November 9, 2013

John Burnside gave a class on writing about the wonderful and wondrous, at St Andrew’s Public Library.

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“Our minds, as well as our bodies, have need of the out-of-doors,” says Edwin Way Teale, the great American nature writer. “Our spirits, too, need simple things, elemental things, the sun and the wind and the rain, moonlight and starlight, sunrise and mist and mossy forest trails, the perfumes of dawn and the smell of fresh-turned earth and the ancient music of wind among the trees.” These everyday, elemental things can create in us a sense of wonder that is as essential to our understanding, safeguarding and appreciation of the natural world as any scientific enquiry – in the words of Rachel Carson, “It is not half so important to know as to feel.” That attitude does not downplay reason, however, it simply reveals that, without a sense of wonder, our knowledge not only does not help us to find our just place in the world, it can lead to the objectification of the natural (reducing it to resource or to despised opponent of ‘progress’), and to the reductionism that has been the main, and possible lethal element of our ways of knowing over the last, industrial-technical phase of our history.

Some would argue that poetry cannot, or should not play a part in challenging that reductionism: that it is not useful as a political tool, or even as a way of re-imagining our world. This, for me, is defeatism. Poetry can not only celebrate the beautiful and the mysterious, it can also help us find our way into the complexities of nature, just as it can strengthen our apprehension of the key existential issues that everyone faces: death, loss, natural decay and rebirth are processes into which poetry offers insights that reason, as we usually understand it, can provide. For the truth is, the sense of wonder is in itself another, vital form of scientia, a way of knowing that includes both awe and a basic trust in the mystery of things. That scientia – interrogated, tested and tried and expressed in poetry, may just be one of the magical arts that take us beyond our most recent degradation of the earth and of our own beings, into a new phase of respect and appropriately dark celebration for and of nature.

To return to Teale: “It is those who have compassion for all life who will best safeguard the life of man. Those who become aroused only when man is endangered become aroused too late. We cannot make the world uninhabitable for other forms of life and have it habitable for ourselves. It is the conservationist who is concerned with the welfare of all the land and life of the country, who, in the end, will do most to maintain the world as a fit place for human existence.”

Recommended Reading

Some favourite poems:

Mark Doty‘Migratory’
Robert Frost‘Two Look at Two’
Jane Kenyon‘Dutch Interiors’
Brigit Pegeen Kelly‘Dead Does’
Mary Oliver‘Picking Blueberries, Austerliz, New York, 1957’