This weekend, I am trying to concentrate on poetry-wrestling, herding poems, culling and grooming and all that. So–less time to reflect on writing my own blog posts.
However! I follow many poets and writers, and one or two philosophy and science blogs, would like to direct my readers to two writers who responded to Mary Oliver’s recent death--both of these poets commented on Oliver’s reputation as a nature writer and a poet of “joy.” Reputation isn’t the same as analysis.
Here is Grant Clauser, wondering whether it will be possible for him to write gladness into his observations (which are quite keen and worth reading).
And here is Catherine Pierce, a poet much younger than I who admits to her own prejudices when deciding which poets to read–which poets are “worth the effort” of reading (ie, which writers teach us most about life and about poetry-writing).
“Nature poets” can be fierce, asserting the need for stewardship of our blue planet; poets who write happiness well understand–and convey–that pain and sorrow remain our companions in life. That does not mean a focus-on-the-positive Pollyanna attitude. No–to compose poems that show us we have every reason to love what we encounter takes bravery, because we so often fear what the world offers. To do so takes deep acknowledgment of suffering, not just a glancing nod, but compassion. The poet may not “behave well” in his or her own life but has the practiced gift of observation and enough craft to show the reader difficult perspectives.
Sometimes, gladness and optimism and beauty get obscured by experience and griefs. Next time that happens, maybe turn to poems?
My brother, whose avocation is science historian and whose papers I often proofread, has acquainted me with the 18th-c. comparative anatomist Johann Friedrich Blumenbach. As often occurs when one becomes attuned to new knowledge or focus, I suddenly seem to find Blumenbach’s name or theories “everywhere.” Mostly in books, of course, but also in a natural history museum where I came face to face with a trilobite that bore his name. I have also been reading Andrea Wulf’s book on Alexander Humboldt, The Invention of Nature; Blumenbach was one of Humboldt’s professors and influencers.
Wulf’s book begins as a biography of Humboldt but closes with several chapters on others who were inspired by his work; she makes the claim that Humboldt’s ideas about the deep connectedness of everything on earth laid groundwork for environmentalists and the discipline of ecology. Indeed, Darwin, Thoreau, Marsh, Muir, and many others found his texts revelatory and transformative. His writing is supposedly poetic and emotional–he did not think the earth and its denizens deserved less than awe and appreciation. Even though his books are packed with measurements, comparisons, careful botanical descriptions, and minute observations of practically everything he encountered, he allows space for admiring the view. Or, so Wulf’s book says. Now, I suppose I shall have to do a bit of reading Humboldt!
Along these lines, the lines of the natural world’s connectedness and relationships–ourselves among these, despite our frequent destruction of them–I find myself thinking of the recent death of poet Mary Oliver. I so admire the work and the woman, or what little I knew of her from a few appearances and through friends who studied with her. My social media feed has been alive with tributes, postings of her poems, and some critique about her standing as an American poet, as if that would matter to her (I doubt it would).
I can just make note that her poems have encouraged me to continue to write about nature, even when I’ve been told nature poets are unfashionable, uninteresting, or unnecessary. Her work taught me how to observe closely, like Aristotle at the tidal pools or Haeckel peering at radiolaria. First notice, listen; then describe, then try to obtain more information, and all the while percolate what experience has created within the observer herself. Maybe nothing earth-shattering comes of the process, but sometimes there’s a poem…
Here’s one of Oliver’s early poems (from Twelve Moons, 1979), one readers are less likely to find in all of the tributes to her but which offers a sense of how well-observed–for all their ‘simplicity’–her poems are.
Buck Moon–from the Field Guide to Insects
Eighty-eight thousand six-hundred different species
in North America. In the trees, the grasses
around us. Maybe more, maybe
several million on each acre of earth. This one
as well as any other. Where you are standing
at dusk. Where the moon
appears to be climbing the eastern sky. Where the wind
seems to be traveling through the trees, and the frogs
are content in their black ponds or else
why do they sing? Where you feel
a power that is not yours but flows
into you like a river. Where you lie down and breathe
the sweet honey of the grass and count
the stars; where you fall asleep listening
to the simple chords repeated, repeated.
Where, resting, you feel
the perfection, the rising, the happiness
of their dark wings.
Her poems are not metaphysical by any means, but Oliver is avowedly spiritual, which is not a fashionable thing. I am not spiritual, but I have always respected that in her. May she rest in the perfection and the happiness of those dark wings.
The small, religiously-affiliated university at which I work graduates, percentage-wise, a large number of baccalaureates in the sciences although it offers a liberal arts-based core curriculum. How does that affect what coursework students must do? For starters, two Theology courses and one Philosophy course are required for graduation.
Three critical-thinking method, scholarly courses ought not to be more than a student in the sciences–or any other discipline–can handle; but I hear a bit of resentment among the undergrads. They question the necessity of abstract ethics classwork, wondering how such material will be applicable to a fast-paced, technologically-advanced, science-oriented career or life. Philosophy doesn’t seem to be a skill set to them.
While I fundamentally disagree, I take their point. With so much new information coming at them, info-savvy young people might well feel skeptical about what they can gain from reading texts by Plato, Aristotle, Augustine, or Aquinas.
Philosophy has been around for millennia, though; empirical science as we know it–with electron microscopes, satellite-mounted telescopes, petri dishes and x-rays–is brand-spanking new by comparison. The techniques we use today seem concrete and tool-like rather than theoretical; yet as every real scientist knows, the only way developments occur is through hypothesis–theory–claim–assertion–question–pushing the envelope of the known.
Which is what philosophers have been doing for thousands of years.
The budding scientists and medical-studies researchers I encounter seldom realize that without philosophy, science would not exist. Philosophers asked the “why” questions, came up with theories and categories, tried to see into a future that might someday have the technology to confirm or refute the theories they came to solely through human observation and deduction. Problem-solving skills. They were the scientists of their day, and the methods of thinking they came up with are those that contemporary scientists in all disciplines continue to employ.
The authors–a philosophy professor and a rhetoric professor–provide a history lesson in science, taking us by steps and by leaps into the development of a scientific (empirical) skill set as derived from insightful cognitive understandings of those Dead White Guys on whose thinking Western philosophy is based.
Darwin’s finches, 1840s
Now, I am not an advocate for a strict return to the Western Civ canon; I think university education should diversify into exploring (and questioning) other modes of cognition, culture, and philosophical approaches. Yet it seems to me imperative that students continue to study, and learn to value, the history of human thought. You can be a nurse without a thorough background in Aristotle’s categorical concepts; you can learn the drill about washing hands, donning gloves, and inserting catheters–all practical, concrete skills. You can understand the rationale for all of those skills; that’s true, and practical.
Cajal’s drawing of a pyramidal neural cell, 1913
Nurses today, however, should have the thinking skills to solve unexpected problems rapidly and rationally, which is how things play out “in real life,” to deduce that something’s going wrong even when the readouts look stable, to recognize that the hurried intern added an extra zero to the number of milligrams of medicine prescribed. They need enough background in the history of medical care-giving to question a doctor or administrator when the ethics of a patient’s care seem to be at risk. These problem-solving skills are not only crucial, they are philosophically-based.
I will dismount from my high horse now. With all the disorienting information being bombarded at me these days, I need a poem to reorient myself. Here’s one by Mary Oliver.
People have told me that poetry has helped them through times of fear and times of grief. That’s a familiar response when, on rare occasion, I happen to tell someone I am a poet. The thing is–I am not sure poems do that for me. Maybe writing poems helps, but reading them sometimes hurts even more.
Not that hurt is such a bad thing when one is grieving; there is the comforting recognition that sorrow is a shared experience, that others have been through and survived pain and sadness, that there is a community of Others who feel compassion and who can express it well and honestly. Too, there are poets I find myself reading when I just need to hear a familiar voice in my head. That familiarity in itself offers a kind of comfort to this reader.
I am not contributing to National Poetry Month much this year: I am giving no readings and attending only a few. My contribution this year is to book-buying: I have made several purchases of books by poets I do not know well or who are completely new to me.
Book-purchasing from small independent presses and through the poets themselves–not through Amazon, not second-hand–supports poets and poetry publishers. Another way to support poets is to borrow poetry books from your public library, so that the books are noted as “circulating” and thus are less likely to be culled when the library updates its collection.
Love can be expressed and shared in many forms. I ❤ poetry!
Lately, I have felt overly-occupied with my so-called day job. The work I do at the college is personally rewarding and pays my bills; I love the challenges it offers and the people with whom I work, but I am not what one would term career-driven. Even though I am employed by a university, and even though I teach (just one class a semester), in many ways–as far as scholarship, research, and poetry go–I remain “outside academia.” An interesting paradox. But if I over-extend at my office, I find less to say at my writing desk at home.
Poets Mary Oliver and Kay Ryan also spent most of their careers working at colleges without climbing the spiral stairway of academia’s ivory tower. Well-received, excellent writers–and Oliver even sells quite well for a poet–they aren’t “academics.” It is heartening to know that such poetry luminaries are, like me, not academics. I often wonder how they managed to balance teaching with writing poetry.
What I do “at work” where I earn a salary, and what I do when I “work” on poetry, seem quite separate to me, and I question whether one informs the other. I feel that being a poet does influence, though subtly, the way I approach teaching and tutoring. (It does not seem to have any influence on the way I do record-keeping, spreadsheets, or paperwork.)
By contrast, my day job at the college seems not to have much sway over my poetry; I write prose about teaching and tutoring, but my career work does not often appear as topic or substance in my poems. I notice, too, that Oliver and Ryan do not often write poems about their day jobs (both of them have retired by now–but still). In fact, I would venture that the way my day job affects my poetry is mostly as a time and energy drain.
I have challenged myself to write at least two poems a month that in some respect relate to my work with students. That prompt forces me to remember that I am not two separate beings, one at the college desk and one, pen in hand, on the back porch at home. I remain my whole self, and I place my whole self into both endeavors. I can work with that.
Mary Oliver has a recent book of dog-related poems. Critics have derided it as sentimental–but that’s part of the role dogs play for us humans. Only part, though. There’s more, I think; but at present–no intellectualizing. Emotion–feeling–is fundamental to the human physiology.
Here’s my favorite photo of her.
Looking out. Living in the moment.
“Because of the dog’s joyfulness, our own is increased. It is no small gift.” ~Mary Oliver