Auld Lang Syne

Thursday, June 23, 2011

Nature Writing and May Swenson

I am reading May Swenson again. I was fortunate enough to find an uncorrected proof of her book, Nature in a used bookstore. I have NOT looked up the poems as they appeared in a corrected version to see if there were revisions before final printing.

In part I am reading Swenson to prepare for the panel I'm on tomorrow at the Cary Memorial Library in Wayne, Maine. (The rain in Maine stays mainly in Wayne? FORGIVE this horrible parody!) Reading May Swenson's poems, one can see that they convey a sense of human place within geographical place. I hope my poems do that. I try to make poems do that. Swenson's poems are a great barometer for me and for anyone who writes about the natural world. Her poems have been variously praised by Robert Lowell, Anthony Hecht, Richard Wilbur (you KNOW how I feel about him!), and Maxine Kumin. Wilbur says she has  a great relish for wild nature and a knowing sympathy with wild creatures. Not to diminish Wilbur's analysis, but I think she has much more than that. I think her poems show a great connection between humanity and its roots: the land and everything on it, under it, in it, above it. Mona Van Duyn says Swenson has an ability to see and love each form of the world. Yes. And again, yes.

I wish I'd have known her personally. I'd loved to have been able to have great discussions on writing place. But lucky me, I have her poems. Her fifty years of work is my conversation with her. I'll share a poem that I love and leave you to glory in the connections she makes between the natural and the human:

Hearing the Wind at Midnight

I heard the wind coming,
transferring from tree to tree.
I heard the leaves
swish, wishing to be free

to come with the wind, yet wanting to stay
with the boughs like sleeves.
The wind was a green ghost.
Possessed of tearing breath

the body of each tree
whined, a whipping post,
then straightened and resumed
its vegetable oath.

I heard the wind going,
and it went wild.
Somewhere the forest threw itself
into tantrum like a child.

I heard the trees tossing
in punishment or grief,
then sighing, and soughing,
soothing themselves to sleep.

This poem does so much. Primarily it is a nocturne, a dream poem, a musing. But it is so much more. Notice the connections she makes to the human behaviors we all recognize and pay particular attention to how she does this. I am keenly interested in her second stanza, where she notes that the wind wants "to stay with the boughs like sleeves." I immediately made a connection to the Wilbur poem, Love Calls Us to the Things of This World where laundry on a clothesline is filled with angels (the wind). Surely Swenson's line was a direct result of having read the Wilbur poem. Or is there a grand collective consciousness that allows us to tap into one another? Maybe, but surely Swenson would have been aware of Wilbur's fine poem and was struck by its imagery. I love this about poetry. The lineage of poets, our holy "begats" if you will. We stand on the shoulders of those who also write and they on ours. So if someone asks, "who's your daddy?" answer with the name of a poet who influences you!

It is notable that in this same stanza Swenson leaves the rhyming pattern of the rest of the poem, and its 2nd and 4th lines do not rhyme. This is no accident at all. Rather this is the heart of the poem and she gives it a subtle place as such by avoiding the schema she employs for the rest of the poem. This is where she points us to our own connections to nature and its to us. There can be no confusion about her stance.

It is a little bit amusing to me that the poem is written in first person, something that was being highly criticized during the bulk of Swenson's writing years. But she had to do that. The connection to the world outside was too strong for the poem to work in a neutralized persona. It had to be her own connection (the "I" of the poem, if not the poet herself).

Swenson moves the action of the poem, like the wind, from coming to going. Brilliant. We are more "there" with her because she does this. The wind blows in from the forest, which is throwing a temper fit like a 2 year old, and then it blows away, leaving everything to cope. The poem ends on a lullaby image, and so does the wind's terror. We have wrap-up without reduction. Swenson does this with flair, sticking to the natural world, but making the connection to we who try to soothe ourselves in it.

The poem, as many of Swenson's other poems, leaves me hopeful for my own work. I have never believed that nature and humanity are separate or in competition. I feel as much a tree as a woman, as much a flower as a wife, as much a tidal surge as a tempered being. I am sometimes steady (rock) and sometimes flighty (bird) and sometimes angry (nimbus). It is comforting to know the legacy, the connection. It's raining today. I awoke to it and to tears running down my cheeks from a dream. How can I deny the connection when it is right here for me. I will make a few notes today for my part in the panel discussion tomorrow. I welcome the chance to say how place and my poetry are cousins, sisters, parent and child.


  1. I really enjoy reading your blogs at your "Blogversity" and I gain so many wonderful bits and bytes of information from each one. "Who's my daddy?" Now that is a question I'll have to ponder and I'll start with Ric Masten and Billy Collins.

  2. Ahhh, Ric Masten... he is my great uncle of poetry