How Modern American Poetry Explores the Nature of Man

Nature is defined as not only “the phenomena of the physical world collectively, including plants, animals, the landscape, and other features and products of the earth, as opposed to humans or human creations (Meriam Webster), but also as “the basic or inherent features of something, especially when seen as characteristic of it,” and “the innate or essential qualities or character of a person or animal”. I am examining different poems that speak to the definition of nature and the nature of man, within and without society. I am introducing this paper with a review of America’s founding nature writer, Henry David Thoreau. I will use Thoreau to demonstrate the origins of nature writing, and in extension nature poetry, as well as look at Walt Whitman as the father of modern poetry. I will discuss how the boundaries of the concepts of nature have been expanded to incorporate the impact of humanity and how society reflects the functions of the natural world, dispersing the illusion of the separation of human and other than human nature to show the reality of all things being natural.

Comarison of Nature Poets

Hinton separates his chapters by the type of wilderness that each poem represents. He calls Ezra Pound’s China winds due to his influence on the haiku. He refers to William Carlos Williams’ work as local wilds due to his American transcendental influence and focus on the everyday. He refers to Robinson Jeffers as coastal wilds due to the influences of his coastal California location. Kenneth Rexroth was most influenced by the Colorado Mountain plateau area of New Mexico; hence his work is referred as mountain wilds. These designations are understandable since a poet’s work tends to be most influenced by the region in which the poet lives, or as like Ezra Pound, the study of interest that most influenced him. This being said, I noticed some very distinct commonalities between these poets.

Pound is most definitely influenced by the Chinese haiku. He is a minimalist poet who feels that the fewest words to convey an image or idea is best. But that is not the extent of his work. The imagery of his work blends the everyday into the extraordinary. He demonstrates this in “I Have Tried to Write Paradise”
Do not move
let the wind speak
that is paradise.
Let the Gods forgive what I
Have made
Let those I love try to forgive
while I have made.
In this poem he anthropomorphizes the wind and puts himself in a position to receive forgiveness and to be spoken to by the wind. He is making the mundane act of standing still into something extraordinary that he describes as paradise. The simplicity of this poem helps to emphasize the extraordinary nature of such a simple act.

Like Ezra Pound, William Carlos Williams was also an advocate for the minimalist poem. His works focus on the beauty of the every day. In “The Red Wheelbarrow” he writes
so much depends

a red wheel

glazed with rain

beside the white
A very simple poem about a very mundane everyday object sitting on a farm. Yet through this simple use of language he creates an image in a person’s mind that makes that everyday item seem beautiful and alive. It is due to his observations of the everyday and his willingness to commit that to poetry that makes what one generally sees as common beautiful. In “To a Poor Old Woman”, he describes an elderly woman simply eating plums as something truly gracious and extraordinary. His work speaks to the nature of humanity and breaks it down to its most basic acts in a very similar way as Ezra Pound.

Robin Jeffers is greatly influenced by this coastal California surround. He creates beautiful imagery of the simple structures of the high ocean cliffs and mountainous terrain of Northern California. In his works, the world around him speaks to him directly and he is a happy witness of nature as it relates to the human world. In his poem “Rock and Hawk” he says “here is your emblem” using the hawk sitting on a rocky cliff as a symbol for humanity. The cliffs are described as high and “signed by ages of storms”. They evoke tragic thoughts and the scenery seems to represent the barrenness of humanity. “To hand in the future sky; Not the cross, not the hive”. He speaks of a perched falcon on desolate rock representing humanity, better than religion or man’s construct of society. Hence, the human spirit sits firmly and with vitality upon an empty, barren representative of society. Most of his poems speak of how humanity and nature are parallel if one is willing to see the similarities.

Kenneth Rexroth views nature as inseparable to humanity as well. In “LYELL’s Hypothesis Again”, a reference to a popular book of his time discussing the principles of geology which referred to earth as not created by singular event in seven days, but being an ongoing process, he describes the area in the mountains that is beyond where road ends over a chasm, above a creek, and where an old bridge has long washed away. In this poem he says “Insuperable life, flushed With the equinox, sentient And sentimental, falls away To the sea in death”. He compares the marks on he and his lover’s bodies to the marks on the rocks and notes how they are the same over many millennia and says that the record of time is written in the rocks and humanity is a very recent part of that time line. This evolution is recorded for eternity, “And spoke thereafter In the simple diction of stone”. It is a record of eternity which he then says “And what might have been, And what might be, fall equally Away with what is”. As in Ecclesiastes, he describes how everything that has occurred is occurring and will occur again or, there’s nothing new under the sun, all that is has been and will be again.

Though all of these poets have placed distinct voice of their own and they have various influences they are all compiled as nature poets because they relate man in his state of humanity with the natural world and demonstrate a genuine beauty in the everyday existence of humanity. It is through this work that the reader can genuinely experience a relationship with nature and see how a person cannot exist separate from nature or its natural surroundings even with the constructs meant to separate us from the natural world. These poets help us to understand that despite civilization and humanity’s efforts to become separate and all the natural world we are in fact and always will be intertwined with nature and cannot exist without it.

Walt Whitman the Creator of Modern Poetry

In writing about Walt Whitman after studying his poetry, I find it difficult to articulate one cohesive theme. Whitman’s style, language and subject matter vary so vastly that one short essay could not possibly cover the breadth of his work. Hence, I am focusing briefly on three primary themes, his invention of modern poetry, his use of his poetry to reflect the importance of his moment in America’s history and his creation of a “new language”, what it might mean and how he invited his readers to join him in this endeavor. He has been given credit for changing the language of American poetry. Ralph Waldo Emerson himself wrote, when Whitman first published his Leaves of Grass in 1855, “I find it the most extraordinary piece of wit and wisdom that America has yet contributed.” (Emerson’s letter). Whitman expressed a great passion for the beauty and form of the human body. The way in which Whitman gives great detail to the human form and expresses profound love for the beauty of the naked body breaks from the tradition of focusing on “fair” feminine beauty or the beauty of the soul.

What began with Thoreau’s epiphany on Mt. Ktaadn and the founding of American Transcendentalism, evolved through Whitman, into a new form of poetry that was not readily understood and for which there was no name. “A few years after Thoreau posted his existential questions, Whitman began making a poetry from the immediacy of contact, and in doing so he pushed the revelations of post-Christian science, Deism, and Romantic pantheism to new depths” (David Hinton). He broke all boundaries of tradition and common mores. He openly expressed appreciation for the form and sensuality of the human body, rather than masking his intent in proper language and form. He ignored established rules and conventions in format, instead choosing a new, nontraditional style of writing. And he was unapologetic in doing so.
Even though Whitman was inspired by Thoreau, he did not entirely share with Thoreau his fear of the unknown and possibility of death. “It is noteworthy that with Whitman Thoreau’s terror at contact has become a sense of belonging or enlightenment… a sense that will continue through the twentieth-century poetic tradition” (David Hinton). Instead, he embraced it.
Come, said my soul,
Such verses for my body let us write, (for we are one,)
That should I after death invisibly return,
Or, long, long hence, and other spheres,
There to some group of mates the chants resuming,
(Tallying Earth’s soil, trees, winds, tumultuous waves,)
Ever and ever yet the verses owning- as, first, I hear and now
Singing for soul and Body, set to them my name (Come, Said My Soul)
Rather than filled with dread, his references to death seemed joyous and whimsical. Death was just another stage to life and one to be celebrated.
Has any one supposed it lucky to be born?
I hasten to inform him or her it is just as lucky to die, and I know it.

I pass death with the dying and birth with the new-wash’d babe, and am not contain’d between my hat and boots,
And peruse manifold objects, no two alike and every one good,
The earth good and the stars good, and their adjuncts all good. (Song of Myself)
It is also another way in which Whitman broke from the norm and set out to create an entirely new form of poetry.
Not all death was joyous to him though. He was living in Washington DC when the Civil War broke out and witnessed the horrible effects of war. The horrors of the pain and suffering of the injured soldiers were not lost to him, being so close to the fighting and living near the national veterans’ hospital, so he dedicated his spare time reading to wounded soldiers and helping out at the hospital however he could. The importance of this time in history, when Americans were fighting itself over the right to own human beings, was not lost to him. It influenced much of his work and influenced how he viewed the world. He had very specific ethics and a very clear distain for slavery and the degradation of his follow human beings. Though the pain and suffering he witnessed first hand was horrible, nothing affected him as deeply as the assassination of Abraham Lincoln.
O Captain! my Captain! our fearful trip is done,
The ship has weather’d every rack, the prize we sought is won,
The port is near, the bells I hear, the people all exulting,
While follow eyes the steady keel, the vessel grim and daring;
But O heart! heart! heart!
O the bleeding drops of red,
Where on the deck my Captain lies,
Fallen cold and dead. (Oh Captain! My Captain!)
Though experiencing this turbulent time caused him to reflect on the morality of slavery, experience the upheaval of a society at war and mourn the loss of a beloved leader, it did not dampen his resolve to create a new and vibrant language and reinvent the medium through which he expressed it.

“Language is the material of self-identity, and the dominant language of English poetry was that of the soul, it’s deep often echoing the King James Bible. Whitman reinvented language is the voice of the body, he reinvented identity as embodied and organic and integral earth“(David Hinton). He was open about his enjoyment with playing with language. In “Song of the Universal” he writes that life and the world are influenced primarily by morbid and shallow people and that only good is universal. He invites the reader to “sing the universal”, and hence, spread good throughout the world like spreading a seed of good.
Come said the muse,
Sing me a song no poet yet has chanted,
Sing me the universal.

In this broad earth of ours,
Amid the measureless grossness and the slag,
Enclosed and safe within the essential heart,
Nestles the seed perfection.

By every life a share or more or less,
None born but it is born, conceal’d or unconceal’d the seed is
In this way he is proposing the reader become the poet and create a language of his own. Since his death, many poets have accepted his invitation, and have written works that before his publication of Leaves Of Grass, would never have been considered.

Some poets have taken his invitation to sing the universal directly from his example. Poets like Gary Snyder who, much as Whitman did, celebrated the body in “The Bath”,

He stands in warm water
Soap all over the smooth of his thigh and stomach
“Gary don’t soap my hair!”
—his eye-sting fear—
the soapy hand feeling
through and around the globes and curves of his body
up in the crotch,
And washing-tickling out the scrotum, little anus,
his penis curving up and getting hard
as I pull back skin and try to wash it
Laughing and jumping, flinging arms around,
I squat all naked too,
is this our body?
A poem that almost mirrors the way in which Whitman described the human body in “I Sing the Body Electric”,
The expression of the face balks account,
But the expression of a well-made man appears not only in his face,
It is in his limbs and joints also, it is curiously in the joints of his hips and wrists,
It is in his walk, the carriage of his neck, the flex of his waist and knees, dress does not hide him,
The strong sweet quality he has strikes through the cotton and broadcloth,
To see him pass conveys as much as the best poem, perhaps more,
You linger to see his back, and the back of his neck and shoulder-side.
They both write in celebration of the body and all of its parts. They celebrate creation and freedom and the universal good by expressing the beauty of the human form rather than hiding from it or concealing it from the world. We are beautiful, and we must rejoice in our beings. This celebration of the body was not just to honor humanity, but to promote equality as well. He wrote about the bodies of slaves with just as much love and compassion as he did about anyone else. In this manner he was far ahead of his time, as he used his poetry to try and break down the walls of racism and wage war against the institution of slavery.

Examine these limbs, red, black, or white, they are cunning in tendon and nerve,
They shall be stript that you may see them.

Exquisite senses, life-lit eyes, pluck, volition,
Flakes of breast-muscle, pliant backbone and neck, flesh not flabby, good-sized arms and legs,
And wonders within there yet.

Within there runs blood,
The same old blood! the same red-running blood!
There swells and jets a heart, there all passions, desires, reachings, aspirations,
(Do you think they are not there because they are not express’d in parlors and lecture-rooms?) (I Sing the Body Electric)

This appreciation for all men, whatever race or culture, was unheard of in 1855, and is still disputed today. Though interracial relationships are now far more common and accepted, there are still underlying attitudes that favor Caucasian feature over those of other races. In “Grey Girl” Sharon olds, touches on this topic. She recognizes how African Americans are still view with hostility and as being considered less attractive than their white counter parts.

three abreast – four breasts,
two on either side of the man
who had survived through various wars,
my friend and I proud to walk him through the
evening after his reading. Our skirts
faffled, we were tall, where his color guard, his
woman of color and woman of no
color guard, we were talking about
family and race, and a greed or lust
rose in me to talk about
disliking myself. I was crouching slightly,
spider – dancing over hot air, and I
said, you want to know about white people?

In this manner, she continues the conversation that Whitman began over one hundred years ago.
Walt Whitman was the first modern poet. He dedicated his craft to praising the natural state of men and women of all ages and races. He spoke openly in his poetry about nudity and sexuality that was unheard of at the time and is still difficult to breach in this culture. In this manner, he was far ahead of his time. The attitudes of our culture are still struggling to catch up to that which he freely expressed. Though he was so far ahead of his time, he was also a man of his era in which he wrote extensively about the politics of his time and the effects of the war. Mostly, his poetry initiated a new era of writing that reflected o the natural state of man and celebrated all aspects of life and nature, rather than fearing the unknown.

Introduction to The Wilds of Poetry by David Hinton

by Mike Cempa
Katahdin from th Turnpike

            It is interesting that The Wilds of Poetry by David Hinton starts off talking about Thoreau and the beginning of his relationship with transcendentalism. I once drove to Baxter State park in order to hike the northern most trailhead of the Appalachian trail, inspired by Thoreau’s experience on Mt. Katahdin. It was not the wild untamable mountain of his time. There were paved lots partially up the mountain and well-groomed paths of varying difficulty. It is a practical coincidence though that we discussed Thoreau in class and the book starts off with his experience at the mount. When discussing transcendentalism and nature writing, Thoreau is the most notable founder of the genre. I find that our study of nature poetry launches easily from a discussion of Thoreau’s relationship with nature. 

       It is interesting how transcendentalism ties so nicely into Chinese Taoism. My knowledge of Chinese culture and writing is very limited, but it does make sense that they have not always been focused on the concept of universality of humans and nature as it was until the mid-twentieth century. It does demonstrate how human nature never changes and how there is “nothing new under the sun”. Any idea any person might feel he has that is new and unique has been considered by countless others before.

            It is interesting how the author discusses Chinese poetry not only focusing on man’s relation to nature but his contact with itT as well. In the Chinese tradition, man is not encountering nature through special or extradentary circumstances but in every day experiences. It is less an experience of wonder and more like a common experience full of wonder. This is an element that is not fully taken advantage of in our writings. Frost was very good at doing so. It was his specialty. His poems were simply written about his everyday experiences and thoughts living in New England. He wrote about the mundane in such simple but extraordinary manner that the readers of his poetry saw far greater meaning in his writing than he was aware he had written. As for any great writer, it is not necessarily what you write about as how you write it.

            One point that interested me that I had not really thought about before though it seems obvious now, is how before Thoreau and the romantic writers, nature was viewed as dangerous and foreboding, a place of evil. Many of the stories from before the nineteenth century described the wilderness and nature in general in this way. Little Red Riding Hood, Hansel And Gretel, Snow White, Robin Hood, and King Arthur Legends are just a few of the popular stories over the centuries that have depicted nature in this manner. Hence, Poetry transformed from Blake’s poems about poverty, pollution, human degradation, and faith to Yeats’ “The Ragged Wood”. Instead of finding graves and sorrow in nature, love springs forth and wonder and awe consumes the writer. This is quite possibly one of the most notable changes that occurred in popular writings and modern man’s consciousness. (Though I am more of a fan of his modernist writing, especially “The Second Coming”. Despite their noticeable differences in styles, I find the subject matter and tone in Eliot’s and later Yeats’ works to be quite compatible).

            The author’s assertion that “Poetry is most deeply a way of doing philosophy-not as mere juggling of abstractions, but as lived and felt experience” is an interesting presumption about the medium. I had always thought of poetry as a means of expressing philosophy, a means of describing how one sees the world and their place in it, but not as the philosophical practice itself. I am probably just saying the same thing that the author is but in a different way, but people express themselves differently and poetry is one of the most versatile and emotionally relevant forms of expression. At heart, we are all philosophers. We are all looking at the world and trying to make sense of it, find our place in it, organize it in a way that we can better examine and understand it. Poetry is one form of organization.

            The discussion of language interested me in that the best, greatest writers are those who can manipulate and control language most effectively. It is through the expert use of language and its structure that enables a writer to manipulate the reader’s emotions, make him contemplate the author’s views and assertions, and can change the reader’s life. This is the mark of a great poet and scribe. One does not have to use the most complex language to accomplish this; the more accessible to the reader the work is, the better the reader will appreciate the work. It is how the words are organized and the images that are projected from them. Simple or complex, the ‘writer must reach through the readers mind and grab hold of his heart’. (This is my own idea, but it sounds familiar to me and like something someone else might have written. I looked it up on Google and found some similar phrases but not the same.)

            I definitely do not believe that language is some cosmic being drawn into this realm through our speech and writings. If this was the case, there would not be six thousand five hundred known spoken languages in the world, and they would not be ever changing. Language is an ever-evolving tool that rose from human’s abilities to sound out phonics until they finally formed sounds that could be recognized and assigned to specific things, thoughts, and feelings. It is a person’s ability to wield that tool most skillfully that makes them a great writer, philosopher, orator or musician. Language is the paint that has been masterfully applied to the canvas that is poetry and we as the readers are allowed to experience the beauty or pain that is the writer’s thoughts, feelings and experiences.