A Public Sphere for Poetry, Politics, and Nature
I thought I wanted to become a philosopher when I went to college. I signed up for an introductory course and found myself sitting in a large hall with a hundred other students listening to a man who had given these same lectures countless times before. He couldn’t help but be bored with his own once humorous examples; he stuttered a little to get through some of his favorite anecdotes, like the time he was late to class and found his students had left. He scolded them the next time and said, “When my coat and brief case are here, I’m here!” The next time he came to class, the hall was empty, but every seat had a coat and a book bag in it. That brought a slight titter of laughter. Everyone knew the joke was coming. Then he tried another old standard. A professor gave a final exam with the question, Why? Students pondered the subject and wrote some panic prose about it, but were uncertain what he wanted by way of answer. Someone wrote because, and he gave him an A. Everyone else got a C. More titters. But his face got longer and he hunched his shoulders as he gripped the lectern. He said philosophy is the residuum of human ignorance, and tries to answer all those questions that are age-old riddles. We began taking notes, and as I listened, I grew bored with the generalities of past ages, the laws and principles by which some kind of explanation of the world secreted its wisdom. There wasn’t much poetry in it.
I became an English major, and joined the kids who didn’t wear ties to class or bother about their hair. They were the loners, the ones who didn’t join fraternities. They had grown up reading novels like Penrod and Sam and The Jungle Book, and were shorter than business majors but taller than the kids studying to become teachers. They would later be called geeks and nerds, with their nails chewed down and their cheeks pitted with acne scars. Years later, when I went to graduate school, an elegantly dressed man came into the orientation class and said, “Look around you. What do you see? No one here is particularly attractive, or even charming. You’re English majors,” and with that, we were anointed into the cloistered life of books. My fellow students were better read than I, and could bring up obscure facts about medieval epics, or the finer points of modern prosody. I could talk about Melville, or trot out some biographical facts about the poet Dylan Thomas. I was out of my water, as they say. But I could pass the tests and eventually the prelim exams, and caught up. But even then, I was aware that the same urge to explain was embedded in poetry as it was in philosophy.
It was hard to separate the motives of either branch of learning. Except that there was a lot of poetry in the literary world, lots of lavish imagery and rimed generalities that sweetened the instruction. But I was left wondering what lay beyond either of these disciplines. Schopenhauer didn’t explain what motivated him to kick his landlady down the stairs of his boarding house. He was a sour man, given to tirades and fits of temper, but that wasn’t the “world.” Wordsworth didn’t think the city was much to write about; his muse was nature, the idealized nature of the lake country in England. He liked to hike around with his friend Coleridge and his sister Dorothy, and turn his field notes into poems that intimated a spirit might be brooding behind the thin veil of the material world. He wasn’t sure what that spirit was, but he imagined it might be some benevolent god who brooded over the part of the world that wasn’t man-made. I rather liked this perspective even if it didn’t help one to comprehend the throb and terror of London. Perhaps Charles Dickens was the guide to the modern city, and would have been excluded from Wordsworth’s inner circle for lack of any pastoral nerves.
Gary Snyder once said he had gone to the lake country to hike the same paths as Wordsworth took. But he was laid up in a country inn and went down to the water’s edge and threw up. He threw up several times and crawled back to his bed. He lay there wondering what had made him sick. He decided it was Wordsworth himself. From that moment on he was no longer a second-hand romantic. He would not look at nature as something beautiful and apart, something to escape to. He may not have liked the modern city either, but he didn’t want to hide from it. He wanted to see the natural world realistically, and thus end the phony dichotomy between man and the woods. They were the same. He called the unconscious the backcountry, meaning the wild part of nature that was not separate from the human soul. Kenneth Rexroth, sometimes called the father of Beat poetry in San Francisco, said that Snyder had invented a new lyricism he called “bear shit on the trail” poetry. Snyder had linked the new nature poetry to the world of John Muir, the first naturalist to set aside humanism in order to understand nature on its own terms.
But it was too late. I had bought into literature as my telescope on reality. I’m not sorry I did, but I have long wondered what the world would like if I had not accepted the tenets of writing as a way to the truth. What if language itself was not the way to grasp the world? What lay beyond it? What about the cave art of southwestern France? The Lascaux cave was the museum of the preliterate imagination; so was the Altamira cave in northwestern Spain. The aurochs and the tigers were part of some primordial landscape that existed without any depiction of gods or devils. They were just there, a source of food and mystery, but not of any discernible means of transcendence of mortality. The first artists daubed the cave walls with ferocious creatures, and accepted their threats as the terms of existence. It was a kind of freedom to just look and not think.
That was thirty-five thousand years ago. The human urge to explain slowly crept into the imagination, and the need to see oneself as in control of nature was just below the surface of art. When the Greeks proclaimed that man had found chaos in the world and brought order, the terms were pretty vague and the perspective didn’t go very deep. Plato burned his own poetry after concluding that “art,” such as it was, was a false copy of the actual world. Why lie to one self, he asked. Better to realize we are creatures in a cave looking at the shadows flickering on the wall and not observers of real truth. We fool ourselves with our explanations, he argued in The Republic, the book where he cast out the artists as unworthy of society. It all seemed a bit harsh when I first read the book, and wished he had come up with an escape clause to avoid banishing all those Homeric bards.
My solace comes in my country walks. I can feel the weight of all those quibbles and frustrations in my head when I start out. But as I reach the periphery of my lawn and feel the onrush of some wild sea of tangled trees, rotting scrub brush, squawking birds fighting over territory, when the half-dead creek oozes its black glitter in a shallow gulch, I feel the first drugged release start in my veins. I am shedding my clothes, my outer shell, and stepping further and further into the beginning of my ignorance. I am going back to the Aurignacian mind lying there in the darkness of limestone caves. I feel language slip away. I don’t have to explain a thing. Not even which bird made the strange, guttural cry over my head. Or why so many earthworms are lying there dead in puddles on the muddy road. Things accumulate in the landscape with no explanations. I feel the emergence of some alien will around me, some force that has made all the important decisions about the shape of the land. The hills swell and sag and the swales here and there tell me there was some momentous architecture at work shaping how the water would be shed and sent down the hillsides to Otter Creek, which lies just below me. The hills are all arranged in terraces and the water had its own consciousness. Everything works. The rain may fall for days and the water is rushed away and devoured by the sopping washes that ring the marshland. The earth is its own will, a powerful force that ignores the puny efforts of man to control it. Walking is the proper means to engage the subject of who made us, who or what is at the center of power in our domain.
Even if we harm the earth, poison it, abuse it, and devour it before the next generation can possess it, it will survive in some form and like some huge fertile sow lying there in its glorious mud, give forth with a new litter of creatures ready to replace us. I have no doubt about it. And our vast libraries will remain, noble repositories of the need to know why. The answer, of course, is because.
Copyright 2018 Paul Christensen.
Paul Christensen is a poet and writer who lives in Vermont.