Scientists and politicians, economists and scholars—where environmental issues are concerned, theirs are the voices that we've come to expect to hear. But what about the poets? Might they have a word to say too?
According to award-winning poet and nature writer John Daniel, they definitely do.
"As an environmentalist, I think that the short lyric has something to offer that most informational prose doesn't," Daniel said from his home in Oregon last week. "There's really plenty of information about things environmental, but to read a poem that allows you to participate in nature may be more important in the long run."
During the nearly 10 years that he has served as poetry editor of Wilderness magazine, Daniel has had the opportunity to showcase many poets whose work illustrates his point well. Whether they were solicited from eminent writers or received over the transom from poets just beginning their careers, the 12 to 15 poems that Daniel accepted each year all had one element in common: They conveyed a connection to the natural world that was earthy and honest and real.
Although the Wilderness Society suspended publication of its quarterly magazine two years ago, opting for an annual instead, much of the poetry it featured from 1988 to 1997 is now available in a fine new collection from the University of Georgia Press.
Edited by John Daniel, Wild Song: Poems of the Natural World comprises 83 poems, some by such renowned figures as Mary Oliver, Jane Hirshfield, W.S. Merwin, and the late Denise Levertov. Also included are works by Wendell Berry, Robert Bly, Maxine Kumin, William Stafford, Naomi Shihab Nye, John Haines, and David Wagoner.
In selecting these poems, most of which first appeared in Wilderness, Daniel said he looked for "regional and geographic diversity" as well as what he refers to as "gender parity." The result is a collection that is as varied in subject as it is in style.
From pileated woodpeckers to possums, from artichokes to chainsaws to a family of bears living in a "stove-in fifties Cadillac," the topics range from the luminous to the strange. Such inclusiveness on Daniel's part illustrates the point that nature poetry need not be rhapsodic or dour or even serious about itself.
But what it must do, said Daniel, is connect. "A poem should speak with clarity," he said, noting that in making his selections for Wilderness he continually reminded himself that he was "presenting poetry for people who don't read poems."
How does Daniel answer those who insist that the task of environmental writing is to confront the reader with harsh, unpleasant truths? Or those who see it as wrong to focus on the beauty, mystery, and complexity of the natural world?
"We're born with things wild and natural," Daniel said. "To celebrate wild nature is to decry its ruin."
"Poets are the storytellers and singers," he continued. "We need them to remind us of truths we can't afford to forget, to speak in a language we can understand. Poetry must be more than an academic artifact."
In the poem "Pragmatics," for example, Oregon poet Paulann Petersen reminds us that these truths are most often conveyed in tales of everyday life:
In your story of bees,
they slowly fill an outside wall—
three stud-spaces wide, two storeys high—
in the front bay of your old farmhouse.
You first try all the poisons,
even your pickup set
to run all day, its exhaust
piped into a hole in the wall—
while you go away, hoping the fumes
will kill them. But no.
So on a winter's icy morning
you pull the siding off
and scrape out, storey by tall storey,
thick clots of comb and honey,
clumps of stiff, chilled bees.
They had to go. No question.
But tell me again, please,
how you stood inside and breathed—
in summer's reckless heat—
the fragrance of their work,
wild perfume of wax and flower.
Say again how you pressed your ear
tight to the wall, heard the house humming,
felt its blur of countless wings,
a fine, even tremble.
"[R]eaders respond to grace and power of language, the emotional resonance it evokes," Daniel writes in his preface to Wild Song. "Poetry, with its rhythmic intensities, its rich directions and indirections of meaning, can ignite small explosions of clarity."
In Wild Song, readers will find more than a few such "small explosions," some of which will feel like subtle aftershocks, some of which will leave them breathless.