed with words which linger on the tongue a little longer – gooseberry, unforbidden. This primal, lustful part contrasts with the fairytale-esque depiction in the remainder of the poem; storybook, sleeping beauty.

All Nature Has a Feeling, John Clare

All nature has a feeling: woods, fields, brooks
Are life eternal: and in silence they
Speak happiness beyond the reach of books;
There’s nothing mortal in them; their decay
Is the green life of change; to pass away
And come again in blooms revivified.
Its birth was heaven, eternal it its stay,
And with the sun and moon shall still abide
Beneath their day and night and heaven wide.

Apparently this is quite a popular funeral poem… I haven’t yet found a date for the poem but Clare was alive between 1793-1864 and for context William Wordsworth was born in 1770 and died in 1850. The poem echoes the themes from The Tables Turned, opening up the reader to the natural world and guiding them away from books. However, unlike Wordsworth, Clare was not an educated man and thus his call to nature instead of learning feels more accessible to the common person and does not have the irony of The Tables Turned.

Clare talks of nature as a sentient being, one which is always changing but will never die. This theme of cycles and rebirth is one which comes up in a lot of nature writing and one which most of us can relate to or feel inspired or comforted by.

“Nature” is What We See, Emily Dickinson

“Nature” is what we see—
The Hill—the Afternoon—
Squirrel—Eclipse— the Bumble bee—
Nay—Nature is Heaven—
Nature is what we hear—
The Bobolink—the Sea—
Thunder—the Cricket—
Nay—Nature is Harmony—
Nature is what we know—
Yet have no art to say—
So impotent Our Wisdom is
To her Simplicity.

NB, A bobolink is a type of bird with a lovely tune.

Defining nature was one of my key aims this month so it was only appropriate that I included this poem. I really like the way that Dickinson plucks at definitions and discards them as being unsuitable. There is a quality about it that, even though it is more than a list, reads as a list. A ticking off of things which nature is not. Finding she cannot use that particular sense to find nature, she moves on to a new list. And eventually gives up. The poem itself appears simple but Dickinson’s use of language means it is more than what it first seems, like many good poems. The ordering of her images means we are constantly moving between small and large and thus she cleverly illustrates the vast diversity of nature. The delicate twinkle of the Bobolink contrasts with the strong and powerful sound of the sea.

The Causeway, Lindesfarne, Emily Dee

I love the texture in this poem, the crisp frost, the gritty sand, the soft, slithery snail. They really help me feel part of the place, and they focus me in on the detail and then the tearful seals raising their heads to the sky throw me wide.

The last two lines of this poem stunned me. The moon as a silent engine, how powerful and how Dee has taken this incredibly natural, almost untouchable, entity and turned it on its head with the use of the word engine, a word which summons up man made, functionality.

Dee was 17 when she was one of the winners of the Foyle Young Poets of the Year Award 2016.

Advertisements

Pen-y-ghent, place in poetry

As we’ve seen in the Future Learn course about William Wordsworth, as well as in other nature writing, place has an important role to play in our lives.  In terms of writing, the setting can act as a character in itself, it can enhance the understanding and connecting we have to and with the characters and place can be holders of memories.

As with Wordsworth’s “spots of time”, sometimes a moment or an experience can turn out to be much more significant than we would have expected.  One of those moments for me was climbing Pen-y-ghent.

My pain was bad, not as bad as it is today by any stretch.  I was not on crutches but it was definetely a big part of my existance.  I was staying at the Women’s Holiday Centre at the foot of Pen-y-Ghent.  I had no ambition to go up.  It didn’t cross my mind that I could.  And then one of the women staying there talked me into it.  So I went up with someone who ran the house, very slowly, lots of breaks.  Panic when we neared the top and realised that my hands and arms were not going to be very useful for scrambling up the last leg.  But eventually I made it.  Hot, sweaty, in agony and on the brink of tears.  But I made it.  And it would be the last time I walked for the sake of walking.

I knew at the time that it was an important moment but I don’t think I grasped the enormity of it.  It was the last hike type walk I did.  I suspected it would be but I wasn’t thinking about that so much at the time.

DSC_0700

A while later I attended a course about poetry and illness and it turned into a poem which was published in the anthology which ran alongside the project.  It’s not at all the best poem I’ve ever written and I’d like to revisit it again at some point.  When I wrote it, the emotion was still stinging and I was still figuring out how I could live with pain.  I know that the telling of it today would be very different.

Perspective

I have not climbed Mount Everest
But I have reached the peak of Pen-y-Ghent
My own, overwhelming challenge
The same aches in my painful joints
The same sense of achievement
And once in a lifetime-ness

William Wordsworth: Poetry, People and Place (Week 2)

See also Week One of  Future Learn: William Wordsworth, Poetry, People and Place

Week two

This week is looking at the Prelude.  It is a long, autobiographical poem which Wordsworth worked on for a lot of his life, revising, editing and changing as he changed.  Because it spanned a significant part of his life, it can show us how Wordsworth evolved and how his writing developed over time.  As part of the course, in addition to looking at the poems, we’ve been able to look at the manuscripts which provide interesting insight into Wordsworth’s writing process.

In particular we’ve been looking at three extracts; Was It For This, Spots of Time and Boat Stealing.

Spots of time

This extract is Wordsworth telling us his theory about life, that there are “spots of time” which may seem insignificant but which will turn out to be important. These might be intense emotional experiences which can be recalled and bring strength and relief and restoration to the mind.  They bring together our past and our present. The moments themselves will turn out to bear fruit and have value later down the line.

My spots of time

Sitting on roughly poured concrete,
now set. Soil leaks from the strawberry patch
and baby hands reach out.

…ten years on, same spot,
no strawberries, concrete replaced by paving slabs.
A butterfly flutters and lands and rests
on a teenage hand.

Connection for the unconnected.

***

Dead fox. Oldest sister.
Duty calls a soldier.

Stand guard.

Youngest sister released.
Fetch back up. (Please hurry).

Eerie. Uncomfortable.
There is no protocol.

No training has prepared
or taught how best to act.

Stand guard.

Watch over russet corpse.

Stand guard.

Watch over the dead fox.

Stand guard.

(Please hurry).

And when it blinks, do not scream.
There is no instruction guide.
And no one told this small child
that death moves within the dead.

Boat Stealing

DSC_0492
Boats on Derwent Water

In Boat Stealing, Wordsworth is describing one of his own spots of time.  At this point in the course, having already engaged in discussion and creative exercises, we are asked to write a short piece, 250-500 words about this extract.  These will be marked by our peers and in turn we will provide feedback to others.  Here is mine:

Boat stealing is written in blank verse and this reflects the sense of Wordsworth telling us about the incident. The form echoes a stream of consciousness, like that of a dream or a recalled memory. It is conversational and story like, even starting with “one evening I went…”. This helps the reader to feel like they are there and makes it come alive. This line also suggests that the speaker is the adult Wordsworth retelling the incident.

The first part of the extract uses a lot of images about light eg “the moon was up, the lake was shining clear… small circles glittering…”. Despite it being night time, these bring to mind a sense of safety – it is dark but the boy can see and that light helps him to feel safe. He uses similes to describe the boat, “like a man who walks with stately step…” which help the reader to get a sense of the boy’s mindset and emotional landscape. He seems fairly confident, proud even despite knowing what he is doing is wrong. This “troubled pleasure” is one familiar to most people, that of pushing the boundaries in youth and feeling sure that even though what you’re doing is wrong, you’ll be ok. As this is a relatable feeling, the reader is drawn in and feels connected to the incident. The language all suggests a knowledge of the nature that surrounds him and this adds to the sense of surety.

About half way through the extract, emotions turn from confidence to something more lustful and potentially sexual:

She was an elfin pinnace; twenty tomes
I dipped my oars into the silent lake,
And, as I rose upon the stroke, my Boat
Went heaving through the water like a swan.

Then suddenly, everything changes. What he thought was the horizon no longer is. “A huge Cliff, As if with voluntary power instinct, Upreared its head.” The descriptive, suggestive language is now replaced with more simple language showing a boy rendered almost speechless with shock. The contrast between the language of the first and second part make the image of the cliff as a dangerous being more powerful. Wordsworth personifies the cliff, suggesting it is alive and the boy no longer proudly rows but instead he paddles in a hurried way, with trembling hands. The urgency of the situation is reflected in the long sentence structure and repetition of “struck and struck again”. These images help the reader understand his fear. What the boy thought was the horizon, suddenly wasn’t. What he thought was a landscape and nature that he knew and felt safe in was suddenly unfamiliar and terrifying.

The extract ends with Wordsworth explaining how he was haunted by guilt and an uneasiness for many days. At this stage, I think we are hearing Wordsworth as a boy, but we know that since he is writing as a man the incident has stayed with him for many years.

Learn About Weather

Learn About Weather is a Future Learn course run by the University of Exeter and the Met Office.  I wasn’t sure what to expect from it but I’ve really enjoyed it, racing through the four week course in less than two days.  It’s been a real mix of things and a great introduction to the weather.

It looks at the atmosphere, how changes in the earth’s temperature create weather, why weather varies across the globe, jet streams and air pressure.  It’s all been pitched at a reasonably basic level, accessible but comprehensive.

As well as the technical side of things, we’ve looked at weather lore and whether there’s any truth in sayings and beliefs.  We also shared our own local lore and I was able to include some of the bits and pieces I’ve been collecting.

  • clear moon, frost soon
  • when the mist comes from the hill, then good weather it doth spill. when the mist comes from the sea, then good weather it will be
  • if woolly fleeces spread the heavenly way, be sure no rain disturbs the summers day
  • if the cock goes crowing to bed, he’ll certainly rise with a watery head
  • the sharper the blast, the sooner it’s past
  • rainbow in the morning gives you far warning
  • ring around the moon, rain or snow soon
  • when the sun sets black, a westerly wind will not lack
  • swifts flying low, rain is on the way

I’ve learnt a lot about how air pressure affects the weather and now I have a vague idea what a weather map is saying which is quite satisfying!  I also know where our weather comes from and how it affects the UK.

Towards the end of the course it focuses in on specific aspects of weather, for example the different types of clouds, how they’re formed and what they mean in terms of rain etc.  This is something I really want to get firmly stuck in my head.  I’ve tried learning cloud names so many times and I always forget.  But the way this course has approached them, I think I have a better understanding of what the latin names mean and thus hopefully it’ll be easier to hold onto the knowledge.  I’ve also found flicking through the Cloud Appreciation gallery and trying to guess the cloud type has helped.

Naturally, we’ve also looked at rain and other forms of precipitation and what counts as a shower and what counts as rain.  Frost, storms and climate change have also all been looked at as well as how weather affects leisure activities.

I’ve found the whole course interesting and whilst I’m not planning on looking at weather in any detail just yet, I know I’ll be returning to it as part of my nature and writing project.

Nature and writing; September day trip

This month’s day trip was to tropical world. When I’m on trips, I’m conscious of the balance between wanting to write and photograph and document what I’m seeing whilst also actually experiencing it. This is one of the occasions the five senses activity comes in handy. You can just jot down notes about what you’re feeling and sensing and return later to make it into something more cohesive. I didn’t actually manage this as my health was poor and I wanted to get as much out of being there as possible.

I have long had such conflicted feelings about places which keep animals, like zoos and aquariums. I enjoy visiting for the most part as I do like to see the animals and find out about them. But a huge part of me knows that it’s not ok. Animals shouldn’t be kept in small enclosures without stimulation. And I know that some venues are better than others. I was lucky to grow up with Chester Zoo as my nearest animal attraction and they have a good record for conservation and looking after their animals. But even so, I remember going when I was young and seeing lions in small pens with nowhere to hide. Hearing young children screaming and shouting and trying to get the animal to perform.

I’ll come back to the topic of animals as entertainment at some point. For now, I just wanted to note the conflict I feel.

William Wordsworth: Poetry, People and Place

I’m doing an online course, Future Learn: William Wordsworth, Poetry, People and Place, which has been helping me look at poetry alongside my research into nature writing.  I’ve really been enjoying it and have raced ahead.  One of the things I’ve found very interesting is how I react differently to unseen poetry when I read it and when it is read to me.  As an avid reader of fiction, I tend to skim read and my eyes are darting ahead and providing clues as to where the words are headed.  When poetry, or anything, is read aloud to you, you can’t do this.  This has allowed me to focus more on the words being said and also led to some surprise twists in where the poem is going.

Week 1

This week has been an introduction to Wordsworth and looking at two of his poems; The Tables Turned and Old Man Travelling, neither of which I’d read before.

To help me slow down and ingest the poem, as opposed to my usual fast reading, I’ve been making notes and have written down some of my thoughts and reactions to the poem.  This has also created space for me to play with the ideas that Wordsworth touches on.

The Tables Turned was my favourite of the two.  It is helpful to know that this poem was published alongside a second poem, Expostulation and Reply. In this, Wordsworth depicts a scene where his friend Matthew was imploring him to read and be purposeful instead of sitting on an old grey stone dreaming his time away. Whilst that poem does contain a response, as the title suggests, it is in The Tables Turned that Wordsworth truly expresses himself.

The Tables Turned begins with lighthearted rhyme and a friendly rhythm. It is a jolly start to a poem and suggests that he is not preaching to his friend, indeed within the first three lines he says “my friend” twice. He gentle teases his friend whilst still encouraging him to rise from his books and step out into nature.

This poem has a very clear message, written explicitly in stanza four:

Come forth into the light of things
Let nature be your teacher

But like most poems, there is more to it than that. Throughout the poem, Wordsworth uses metaphor and imagery to weave three ideas of education; that of scholarly learning, that of religions preaching and that of nature as teacher. In the 18th century, when this poem was written, the idea of acquiring knowledge through reading was considered a superior way of learning. It was also an exclusionary one and, as we know from Wordsworth’s prelude, he wanted to write in such a way that his work was open to everyone. In the same way, learning from nature was much more accessible for most people that more formal methods of education. With this in mind, we can see Matthew as old fashioned, as having more traditional views and Wordsworth being on the cusp of new thinking. The use of form and language in The Tables Turned also reflects this idea of seeking to be understood by all.

Yet, and this is perhaps my favourite aspect of the poem, the lines are filled with irony. Whilst claiming to want all to read his poetry and suggesting that nature is the universal teacher, accessible to everyone, it was within books that his own work could be found. This irony is most deliciously expressed in the penultimate stanza:

Sweet is the lore which nature brings:
Our meddling intellect
Mishapes the beauteous forms of things:
– We murder to dissect.

And in analysing this poem, as so many people have, we are dissecting it ourselves.  Other examples of irony in the poem include Wordsworth begging his friend to quit his books (penned by writers such as himself) and declaring enough of science and of art, of which nature is both.

We were asked to consider which lines were our favourite and whilst many people chose the lines arguing that nature should be your teacher, I loved the image of murder, which contrasts strongly with the rest of the images.  I also really like the final stanza:

Enough of science and of art;
Close up these barren leaves;
come forth, and bring with you a heart
That watches and receives

It is the image of the leaves which chimes so strongly with me. It feels like this stanza is the poem in miniature with the leaves pivoting the reader from books to nature. On the one hand we have dry, brittle leaves of books, dead and crumbling (could this also be the old approach to learning?) and on the other we have the fresh, verdant, life filled leaves of the woodland. It could also be saying to the reader that books, as bits of nature which have been written on, can only contain a fraction of the wisdom that nature itself can teach. It begs the reader to question why they are spending time, and toil and trouble, in their books, dead snatches of nature, when they could be outside experiencing the true wonder of the living nature.

I found the gendered language in this poem interesting. It is not unusual for nature to be spoken of using feminine pronouns (a topic for another day) and in Expostulation and Reply, nature is referred to as feminine, as mother earth. But in The Tables Turned we have masculine birds and a masculine sun until half way through when we see Nature as feminine. From a factual perspective, Wordsworth is correct in talking of male birds singing but this is not normally something poets trouble themselves with. And in today’s convention, in many cultures, the sun is masculine with the moon as feminine. However the change being half way through the poem makes it feel like it could be something more significant than that. It feels like an interesting mirroring of the traditionally masculine book learning and the feminine emotional/experiential learning, or the polarity of scholarly or religious learning and learning from nature, that is to say learning from men vs learning from mother nature.

The limitations of nature writing

This is the final part of my reflection on nature writing and what it is and what it does.

The limits of nature writing

“All theses with hundreds more far off and near
Approach my sight and please to such express
That language fails the pleasure to express”
– John Clare, A Scene

Despite all the wonders and powers of nature writing, it is not a magical concept which can set all wrongs to rights. The experience of the reader, inevitably, depends very much on how the reader engages with the writing. A reader, closed minded from the start, will not have the same experience as a more open minded, nature orientated reader. And language has limits.

Richard Jeffries, in his 1887 essay “Nature and Books”, argued that writing about nature was indeed futile as it is impossible to capture the true colour of a dandelion in words and nature far extends the reach of any number of books, being such a vast topic. W. H. Hudson echoed this sentiment in 1926, “there must be a limit to the things that can be recorded… that the life history of a bird cannot be contained in any book however voluminous it may be”.

This sentiment is echoed by Dickinson in her poem “Nature” is What We See. She too does not feel that nature is something that can be pinned down, that can be expressed accurately. We can never truly mimic or recreate the wonder of the natural world. And yet many of us continue to try.

Could this thrill of the chase be part of the appeal for nature writers? An attempt to pin down the light perfectly or to capture the colour of a butterfly with precision? We can never truly describe our experiences within nature, and nor can we ever seek to capture in words all the variety of nature. But this venture, this quest to do so, provides an inexhaustible quarry of metaphors and writings. Perhaps it is that the nature writer seeks to find the key with which to accurately convey the world into words, a search for a holy grail?

How many have said of the sea, “it makes me feel something I cannot say”?
– Richard Jeffries

Cocker writes that “The real danger is that nature writing becomes a literature of consolation that distracts us from the truth of our fallen countryside, or – just as bad – that it becomes a space for us to talk to ourselves about ourselves, with nature relegated to the background as an attractive green wash.” But is this a fault of nature writing, or a risk associated with it? Or, is it simply the difficulty of having a hard to define genre?

With nature writing spanning from what Mabey has described as “imaginative science writing” to “imaginative travel literature”, can we truly expect all nature writing to meet the bar that Cocker sets out? If a writer is not intentionally setting out to form a work destined for the new nature writing shelf in the bookshop, can they be criticised for what they do produce?

It seems to me that the limitations of nature writing are those of all writing, firstly the incapacity of language to truly express what we want and secondly the tendency for forced categorisation.

And in conclusion…

The simple question of what is nature writing turns out to be one which could be answered in a volume of books. It is a changeable entity, dependant on time and place, for its definition. However, it is this sheer diversity which means that there is something for almost everyone within the umbrella of the term. Whether you prefer poetry or prose or creative non fiction or novels, you will find something to your taste within the world of nature writing. After all, we are surrounded by nature, it is only inevitable that our literature reflects this.