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Judy Gahagan:  Nature and Place - an inner ecology for poetry                    events listing     last update:      


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Nature and Place - an inner ecology for poetry

‘ I’d like to start a journal of nature poetry’ I said to a literary friend about 15 years ago.

‘Well, I wouldn’t subscribe to it’ he said ‘and I don’t think anyone else would either’, he added.

He was right at the time. I was fairly new to the contemporary poetry scene then and surprised how little of nature or of place featured as protagonist in the run of poetry in journals and new collections. Established poets like Hughes, Walcott and Heaney would often reveal that symbiosis with nature and place which I already believed to be a primary experiential resource for poetry. Poets of that period domiciled in rural areas also revealed their intimacy with the natural worlds of their habitats. But mostly poetry was as human-centred and urban as the writers presumably were in content and in spirit.

‘We don’t publish much landscape poetry’ claimed an influential editor of the time in an interview, ‘we’re looking for work that’s politically tuned and street-wise , reflecting the impression I had of the writing I saw.

 This wasn’t surprising. It reflected a part of a process in modernism going back nearly a century in all the arts. Only now, confronted with the increasingly urgent news of our ravaged natural world and of our vanishing places, many poets are turning to the world outside themselves and shifting perspective – captured suddenly by what we are losing.

As psychologist I’d lectured on environmental psychology and seen the dramatic rise in research showing the impact of nature and immediate environment on human well-being: speedier recovery in hospital wards with a couple of goldfish or pot plants; worker turnover reduced by the visible presence of trees close to the workplace; profound psychic changes after wilderness experiences and so forth. Furthermore I became immersed in the philosophy and psychology of the deep green movement, pointing to a  symbiosis in our relationship with the natural world, the recovery of which might change our consciousness and our ways.

It was that term ’symbiosis’ which remained with me when I began devising courses in ‘eco-poetry’. It had been ‘symbiosis’, or rather its absence, that had marked, for me, a difference between essentially 19th century writing -  ( e.g. Hardy’s Woodlanders in their woods, Dickens’ human plots in the murk and dirt of London) -  and that of post World-War 1 writing. The concerns manifested in literature since then have lain elsewhere - the deeply human centred -  with nature and places receding into the background. That, according to the philosopher of the deep green, is a symptom of a contemporary world alienated from its natural roots. This may as yet be more marked in western contexts than in some others. Some recent cross-cultural brain research examining the perceptual processes of Westerners compared with those of East Asians found a strong tendency for the former to focus on figures as detached from the background in a visual display and for the latter to focus on context, connection and relatedness – in other words to perceive ecologically.

So what then of nature in poetry? In a splendid recent anthology of nature-inspired poetry ‘Earth Songs’, collected by Peter Abbs, one section is prefaced by the following quote from C.G. Jung:

‘man is indispensable to the completion of creation, he alone has given to the world it objective existence – without which, unheard, unseen……… through hundred of millions of years, it would have gone on in the profoundest night of non-being down to its unknown end’.

Thus according to Jung it is our observation and reaction to the natural world that offers our species its particular role among other species; our roles as scientists and poets.  He is speaking, on the one hand, of the acute attentiveness to nature by biological and ecological scientists from an objective stance; but, on the other hand, of the poet, who in addition to the imaging of such qualities, responds emotionally to them thus animating them, capturing their beauty and evoking the soul of the non-human world around us.

In the courses I’ve run: ‘The Soul in Common’, ‘Common Grounds’, ‘Two-Way Mirrors’, I have tried to get participants to both engage with such qualities but also to uncover the way the natural world can infuse our inner experience, even mirror it – but only if we offer it acute attention.

But I discovered initially that many people find it hard to summon up that attention  and to weave it into their passing experiences. It’s not surprising living as they do in places where nature has been extremely subdued by the human project. For example, simply considering weather, rain let’s say, their immediate reaction was to regard it entirely as facilitator or impediment to their purposes and enjoyment. So I suggested moving beyond this stance and spending time dwelling on its -  its sounds, sudden appearances, light, transformation of immediate surroundings and so forth; and then how it can relate to and colour other personal experiences in the moment, revealing a symbiosis and creating in fact a poetic moment. They initially found the exercise unfamiliar and hard. For urban and suburban people –that is most of us- it’s a big challenge to find nature around us at all and if we do to be attentive to it all the time -  and not just on holiday: attentive to the nature that springs out of suburban gardens, verges, roundabouts, nature in weather, skies, sunsets, diurnal and seasonal changes in light etc. these things can surround and enter our consciousness wherever we are if we let them and thus deepen emotionally our poetry and animate it.

Ecologists are already laying their groundwork for a change in awareness in our urban, suburban, often ravaged spaces with their creation of perma-culture allotments, street fruit trees, guerrilla gardening and assisting nature’s inevitable reclamation of industrial wasteland. Poets for their (essential) part can express, with their armoury of language, their receptivity to the beauty inherent in the consciousness of our emotional connection to nature.

What about place? Another milestone publication has been Jonathan Bates’ ‘Song of the Earth’. Much of it is a literary history of attitudes to nature and place. An important element in it is his discussion of our relation to places, particularly those we inhabit –for it is indeed with our habits that we leave our historic prints and through which the soul and poetry of a place is instilled. Here and elsewhere (in his a biography of the poet) he draws attention to the essentiality of home, garden and immediately surrounding terrain to the well-being and to the poetry of John Clare. Clare lived at a time when country people were materially inter-dependent and thus symbiotic with the land; but that inter-dependence was already being destroyed and its places carved up. Clare’s absolute identification with his habitat and distress at its destruction created his poetry:

‘ Oh I never call to mind/Those pleasant names of places but I leave a sigh behind/While I see the little mouldiwarps hang sweeing to the wind’

 In my courses on ‘place’, as with ‘nature’ people found it initially hard to focus on a place as ‘place’, as opposed to what they did in it and who they were in it -  that is a human-centred response. But we worked through different experiences of place –places loved and lost, places imagined, places feared and of course our individual home grounds; the qualities of the latter they found particularly hard to bring into awareness since their familiarity left them unnoticed. Of course the choice and mobility inherent in modern life are unlikely to provoke the intensity of John Clare’s bereavement for the loss of his home grounds. But places lost and remembered can provoke nostalgia and thus find a place in the poetic imagination.

In spite of initial barriers, as they reflected on home grounds present and past, they nevertheless began to find some emotional centres. In doing so they expanded a whole experiential zone that became important in creating poems. Indeed an important aspect of such a poetry course is the expansion of the experiential base from which people write, not only to make poems but to contribute to a shifting consciousness receptive to affirming both nature and place.

Maybe we’re returning full-circle to the recovery of destroyed places to find their history and meaning. Civic societies battle over landmarks, buildings, markets and other communal places against the incursions of new projects. Why? Because in them is inscribed the history or soul of the place. An important theme in ‘Song of the Earth’ is that poetry should be fundamentally eco-poetry; an imaginative rediscovery of ‘psycho-topology, or ‘topophilia’ (love of place) as Gaston Bachelard refers to it; an aesthetic celebration of those eco-niches where we feel ourselves to belong. From this perspective nature and place begin to re-emerge as fundamental resources for poetry.


Judy Gahagan, Nov 08


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