In the past two months, I have discovered two poets who have been important voices for the environmental movement. These poets wrote about the beauty of nature and of its fragility in light of the destructive tendencies of human civilization. As someone who is trying to learn more about poetry and about the history of the environmental movement, it has been a joy for me to find two poets that intersect these two interests.
W.S. Merwin has had a long career of creating poetry with anti-war and environmental themes. Merwin’s first book of poetry, A Mask for Janus, was selected by W. H. Auden in 1952 for the Yale Series of Younger Poets. In the 1960s, his two poetry collections, The Lice and The Carrier of Ladders were filled with allusions to the Vietnam War. When The Carrier of Ladders won the Pulitzer Prize in 1971, he gave the $1000 prize to antiwar causes as a protest to the Vietnam War. In 1976 Merwin moved to Hawaii to study with the Zen Buddhist master Robert Aitken. His life in Maui has a strong influence on his environmental beliefs, and this shows in later poems. His collection of poetry Migration: New & Selected Poems won the 2005 National Book Award, and his collection The Shadow of Sirius won the 2009 Pulitzer Prize.
This year, W.S. Merwin was named the poet laureate of the United States. The day after Merwin was named poet laureate, New York Times writer Dwight Garner wrote:
…Mr. Merwin’s appointment is potentially inspired. He is an exacting poet, a fierce critic of ecological damage humans have wrought. Helen Vendler, writing last year in The New York Review of Books, called him “the prophet of a denuded planet.” With the oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico becoming more dread and apocalyptic by the hour, Mr. Merwin may be a poet we’ll need. The pacifist in him may brood over the long war in Afganistan.
…Mr. Merwin has come the whole way, too, and now to Washington in spirit if not in actuality. The poet laureate’s job has mostly been ceremonial, benign, boring. But here’s to the hope, anyway, that there’s a bit of strange fire left in this august poet’s belly.
Robinson Jeffers was a poet of the early twentieth century whose poems celebrated the coastal beauty of the Carmel and Big Sur areas where he lived. Jeffers was strongly influenced by Nietzsche’s concepts of individualism, and Nietzsche’s philosophy led Jeffers to believe that human beings had a destructively self-centered view of the world, and felt that people had to develope a greater respect for the natural world. Among his many poetry collections were Cawdor and Other Poems in 1928 and Solstice and Other Poems in 1935, which brought Jeffers’ great knowledge of literature, religion, philosophy, languages, myth, and sciences to his poetry. During the 1940s, Jeffers was against the United States entry into World War II, and this stance led to a decline in his popularity as many people questioned his patriotism.
Here are poems from both authors.
by W.S. Merwin
How easily the ripe grain
Leaves the husk
At the simple turning of the planet
There is no season
That requires us
Masters of forgetting
Threading the eyeless rocks with
A narrow light
In which ciphers wake and evil
Gets itself the face of the norm
And contrives cities
The Widow rises under our fingernails
In this sky we were born we are born
And you weep wishing you were numbers
You multiply you cannot be found
Not that heaven does not exist but
That it exists without us
In images in things that can be
Represented which is their dimension you
Require them you say This
Is Real and you do not fall down and moan
Not seeing the irony in the air
Everything that does not need you is real
The Widow does not
Hear you and your cry is numberless
This is the waking landscape
Dream after dream walking away through it
Invisible invisible invisible
by W.S. Merwin
with the night falling we are saying thank you
we are stopping on the bridges to bow for the railings
we are running out of the glass rooms
with our mouths full of food to look at the sky
and say thank you
we are standing by the water looking out
in different directions.
back from a series of hospitals back from a mugging
after funerals we are saying thank you
after the news of the dead
whether or not we knew them we are saying thank you
looking up from tables we are saying thank you
in a culture up to its chin in shame
living in the stench it has chosen we are saying thank you
over telephones we are saying thank you
in doorways and in the backs of cars and in elevators
remembering wars and the police at the back door
and the beatings on stairs we are saying thank you
in the banks that use us we are saying thank you
with the crooks in office with the rich and fashionable
unchanged we go on saying thank you thank you
with the animals dying around us
our lost feelings we are saying thank you
with the forests falling faster than the minutes
of our lives we are saying thank you
with the words going out like cells of a brain
with the cities growing over us like the earth
we are saying thank you faster and faster
with nobody listening we are saying thank you
we are saying thank you and waving
dark though it is
by W.S. Merwin
While Keats wrote they were cutting down the sandalwood forests
while he listened to the nightingale they heard their own axes echoing through
while he sat in the walled garden on the hill outside the city they thought of
their gardens dying far away on the mountain
while the sound of the words clawed at him they thought of their wives
while the tip of his pen travelled the iron they had coveted was hateful to them
while he thought of the Grecian woods they bled under red flowers
while he dreamed of wine the trees were falling from the trees
while he felt his heart they were hungry and their faith was sick
while the song broke over him they were in a secret place and they were cutting
while he coughed they carried the trunks to the hole in the forest the size of a
while he groaned on the voyage to Italy they fell on the trails and were broken
when he lay with the odes behind him the wood was sold for cannons
when he lay watching the window they came home and lay down
and an age arrived when everything was explained in another language
by Robinson Jeffers
The quality of these trees, green height; of the sky, shining; of water, a clear flow; of the rock, hardness
And reticence: each is noble in its quality. The love of freedom has been the quality of western man.
There is a stubborn torch that flames from Marathon to Concord, its dangerous beauty binding three ages
Into one time; the waves of barbarism and civilization have eclipsed but have never quenched it.
For the Greeks the love of beauty, for Rome of ruling; for the present age the passionate love of discovery;
But in one noble passion we are one; and Washington, Luther, Tacitus, Eschylus, one kind of man.
And you, America, that passion made you. You were not born to prosperity, you were born to love freedom.
You did not say “en masse,” you said “independence.” But we cannot have all the luxuries and freedom also.
Freedom is poor and laborious; that torch is not safe but hungry, and often requires blood for its fuel.
You will tame it against it burn too clearly, you will hood it like a kept hawk, you will perch it on the wrist of Caesar.
But keep the tradition, conserve the forms, the observances, keep the spot sore. Be great, carve deep your heel-marks.
The states of the next age will no doubt remember you, and edge their love of freedom with contempt of luxury.
by Robinson Jeffers
Our sardine fishermen work at night in the dark of the moon;
daylight or moonlight
They could not tell where to spread the net, unable to see the
phosphorescence of the shoals of fish.
They work northward from Monterey, coasting Santa Cruz; off
New Year’s Point or off Pigeon Point
The look-out man will see some lakes of milk-color light on the
sea’s night-purple; he points and the helmsman
Turns the dark prow, the motorboat circles the gleaming shoal
and drifts out her seine-net. They close the circle
And purse the bottom of the net, then with great labor haul it in.
I cannot tell you
How beautiful the scene is, and a little terrible, then, when the
Know they are caught, and wildly beat from one wall to the
other of their closing destiny the phosphorescent
Water to a pool of flame, each beautiful slender body sheeted
with flame, like a live rocket
A comet’s tail wake of clear yellow flame; while outside the
Floats and cordage of the net great sea-lions come up to watch,
sighing in the dark; the vast walls of night
Stand erect to the stars.
Lately I was looking from a night mountain-top
On a wide city, the colored splendor, galaxies of light: how could
I help but recall the seine-net
Gathering the luminous fish? I cannot tell you how beautiful
the city appeared, and a little terrible.
I thought, We have geared the machines and locked all together
into interdependence; we have built the great cities; now
There is no escape. We have gathered vast populations incapable
of free survival, insulated
From the strong earth, each person in himself helpless, on all
dependent. The circle is closed, and the net
Is being hauled in. They hardly feel the cords drawing, yet they
shine already. The inevitable mass-disasters
Will not come in our time nor in our children’s, but we and our
Must watch the net draw narrower, government take all powers
-or revolution, and the new government
Take more than all, add to kept bodies kept souls- or anarchy,
These things are Progress;
Do you marvel our verse is troubled or frowning, while it keeps
its reason? Or it lets go, lets the mood flow
In the manner of the recent young men into mere hysteria, splin-
tered gleams, crackled laughter. But they are quite wrong.
There is no reason for amazement: surely one always knew that
cultures decay, and life’s end is death.
If you enjoy this cartoon, take a look at these links for more of my political cartoons at Everyday Citizen:
Government and the Market Economy
Jasper Joins Two Protests
Bob the Nerd Vampire
Jasper Debates War
Jasper Finds His Way Home
Jasper Escapes the Detention Center
Jasper At A Detention Center
Jasper Meets a Poet
Jasper Tackles Health Care
Jasper Protests the War
Jasper and the Economy
Jasper Sings a Protest Song
The Road To Health Care Reform Cartoon
A Cartoon about the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict
A Cartoon about My Experience in an Evangelical Church
A Cartoon about Political Debate
A Cartoon On Gay Marriage