Finding Poetry in Nature
"Does it ‘sift through leaden sieves’?”
Halfway through Boston’s epic, snow-smothered winter, Elisa New, the Cabot professor of American literature, posed this question to HUCE fellows Yige Zhang (geochemistry), Zoe Nyssa (sociology of science), and Timothy Cronin (earth and planetary sciences) in a dinner discussion at HUCE. The reference wasn’t to the flakes falling just outside, but to another scene almost a century-and-a-half prior, captured with those words by the poet Emily Dickinson.
Cronin broke the news diplomatically. “We all think of the sky as being kind of leaden in winter. But in a very literal sense, what clouds do with snow is the opposite of what a sieve does. Sieves sift the finest fibers or particles out of something and let them rain down, whereas a cloud takes the largest, heaviest snowflakes, and those fall, and the small ice crystals or water droplets remain.”
So Dickinson, who read and was interested in science, was no scientist. But the fellows agreed that some of Dickinson’s other images—descriptions of the snow piling up and erasing features from the land (“It makes an even Face / Of Mountain, and of Plain –”) and, in another poem, of a line of summer squalls passing through (“There came a Wind like a Bugle”)—were remarkably canny renderings of physical phenomena and how they strike human senses. The poems address our vulnerability as inhabitants of an ever-changing, sometimes violently energetic, natural world, and our awe of its forces.
“Scientists and artists have something in common, which is their powers of observation,” Nyssa offered. “What’s wonderful is you can return to these poems over and over again, knowing the answer in some sense, and yet finding something new from them every time. Science, when it poses really excellent questions, is the same way.”
This lively exchange was filmed for New’s “Poetry in America” project, which builds on her online HarvardX course of the same name, and combines video conversations, field visits to historic sights, interactive seminars and interviews with prominent Americans about famous and overlooked poems.
“For me it’s an extraordinary chance to reach so many more people. But it’s also an opportunity for Harvard, since I’m using Harvard’s resources: we throw open the doors to the Museum of Natural History, Houghton Library, we use footage from HUCE, and in many of the videos students join me on camera. It’s amazing to watch my students become teachers, with lecterns that face the world.”
In the course of working on the project New has had experiences that are powerful reminders of poetry’s ability to speak across disciplinary and cultural boundaries. “Anybody is interested in poetry if you give them a poem that is in their world,” she says.
Even if that world is underwater. “In Papua New Guinea I actually went down under the sea in a submarine reading a poem by Marianne Moore called “The Fish.” I was there with people involved in Conservation International teaching local people how to patrol their waters, so that people don’t come in and bomb coral reefs to catch fish.”
Moore has a reputation as a “difficult” poet, but New was struck by how easily her companions took to the poem.
“When you look at her through an environmental lens, you get her immediately. All of my friends on the submarine, including the guys making sure the pressure was working, were all interested in this poem. What’s really wonderful is how a poem gives us a common language, a starting point—and then we begin to find a common language together, to share vocabularies.”
A natural alliance
Sometimes that search for common ground must overcome some skepticism. When James Engell, Gurney professor of English literature and professor of comparative literature, is asked by scientists and policy researchers at environmental studies conferences what he does, he tells them he teaches literature.
“They then ask me why I’m interested in environmental studies,” he says with a chuckle, “as if being interested in literature is a kind of oddball thing…if you’re interested in environmental studies.” But Engell gently points outthat the entire field of environmental inquiry has its roots in the literature of the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. “You know, I’ve sometimes said to people that modern environmental consciousness in many ways begins with the poets.”
Poetry is fundamentally interdisciplinary, Engell maintains, and what’s more, “poets and scientists are pretty natural allies.”
“When Wordsworth writes the preface to the Lyrical Ballads, he talks about the ‘man of science’ and the poet. He says they both take pleasure in their work. The pleasure of the scientist is in finding out about nature; the pleasure of the poet is something different. But they both are in the business of doing something that they deeply enjoy and that in some way leads to a discovery, or is revelatory.” The Romantic poets sought to remind their readers that nature was always in flux, never static. “Alfred North Whitehead, a philosopher here at Harvard, said that Romanticism was a protest on behalf of an organic vision of the universe.
“So poetry, and literature more generally, it seems to me, have provided a construction of a certain consciousness about nature, without which research and knowledge cannot be knitted together into a larger kind of vision. We know for example that Rachel Carson was a very good scientist—she was a very good marine biologist. She was also a very fine writer. She was a poet in a real sense of the word, using the word poet more generally. She’s great with imagery, with language, with literary allusion.” He points out that the title of a famous chapter in Silent Spring about the damage done by the pesticide DDT to birds comes from the end of John Keats’ ballad “La Belle Dame Sans Merci” (“Though the sedge is withered from the lake, / And no birds sing.”)
In addition to this essential work of “knitting,” poetic inspiration has led to some history-altering, concrete outcomes. Engell points to Henry David Thoreau, the Harvard class of 1837 graduate who, in addition to his famous essays and journals, penned many poems celebrating the natural phenomena he closely observed. “We wouldn’t have national parks if it weren’t for Thoreau. John Muir read Thoreau, read Wordsworth. There’s a whole lineage here.”
A keen eye for observation
The modern descendants of that lineage live and write in a world where natural systems seem to be changing more rapidly than ever. Contemporary poets are accordingly exploring new ways to express the human experience of crises like rapid biodiversity loss, or climate change. The latter especially unfolds on time scales that are difficult to imagine, well beyond a single human lifespan. But climate change can also manifest suddenly, through tipping points and punctuated equilibria, terrible storms and heat waves. Poets are uniquely equipped to help us recognize and process these changes.
“The problems of climate seem to affect us at a different speed from other problems,” notes Andrew Warren, the Loeb associate professor of the humanities, “and poetry is all about sensitizing us to changes and events that happen more slowly or more quickly than our default settings typically register. It makes sense that they might speak to each other.”
Both Warren and Engell point to the work of A.R. Ammons, one of the most important poets of the latter twentieth century, as an example. Ammons was trained as a chemist; humans’ relationship with the natural world was one of his primary obsessions. Their colleague Stephen Burt, professor of English, explained in a 2008 essay how one of Ammons’ poems (“An Improvisation for Jerald Bullis”) syncs up the human with larger natural time scales: “Each day, each year, from a nonhuman perspective, includes a multitude of deaths, and each unit of time implies its own renewals: there are, in each year, ‘so many falls all summer and / even earlier in earliest spring and / later falls than fall.’ On each scale—a season, a moment, a life span—Ammons has found symbols for persistence: ways to imagine conclusions, and then to go on.”
“One of the things that poets do is that they observe keenly,” Engell says. “They see. And they don’t see in the way a scientist always sees. But they see in a way that breaks habits of perception. And when you break a habit of perception you can see new connections.”
As another example of this perceptive power, Engell cites the work of Seamus Heaney, the celebrated late Irish poet and Nobel laureate who started teaching as a visiting professor at Harvard in 1979; served as the Boylston professor of oratory and rhetoric from 1984 to 1995; and the Ralph Waldo Emerson poet-in-residence until 2006. Heaney’s short poem “Höfn” begins:
“The three-tongued glacier has begun to melt. / What will we do, they ask, when boulder-milt / Comes wallowing across the delta flats / And the miles-deep shag ice makes its move?”
“It’s about a glacier that seems to be advancing on a little harbor town, apparently calving, melting,” Engell explains. The poem simultaneously communicates a deep sense of unease at the evidence of our own power—we’re melting the glacier—and an abiding awe at the unfeeling, implacable, freezing power of the ice itself. “Seamus is a person who understood perfectly what was going on in the world. He didn’t just write that poem because he decided it would be picturesque or quaint. He was a person deeply informed by history, a person very interested in science.”
Engell and Warren both hold up the poetry of the current Boylston professor of oratory and rhetoric, their colleague Jorie Graham, as work that engages deeply with the existentially fraught subject of global environmental disruption.
To confront an all-encompassing phenomenon like climate change head-on is too disorienting, too vast in scope and consequence. “Poetry lives by specifics,” Engell says. “It lives by images, it lives by the eye and the ear and the sense of our senses. Without that it tends pretty quickly to lose its appeal. There’s that old Greek myth: when Antaeus is wrestling and he’s lifted off the earth he loses his strength because he’s no longer rooted in the earth. But then when he’s let down the strength flows into him from the earth. And poetry needs that.”
Graham touches the earth in this way in her poem “Embodies,” from her 2008 collection Sea Change, zooming in on a particular tree to broach a larger, foreboding question:
“Deep autumn & the mistake occurs, the plum tree blossoms, twelve / blossoms on three different / branches, which for us, personally, means none this coming spring or perhaps none on / just those branches on which / just now / lands, suddenly, a grey-gold migratory bird – still here? – crisping / multiplying the wrong / air…”
When Sea Change was published, Graham told a interviewer on Poets.org that the book was her attempt to describe for future generations inhabiting a warmer world what our present-day experience—with ample water, say, and the regular march of seasons—was like. “Sometimes I feel I am living an extended farewell,” she said, “where my eventual disappearance, my mortal nature, normally a deep human concern, has been washed away by my fear for the deeper mortality—the extinction of other species, and of the natural world itself. I cannot look at the world hard enough. My love for it has never been so directed. I can take nothing for granted.”
Poetry’s past and future
Gillian Osborne, an incoming HUCE fellow whose scholarship focuses on the intersection of nineteenth century literature and botanical inquiry, notes that these mounting changes inevitably cast our collective glance backward. “Climate change is changing our understanding of the future, but also about how deep our past is,” she says. “When does the modern era start? When do we start releasing greenhouse gases, when does the weather start changing?” One of Osborne’s own scholarly investigations has to do with Thoreau’s interest in “recovering a deep American history”—one that includes the continent’s plant life and the experience of its native peoples.
Poetry is more foundation to that deep American past than we might realize. Elisa New recalls filming a visit to Pamet Harbor on Cape Cod, the spot where the members of the Mayflower Party got off the ship on their second day in the New World, looking for a good place to live. They decided it was too shallow for a port.
“So what did they do? They began to write poetry about the environment! Some of that poetry is in prose, expressing their astonishment at the fecundity of this new world. It’s the natural world that registers, from first contact.”
Poetry about the environment has a deep future, too. New’s next project is a partnership with the Harvard School of Education to craft a special course for K–12 teachers and students, called “The Poetry of Earth, Sea and Sky,” which she thinks of as a “sustained dialogue between poetry and the environmental sciences.”
Meanwhile, Osborne is co-editing an upcoming anthology on “ecopoetics”; she notes that there are many poets and scholars today doing vital work to actively confront unsettling questions about our impact on other species and on the climate, and about seismically shifting modes of thinking about humans’ place in the natural world. She cites the work of both Ed Roberson (particularly his 2010 collection To See the Earth Before the End of the World), and of Juliana Spahr, a poet “who is really thinking about how to deal with loss on this scale.”
Dickinson and her heirs may not be scientists, but the work of Harvard’s humanists prove they are indeed scientists’ “natural allies.” Poets help us all process and give meaning to the changes measured by science. And they help us decide where to train our attention among a compounding profusion of data, and motivate us to act to protect the natural world.
“I am like all those people who feel like the ‘firehose’ is trained on me—it’s hard to imagine the largeness of the crisis, hard for me to assimilate,” Elisa New admits. “But when I read about the earth, and our environmental predicament through these poets, I not only love it more, and value the precious endowment of the natural world more, but I feel as though I have my own purchase on it.”