Updated: Jan 20
By Arlice W. Davenport
January 20, 2022
I have been preaching for some time now that the natural image can carry a poem, supplying its metaphors, its ideation and its resonant emotions. The natural image is imperiled in contemporary poetry, which drips with the guile of urban alienation or strives to reduce diction to a monosyllabic drone that avoids hard questions of meaning and form. And even though these “schools” have their place in the history of poetry, they rarely leave the reader feeling fulfilled, spoken to, or completed by the poem.
The natural image can cure these woes. And it does it in three primordial ways. First, it recapitulates the sense of a paradise lost, of the Eden our Ur-parents were rudely forced to leave, exiled to some far country of pain and turmoil east of the original garden. Second, it nurtures the self by reinstating its creaturehood; we as humans exist in a natural nexus with much of the world. Although that nexus is in profound peril from our own hubris and desecration of the globe, the poet can still revive the fellow-feeling that we carry deep below the layers of our conscious minds, and which places us smack dab in the middle of Nature with a capital “N,” and thus in the ecological niche where we can thrive and create, becoming our own nature, seeking unity, integrity and a missing wholeness that perhaps even the natural image cannot provide. (More on this later, after you catch your breath.) Finally, natural imagery spurs our sense of stewardship; it reawakens our responsibility to care for what is. We are called out of Eden to oversee and help direct (as much as is humanly possible) the course of nature toward a better telos, toward a better end of flourishing, reproducing, and spreading the boundaries of its kingdom to the next generation’s delight, and to its fulfillment as an enormous fellow creature.
These are heady remedies that poetry may not be wholly able to deliver, as I said. Ezra Pound, who instructed the poet to “make it new,” did not think that poetry could make a difference in the world. Certainly, poetry is not classically useful; there is not much that you can do with a poem besides read and savor it. But poetry can spark an existential awakening of finding ourselves once again in the grip of nature, feeding off its bounty, cleaning up its messes, building better shelters, husbanding better vineyards, and marveling at the explosion of flora and fauna gracing our lands.
How useful all this may be is up to the reader to decide. In fact, most meanings of a poem come from the reader’s participation in making them. But poetry can inspire, and the natural image willingly carries this burden; it can evoke the mysterium tremendum that rattles our bones and flames the fever of creating, of ek-stasis, of the ineluctable movement outside ourselves into the greater, nurturing whole. Not convinced? Give it a try.
Of course, what this little essay needs is an example. And below is a sophisticated one from, in my mind, the greatest English poet of the first world war, Edward Thomas. In it, he uses the familiar natural image of plowing a field to encompass young love, the losses of the war, and the tentative movements toward a genuine conversation with the plowman. This should inspire and prod us all to try to write in a similar fashion. Reading Thomas, the reader is naturally and spiritually quickened. It's hard to ask for anything more from a contemporary poem. Change the world? How about change the reader, then move on?
AS THE TEAM'S HEAD-BRASS
by Edward Thomas
As the team’s head-brass flashed out on the turn The lovers disappeared into the wood. I sat among the boughs of the fallen elm That strewed an angle of the fallow, and Watched the plough narrowing a yellow square Of charlock. Every time the horses turned Instead of treading me down, the ploughman leaned Upon the handles to say or ask a word, About the weather, next about the war. Scraping the share he faced towards the wood, And screwed along the furrow till the brass flashed Once more. The blizzard felled the elm whose crest I sat in, by a woodpecker’s round hole, The ploughman said. “When will they take it away?” “When the war’s over.” So the talk began— One minute and an interval of ten, A minute more and the same interval. “Have you been out?” “No.” “And don’t want to, perhaps?” “If I could only come back again, I should. I could spare an arm. I shouldn’t want to lose A leg. If I should lose my head, why, so, I should want nothing more. . . . Have many gone From here?” “Yes.” “Many lost?” “Yes, a good few. Only two teams work on the farm this year. One of my mates is dead. The second day In France they killed him. It was back in March, The very night of the blizzard, too. Now if He had stayed here we should have moved the tree.” “And I should not have sat here. Everything Would have been different. For it would have been Another world.” “Ay, and a better, though If we could see all all might seem good.” Then The lovers came out of the wood again: The horses started and for the last time I watched the clods crumble and topple over After the ploughshare and the stumbling team.