Nature, Poetry and Politics
Poets are the revolutionary priests of a new political religion.
Thursday, April 21, 2005
Three years before the first celebration of Earth Day, the poet Gary Snyder gave voice to a newly emerging ecological consciousness. A child of the still-wild Northwest, the son of blue-collar socialists, friend to Kerouac and Ginsberg, a world-traveled merchant seaman and Buddhist scholar, Snyder described a way of thinking that merged nature with poetry, politics and religion.
In the poem “Revolution in the Revolution in the Revolution,” he follows a line that begins with politics, speaking in the Marxist language of his parents:
From the masses to the masses to the masses, the most
revolutionary consciousness is to be found
Among the most ruthlessly exploited classes:
Animals, trees, water, air, grasses
The poem goes on to become a meditation on Buddhist meditation, but along the way it makes an overt connection between environmental politics and poetry:
If the capitalists and imperialists
are the exploiters, the masses are the workers.
and the party is the communist.
is the exploiter, the masses is nature.
and the party
is the poets.
This idea was not entirely new even then, but is still bracing. Almost nowhere in our culture are poets given a lot of credit, even among those who have embraced an environmentalist worldview in which aspects of civilization are seen as exploitative. The idea that poets represent “the party,” that they can provide the leadership in this green “revolution,” is not entirely accepted or even much considered. But it’s a good idea.
Poets have long been experts on the natural world. Nature has been a primary subject of poetry since the time of Basho. Our own Robinson Jeffers, writing 30 years before Snyder, composed a perfectly revolutionary piece of nature poetry:
A little too abstract, a little too wise,
It’s time to kiss the earth again,
It’s time to let the leaves rain from the skies,
Let the rich life run to the roots again.
I will go down to the lovely Sur Rivers
And dip my arms in them up to the shoulders.
I will find my accounting where the alder leaf quivers
In the ocean wind over the river boulders.
I will touch things and things and no more thoughts,
That breed like mouthless May-flies darkening the sky,
The insect clouds that blind our passionate hawks
So that they cannot strike, hardly can fly.
Things are the hawk’s food and noble is the mountain,
Pico Blanco, steep sea wave of marble.
This poem contains a sweetness not found in much of Jeffers’ work, which is consistently beautiful for its intensity and its fierce intelligence but not for its optimism. Yet at the heart of even this sweet poem is a renunciation, which is common in almost everything the man wrote. When he speaks here of “thoughts that breed like mouthless May-flies darkening the sky,” he refers to all of the mundane matters of the whole world. In his lifetime, this included both fascism and the American war machine that would rise to meet it. Just as Gary Snyder would later do, Jeffers expressed an ultimate distrust of the politics of his day; a belief that the answer lies beyond politics:
Then what is the answer? Not to be deluded by dreams.
To know that great civilizations have broken down into violence,
and their tyrants come, many times before.
When open violence appears, to avoid it with honor or choose
the least ugly faction; these evils are essential.
To keep one’s own integrity, be merciful and uncorrupted
and not wish for evil; and not be duped
By dreams of universal justice or happiness. These dreams will
not be fulfilled.
To know this, and know that however ugly the parts appear
the whole remains beautiful. A severed hand
Is an ugly thing and man dissevered from the earth and stars
and his history…for contemplation or in fact…
Often appears atrociously ugly. Integrity is wholeness,
the greatest beauty is
Organic wholeness, the wholeness of life and things, the divine beauty
of the universe. Love that, not man
Apart from that, or else you will share man’s pitiful confusions,
or drown in despair when his days darken.
Jeffers, who for a few years was among the most widely celebrated poets in America, was also widely accused of heresy. His poetry was seen in some circles as deeply cynical. To answer his critics, Jeffers spelled out the thinking at the foundation of this poem and many others:
It is a certain philosophical attitude, which might be called Inhumanism, a shifting of emphasis and significance from man to not-man; the rejection of human solipsism and recognition of the transhuman magnificence.
It seems time that our race began to think as an adult does, rather than like an egocentric baby or insane person. This manner of thought and feeling is…the expression of a religious feeling. It is the feeling—I will say the certitude—that the world, the universe, is one being, a single organism, one great life that includes all life and all things; and is so beautiful that it must be loved and reverenced; and in moments of mystical vision we identify ourselves with it.
This, then, was Jeffers’ poetic mission, and it has been the mission of the nature poets from Basho forward—to find a place for humanity inside the world of nature; not apart from or opposite the natural world, as the worlds’ religions would have it. And more significantly, to rekindle in each of us the piece of nature that resides inside humanity.
Jeffers reveals his reverence for a nature-centered humanity in an earlier poem, written in 1924. In the piece, “Continent’s End,” he addresses the Pacific Ocean, referring to the ocean, as mystics and poets have throughout history, as “mother.” An excerpt:
It was long and long ago; we have become proud since
then and you have grown bitter; life retains
Your mobile soft unquiet strength; and envies hardness,
the insolent quietness of stone.
The tides are in our veins, we still mirror the stars, life
is your child, but there is in me
Older and harder than life and more impartial, the eye
that watched before there was an ocean.
That watched you fill your beds out of the condensation
of thin vapor and watched you change them,
That saw you soft and violent wear your boundaries
down, eat rock, shift places with the continents.
Mother, though my song’s measure is like your surf-
beat’s ancient rhythm I never learned it of you.
Before there was any water there were tides of fire, both our tones flow from the older fountain.
It is clear here that, like Gary Snyder, Jeffers found religion in nature. But his religion was not Snyder’s Buddhism; his was a straight-up pantheism—Jeffers was our own premodern nature-worshipper.
Leaving that aside, we find here something of universal value regardless of our religious (or anti-religious) prejudices. What Jeffers describes, in a language that is rather plain and easy to comprehend, is a deep connection to the natural world, and to its mysterious power and beauty. This is something we recognize almost viscerally, and it’s something we find rather commonly in poetry and rarely elsewhere.
In A Language Older Than Words, the nature writer
Derrick Jensen describes what it means to be divorced from
As is true for most children, when I was young I heard the world speak. Stars sang. Stones had preferences. Trees had bad days. Toads held lively discussions, crowed over a good day’s catch. Like static on a radio, schooling and other forms of socialization began to interfere with my perception of the animate world, and for a number of years I almost believed that only humans spoke. The gap between what I experienced and what I almost believed confused me deeply. It wasn’t until later that I began to understand the personal, political, social ecological and economic implications of living in a silenced world.
This silencing is central to the workings of our culture. The staunch refusal to hear the voices of those we exploit is crucial to our domination of them. Religion, science, philosophy, politics, education, psychology, medicine, literature, linguistics, and art have all been pressed into service as tools to rationalize the silencing and degradation of women, children, other races, other cultures, the natural world and its members, our emotions, our consciences, our experiences and our cultural and personal histories.
We are lucky here. We don’t have to go far to put ourselves in a place where nature still speaks. To put ourselves in a place where we can hear it—for that we need our poets.
AN EARTH DAY CELEBRATION: NATURE, POETRY AND POLICY TAKES PLACE AT 1:30PM SATURDAY, APRIL 23 AT GARLAND RANCH REGIONAL PARK VISITOR’S CENTER. FREE. CALL 394-5656 FOR INFO.