Last & Least
Conservationist agenda of poetry
Dr Binoy Barman
“But now they drift on the still water
Among what rushes will they build,
By what lake's edge or pool
Delight men's eyes, when I awake some day
To find they have flown away?”
- W. B. Yeats, The Wild Swans at Coole
One of the serious drawbacks of industrial revolution and the civilization supported by it is the hostile treatment of nature. Nature has been badly affected by the machinery of industrialisation and resultant urbanisation. The more industrialised and urbanised the world has been, the more negative has been their effects on nature. The negative effects may be discerned in air and water pollution, global warming, deforestation, loss of biodiversity and depletion of natural resources. Of these, the most concerning is probably the damage to various animals and their natural habitat. Environmental groups around the world have formulated their conservationist agenda to fight against nature pollutants. Poetry, though primarily meant to be an art appealing to aesthetic sense, has also come up with an agenda to protect the diversity of flora and fauna on earth. Poetry written for the cause of nature conservation has been branded 'conservationist poetry'.
One of the most important personalities promoting conservationist agenda through poetry is, in my consideration, Judith Wright, an Australian poet, living from 1915 to 2000. She was a dedicated environmental activist. She was the founder and later president of the Wildlife Preservation Society of Queensland, a member of the National Parks Association of New South Wales and the South Coast Conservation Council, and a patron of the National Forests Action Council (Victoria). She won the Queen's gold medal for poetry. Her obituary was noted by The Guardian on July 5, 2000 with such appreciation: “Judith Wright is not a romantic, but makes her judgement on changes in the economy and lifestyle, the growth of industry and the swing from country to city. In her own way she has taken a step further for us in the expression of Australian national, spiritual and environment values in her poetry.”
Judith Wright produced some excellent conservationist poems in the history of English literature. The most famous titles include 'Rain Forest', 'Egrets', 'Lyrebirds' and 'Magpies'. They bring forth pleasant imagery in the mind of the readers bathed in the tranquillity of nature. In 'Egrets' the poet describes the bliss of witnessing the beauty of thirty egrets wading through a quiet pool in the evening. 'Lyrebirds' makes an appeal to leave the birds to their own way of living. The message is simple: they should not be disturbed anyway. ”Some things ought to be left secret, alone; some things -- birds like walking fables -- ought to inhabit nowhere but the reverence of the heart.” 'Magpies' portrays human greed and malice in avian metaphor. In 'Rain Forest' the poet regrets the diminishing population of frogs and highlights the interconnectedness of all animals. She says:
“We with our quick dividing eyes
Measure, distinguish, and are gone.
The forest burns, the tree frog dies
Yet one is all and all are one.”
Many other poets have also contributed to the conservationist agenda. Some of them are Wendell Berry, Theodore Roethke, Joan Fallert and Mary Oliver. Wendell Berry (born in Kentucky in 1934) has written nearly a dozen books of poems to express his views of humans and their relationship with society and nature. He is an ardent advocate of preserving culture and nature. His conservationist agenda is grounded in the notion that one's work ought to be rooted in one's own place. He firmly believes in the importance of maintaining local community life and small farms, so he opts for organic farming. He has criticised Christian organisations for failing to prevent environmental degradation.
In his poetry and other forms of writings, Berry promotes the message that respect and appreciation of nature is essential to human life. His lyric poetry often appears as a contemporary eclogue, pastoral or elegy in the backdrop of nature destruction. The first full-length collection “The Broken Ground” (1964) develops many of his fundamental concerns: the cycle of life and death, responsiveness to place, pastoral subject matter, and recurring images of river and hill farms of Kentucky. He has written his celebrated poem “The Peace of Wild Things” in appreciation of wild life capable of bringing peace in mind amid modern disturbing bustle. He utters the incantation of peace:
“When despair for the world grows in me
and I wake in the night at the least sound…
I go and lie down where the wood drake
rests in his beauty on the water, and the great heron feeds.
I come into the peace of wild things…
…For a time
I rest in the grace of the world, and am free.”
Theodore Roethke (1908-1963), winner of the Pulitzer Prize and two National Book Awards, boasted of writing with nature. “I have a genuine love of nature,” he once said, “I can sense the moods of nature almost instinctively.” He wrote “The Meadow Mouse” in a mood which ran from happy to sad as a little mouse, picked up from a field to keep in a shoe box which, became a human companion and then was lost suddenly. The friendship and disappearance are announced in the following terms:
“Do I imagine he no longer trembles
When I come close to him?
But this morning the shoe-box house on the back porch is empty.
Where has he gone, my meadow mouse,
My thumb of a child that nuzzled in my palm?”
Joan Fallert (born in New York in 1925) has special fascination for wild life. Birds are a particular inspiration to her. She feels a special bond with water birds because they, according to her, are comfortable on the ground, in the air, and in the water. She wrote “Wonderer” to describe the beauty of the flight of snow geese. The migration of birds makes human mind ponder and fly with them. The birds flying for new habitat are the symbol of life. In print the poem also presents a V-shaped sight akin to the flight of the birds, delightful to the reading eyes:
for life they fly,
fly sometimes past midnight
into day, bills opening and
Winner of the Pulitzer Prize and the National Book Award, Mary Oliver (born in 1935 in Cleveland, Ohio) writes often about the natural world in simple language filled with vibrant images. She has written “The Black Snake” to narrate the sorrowful saga of careless human behaviour to snake. The speaker laments as a black snake is run over by a truck on the highway. Empathy is evoked:
“He is as cool and gleaming
as a braided whip, he is as beautiful and quiet
as a dead brother
I leave him under the leaves.”
The conservationist poetry was inspired by the romantic poets of the eighteenth and nineteenth century like William Blake, William Wordsworth, S. T. Coleridge and Percy B. Shelley. They took shelter in the serenity of nature in the face of ill-motivated materialism and rationalism. Nature was considered the last resort to save humanity and humane spirit. Conservationist poetry is in fact an offshoot of the earlier forms of nature and pastoral poetry. We may find the conservationist message implicit in the poetry of romantic seers. When Blake praises the tiger in the forest, he goes beyond aesthetics, to spiritualism, invoking the hand of holy Heaven. “Tyger! Tyger! burning bright / In the forest of the night / What immortal hand or eye / Could frame thy fearful symmetry?” When Wordsworth describes the beauty of daffodils in “I wondered lonely as a cloud”, he points to the soothing effect of nature on the human mind, offering a virtual salvation. “For oft, when on my couch I lie / In vacant or in pensive mood, / They flash upon that inward eye / Which is the bliss of solitude; / And then my heart with pleasure fills, / And dances with the daffodils.” In “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner” Coleridge preaches it as a duty to love wild creatures. “He prayeth best, who loveth best / All things both great and small; / For the dear God who loveth us, / He made and loveth all.” Percy B. Shelley feels elated to witness the avian flight and song and writes his noted “To a Skylark”. “Hail to thee, Blithe Spirit! / Bird thou vever wert, / That from Heaven, or near it, / Pourest thou full heart / In profuse strains of unpremeditated art.” The conservationist poets have carried on the legacy of the romantic poets, with a sense of contemporariness, connecting it to the burning issue of environment.
Poetry can be a powerful tool to create awareness of nature conservation and save environment. Conservationist poetry is committed to the preservation of pristine state of nature, a source of spiritual uplift and divine pleasure. It is a humble effort on part of the poets to prevent the defilement of natural environment and protect the diversity of life on earth, which is necessary even for the existence of the human beings themselves. This particular literary genre is a revolt against the evil deeds of humans in the name of civilisation. This poetic movement will go on as long as nature is tortured and made bloody -- until nature heaves a sigh of relief.
(The writer is Assistant Professor and Head, Department of English, Daffodil International University.)