Poet As Observer

Nature is. If nature appears sullied, perhaps you are only viewing it as "sullied" or perhaps someone or something has caused it to appear so in your eyes. The nature poet is, in part, a chronicler of the outdoors and, in part, an interpreter of what is sensed or experienced. The poet uses perception to chronicle nature and perspective to interpret it (more on both concepts later). For now, let's focus on a basic requirement to write keen nature poetry: concentration.

When I began writing poetry, I did not ponder nature much. I felt cheated because, living so close to New York City, I had never seen great natural vistas or even national parks. My rivers and wetlands were polluted. Consequently, I imagined what nature would be like in pristine settings and then placed myself in that fiction. Of course, nature abounds in cities, even in cracks of sidewalks, vacant lots and abandoned buildings. But I disregarded these. The result was impure verse that lacked authority, vision and truth.

Later in life I moved to the Midwest and the South and learned that all those natural vistas and national parks weren't so pristine after all. I became more patient, simply recording what I saw in my journal and then evaluating what it meant or implied about me. In sum, I sharpened my concentration — of nature and myself!

Tom Andrews, whose second book won the Piper Award at the University of Iowa, puts the experience into context. "The first poems I ever wrote focused on the natural world, and they did so, I suppose, for the same reason that many other beginning poets turn to the natural world for content." That reason, he says, is to get in touch with "inner states of feeling, inner meditations." Andrews adds that after many unsatisfying poems, "I discovered that to be precise, I needed to develop greater powers of concentration and attention, powers I would have perhaps never found a desire for otherwise. Eventually, writing about the natural world offered me a desperately needed discipline: the struggle to be precise, not for the sake of my inner life, but because the images I was trying to create demanded precision."

Andrews notes that the natural world became interesting in a way he had never before experienced: "It was teaching me about curiosity and patience and awe."

Andrews points out that studying nature is just one way to develop these traits. "I don't mean to suggest that only nature poems can teach a poet about concentration and attention. William Carlos Williams, for example, showed us that anything — broken bottles, rumpled sheets of paper, vacant lots — looked at carefully enough can tell us about the essence of things." But when it comes to nature poetry, Andrews suggests that writers refrain from "using" nature and simply allow it to "present" itself without ornamentation.

Andrews illustrates with this poem:

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