I remember, when I was a kid of thirteen or fourteen, walking with a friend in the early evening. We were simply going from a parent’s car into a building for some event, but it was a gorgeous night, with a big, full moon. “Wow,” I said, “look at the moon!” My friend smirked and replied with relished disdain, “Yeah, so? It’s just the moon.” I was crushed. But it wouldn’t be the first time I would hear an expression of awe or wonder for the natural world derided as childish or meaningless. Even now, it still catches me off guard.
Recently, I wrote a glowing review of a book I truly loved, Cecily Parks’s O’Nights. A week or so after it was published, I read a review of the same book in a different publication. The reviewer wrote, “O’Nights has a surprising tendency to slip into cliché. At one point early on, the speaker has a completely unironic conversation with the moon. Birds populate the pages as seemingly inexhaustible emblems of whatever.” The feeling this statement gave me—a sort of punch in the gut—was not far off from what I felt when that friend taunted me for noticing the moon.
Not that I was opposed to there being a different opinion out there; rather, I felt the reviewer had misread the poems, and, worse, he had dismissed them solely based on the fact that there were quite a few birds mentioned, or because the speaker dared to address the moon without being ironic. In any case, the reviewer is not alone. In recent years, irony and cynicism have sometimes seemed to rule the poetry world, and anything that whiffs of the Romantic or transcendental is in danger of being shunned for that reason alone. Granted, for a number of reasons, we live in a post-Romantic, post-transcendental age, but that doesn’t mean the well of wonder has gone dry.
Yet some poets and teachers perpetuate the idea that there are certain “poetry” words that we should stay away from entirely. The idea that anything, any word or concept, should be off limits unless treated with irony is ridiculous. I understand the fear of the cliché and agree that words carrying a whole lot of baggage should be used (as always) with care. At the same time, I find it disturbing that so many words we might be warned against tend to belong to the realm of nature and often the elemental—not just the moon and birds but also earth, wind, sky. Why is this? There are obvious reasons, such as the fears of being too general or falling into cliché, but poets have been writing about their experience as beings on a living planet for as long as they’ve been writing. Why, now, should we suddenly be incapable of being original in writing about it?
In poetry’s earliest days, when poems were songs, there would have been little separation between one’s self and the natural world in which one lived. It was the source of joy, fear, sustenance, and, yes, awe and reverence. Perhaps our separation from the natural world—and our ignorance of it—is in part what fuels such a suspicion of the elemental, the earthy, and the avian in poetry. We are afraid of having moons and birds in poems because we are unable to see them outside the frame of the page and apart from the cultural baggage attached to them. So many of us rarely think about or notice actual birds, rarely take the time to absorb the actual moonlight, and as a result, we have little other frame of reference for them.
But, of course, birds are real. The moon is real. Anyone, anywhere, who takes the time to notice, knows them as singular and particular. Even if we don’t take notice as much as our ancestors did, nature is not diminished. Tides and storms, the patterns of seasons and migrations, the quality of the soil and the air—all of these continue to influence and are influenced by us; they remind us of the intricate web from which we cannot disentangle ourselves, try as we might. Also, some of us are still lucky enough to live in places where we are awakened by birdsong in the morning, where at night we can see the Milky Way spilled across the sky. These things are part of our daily human experiences. As such, these phenomena—like anything else—can take on particular meaning, both original and universal.
Such meaning depends on authenticity, which often depends on engagement. This is the case whether we are talking about authenticity between people and people or between people and nature. We must be attentive; we must give our senses over to the other. And, equally as difficult, the craft of the poem must convey or recreate the authenticity of this experience for the reader.
When I scanned my bookshelf, looking for examples of genuine contemporary wonder, it was not too difficult to find (after all, it is my bookshelf). I saw the books written by the other poets responding to this question here. I also saw Ross Gay’s celebrated book Catalog of Unabashed Gratitude. Among the elder generations, I saw W. S. Merwin’s recent book The Moon Before Morning and Jane Hirshfield’s The Beauty. (In a workshop this past summer, Hirshfield made a comment along the lines that she had chosen that title partly to warn away those who might disdain it.) None of these poets turn away from difficult subject matter. Quite the opposite: they hold up awe and wonder and joy as spiritual counterbalances to the suffering and insanity in the world. Often, it is the natural and elemental that inspires such wonder.
Both Hirshfield and Merwin could be accused of populating their pages with birds. In The Beauty, Hirshfield frequently marvels at the complexity of even the simplest things and the interconnectedness of all things—a fundamentally ecological perspective. In her poem “My Sandwich,” the juxtaposition of “a cottage cheese sandwich” and “a heron’s contractible neck” is both surprising and pleasing. Though one seems mundane and the other more traditionally marvelous, they are equalized. The word “contractible” offers the heron a particular physicality, even as it stands, along with the sandwich, for any number of sacred or mundane things in the world: all the things of “lasting oddness” raised up by the poet in wonder, compared even to “lasting love” in a final stanza both daring and delightful:
This life. This flood—
unbargained for as lasting love was—
of lasting oddness.
The opening poem of Merwin’s The Moon Before Morning is “Homecoming.” It’s got clouds and flowers and sky and moon and silence and birds. It is poignant and real and Merwin through and through. Despite its “poetry words,” it has a particularity that I trust. This poem comes from a poet who has observed the natural world all his life, who engages with it, indeed, on an elemental level, and whose poems often feel to me just that: elemental, reaching to the source of things. He knows what he is seeing—not just birds but plovers, flying in from Alaska at a particular time, in a particular place, to particular effect upon the viewer (and reader).
This kind of detailed, place-specific knowledge, whether rural or urban, is a great source of authenticity in writing. It reveals an observant mind at work in the world, alert to the ways in which we are connected to everyone and everything. Personally, I also experience it as a great source of inspiration. In my own writing, I often find wonder in the particularity of the place where I live: in the miracle, say, of the tiniest frog sitting in the cup of a white flower in my own front yard. That particularity helps me move beyond the more general words and phrases often used to describe the beauty of the natural world.
Sometimes, however, I need to go beyond the particular, to dig back to the beginnings of things—genesis. An experience can, in fact, be elemental, can require our largest, most universal words. This does not in itself make it less authentic. Sometimes, by moon I mean moon. By earth I mean earth.
It Is Not Enough
This is all your fault,
such desperation—my becoming
I lived in my own wilderness,
letting birds tangle in my hair.
Loneliness was a tune I hummed
as I walked among the trees.
In that untouched present, I could save things,
make mossy beds for the small and wounded,
pull them back.
That was Eden, before you
arrived, whistling and plucking apricots,
remarking at their soft, cleft skin.
I ate, and then
that dark mouth yawned wide.
I am sadder now, but not less happy.
Crawl inside me, love, and let me
keep you here, contained.
You and all the things of our place:
owl who interrupts our nights,
fawn who nibbles our new apple trees,
and the apple trees, and the tiny unbelievable
frog who sits in the hydrangea’s
white cup. Come, there’s room.
Darling, I’d drink the creamy smear
of stars above our house to hold them in,
to stop the earth from tipping.
The elm weaves the field’s late light, this hill
hanging from the tree’s roots like the moon
from its shadow and the whole
world beneath suspended.
Roots knead the earth’s thick sorrow.
Still, leaves from this.
From this unshackling, birdsong.
I am a blade of corn where you kneel,
wind and quaking stalk.
The elm’s body a vase of poured sky.
The tree will die.
Someday, the tree will die.
For now, this axis--
what we choose to compass by.
HANNAH FRIES is the author of the poetry collection Little Terrarium. Her work has appeared in such publications as American Poetry Review, The Massachusetts Review, and The Cortland Review, and she is the recipient of a scholarship from the Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference. She currently works as an editor at Storey Publishing in western Massachusetts and is a contributing editor for Terrain.