Thursday, October 7, 2010

California Nature Poetry

Northern California certainly enjoys one of the richest natural environments on the planet—tall mountains, broad rivers, deep valleys, a majestic seacoast, all linked together with Vergilian hill landscapes that are Alpine green in Spring, loaded with wildflowers in June and turned golden yellow in August—and thus it’s really a matter of astonishment that such environmental richness yields so very little effective nature writing.

To me it’s equally surprising that whenever someone publishes an anthology of American nature writing that the work of Kenneth Rexroth is consistently omitted, who in my mind has written some of the finest nature poetry of the last century.

Anthologies of California or West Coast nature writing typically include poems of Gary Snyder, Robinson Jeffers, John Muir, Joaquin Miller, and of a couple more modern poets who have written one or two poems which thematicize principally the nature of me rather than the nature of nature.

In this respect it would certainly be wrong to underestimate the enormous accomplishment of Gary Snyder, who has interwoven so many contemporary insights, from eco-Buddhism to Native American myth to modern environmentalism, into his own personal and actual experience of being outdoors.

But Kenneth Rexroth’s poems approach nature from an entirely different angle, namely one of close observation. Consider for example these lines taken from a longer poem entitled The Signature of All Things (1949).

Deer are stamping in the glades,
Under the full July moon.
There is a smell of dry grass
In the air, and more faintly,
The scent of a far off skunk.
As I stand at the wood's edge,
Watching the darkness, listening
To the stillness, a small owl
Comes to the branch above me,
On wings more still than my breath.
When I turn my light on him,
His eyes glow like drops of iron,
And he perks his head at me,
Like a curious kitten.
The meadow is bright as snow.
My dog prowls the grass, a dark
Blur in the blur of brightness.
I walk to the oak grove where
The Indian village was once.
There, in blotched and cobwebbed light
And dark, dim in the blue haze,
Are twenty Holstein heifers,
Black and white, all lying down,
Quietly together, under
The huge trees rooted in the graves.

I suppose for many this will not even qualify as poetry, given the absence of any kind of conventional literary usage and devices—imagery, metaphor, symbol, language games, a message, etc. It’s really a kind of reporting, using short declarative sentences to describe how something actually is, twenty Holsteins lying in an oak grove formerly an Indian graveyard (you used to be able to encounter such scenes in rural California), deer at the edge of the meadow, the faint smell of a dead skunk.

Perhaps what is even more striking about these poems that the author is simply the sort of person who is undergoing such unique experiences outdoors to begin with.

There’s nothing made up in these lines, it’s all a question of what you see is what you get, and that is surely the power of the moment, or of the here-and-now. For when you think about it, what more is there really that needs to be said?

When I dragged the rotten log
From the bottom of the pool,
It seemed heavy as stone.
I let it lie in the sun
For a month; and then chopped it
Into sections, and split them
For kindling, and spread them out
To dry some more. Late that night,
After reading for hours,
While moths rattled at the lamp––
The saints and the philosophers
On the destiny of man––
I went out on my cabin porch,
And looked up through the black forest
At the swaying islands of stars.
Suddenly I saw at my feet,
Spread on the floor of night, ingots
Of quivering phosphorescence,
And all about were scattered chips
Of pale cold light that was alive.

from The Collected Shorter Poems of Kenneth Rexroth.
New York, NY: New Directions, 1966.

See also California Realism.
And my Disclaimer.

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