Poetry and Nature in the Americas
by George B. Handley, Latin American Studies coordinator, associate professor of humanities
Imagine that Adam and Eve must have been extraordinary poets. Their original and pure language of nature was undisturbed by custom and the past. When they spoke and named animals and plants for the first time, they brought those things into a living intimacy with their own lives, and the language they used reflected their own history and place within the created world they had been gifted by a loving Father. So their language was purely theirs, not borrowed, born in their immediate contact with creation, distilled upon their minds from original contact with the dynamic, living, and breathing world around them. That, in my mind, and in the mind of most poets, has all the makings of great poetry. Walt Whitman would seem to agree when he wrote these words from his famous poem, “Song of Myself”:
Creeds and schools in abeyance,Retiring back a while sufficed at what they are, but never forgotten,I harbor for good or bad, I permit to speak at every hazard,Nature without check with original energy (25).
Whitman’s goal was to find an original poetic voice for the Americas, a voice of democracy that expressed the unique qualities of our New World history and environment. He wanted to cast aside the burdens of “creeds and schools” of thought inherited from our European past and come into direct contact with Nature in order to found a new Adamic language of American possibility; his poems were a return to innocence, poems of praise “To the Garden of the World,” as one of his poems states. His influence on generations of poets after him in the United States is well known. What is not so well known is the enormous influence he has had throughout all of the Americas, particularly in Latin America and the Caribbean.
WHAT DO YOUR HARRIED SCINTILLATIONS WHISPER?DID YOUR SLY, REBELLIOUS FLASHGO TRAVELLING ONCE,POPULOUS WITH WORDS?
Two poets of the Americas, both recipients of the Nobel Prize for Literature, have expressed their appreciation for the transformative power of Whitman’s Adamic poetry of American possibility on their imagination when they first began to write: Pablo Neruda of Chile, who won the prize in 1971 just two years before his death, and Derek Walcott of St. Lucia, a living poet, who was awarded the prize in 1992, five hundred years after Columbus’ “discovery” of Walcott’s native Caribbean. Both poets clearly had other important influences. However, they seem to have been particularly taken by Whitman’s idea of the poet as a kind of Adam in the New World Garden, embracing the joy to be found in nature’s extraordinary capacity to regenerate and surprise us. What is extraordinary about this spirit of exhilaration is that their poetry is not ignorant of the sordid and regrettable New World history of Native American genocide, African slavery, and colonial woes of the European conquest. We may never know how many millions of Native Americans were massacred, killed by disease, or who suffered untold violence at the hands of European conquerors, but historians do know the death toll makes most twentieth-century atrocities look mild by comparison. Add to that the story of African slavery, the perhaps millions thrown overboard during the slave trade, the millions more who suffered centuries of indignity and brutality. Then consider the rampant destruction of nature that has increased in an era of advancing technology and economic disparity, and it hardly seems possible to smile at nature or believe any more in our innocence.
As a literary critic, I was trained to be cynical, and any cynic worthy of the name has to wonder if the idea of the poet as Adam isn’t simply dangerously naive. Can anyone really choose to be happy in the face of an environment that bears the wounds of such violence? Is it even ethical any more to see nature as virginal and unspoiled? Isn’t the very idea of a “New World” politically incorrect, since Columbus never understood the prior history of the land or its hidden connections to the Old World? Such criticism has been launched, for example, against Walt Whitman, who in his celebrations of American possibility and innocence seemed sympathetic to America’s Manifest Destiny, whose victims certainly included Native Americans, African Americans, and Latin Americans—the latter most notably in the case of the Mexican–American War of 1848. The Adam figure in the American imagination can be considered an attempt to cover up our own colonial sins, having taken the land from Indians and having enslaved Africans. In other words, critics see American culture as an avatar of European sins and America’s hopefulness and expressions of Adamic innocence nothing more than an extension of a European desire for redemption.
Although these are important criticisms, they would seem to overlook the fact that Whitman was aware of at least some of the ironies of his own praise of American possibilities. In his lone book of poetry, Leaves of Grass, he declares grass to be a metaphor for poetry and nature’s shared capacity to renew our imagination in the wake of suffering. Upon observing leaves of grass, he cannot help but suspect that they hide a story of suffering and loss, never to be fully recovered. When asked by a child what the grass is, he responds:
I guess it is a uniform hieroglyphic, . . .And now it seems to me the beautiful uncut hair of graves.Tenderly I will use you curling grass,It may be you transpire from the breasts of young men (29).
Read in the context of the Civil War, this is a poignant and cautious expression of hope in the wake of so much suffering. He writes, “I wish I could translate the hints about the dead young men and women,” but unfortunately he cannot; he can only praise nature and hope that we find comfort in its capacity to regenerate new life from the very material of dead bodies, a fact that seems to suggest that “to die is different from what any one supposed, and luckier” (30). It is because of his awareness of nature’s law of regeneration that Whitman found such strange comfort and poetic inspiration from the sea, even though it seemed to whisper to him over and over in its gentle watery repetitions the word “death”:
My own songs awaked from that hour,And with them the key, the word up from the waves,That strong and delicious word which, creeping to my feet, . . .The sea whisper’d me (214).
Over the last year, I have traveled to St. Lucia in the Caribbean and to Chile to find similar sources of inspiration and promises of renewal for Walcott and Neruda. My objective was to understand the influence of Whitman on their careers, but more importantly to understand the hope and promise they have found in their unique natural environments. Neruda is most famous for his criticisms of European and U.S. exploitation of human and natural resources in Latin America, a history of injustice that has degraded nature and rendered many Latin Americans ignorant of their own rich cultural and historical heritage. His most famous poem, “The Heights of Macchu Picchu,” complains that the history of the Inca has been lost because of the violence of conquest and nature’s obliterations of key elements of that history. He speaks to the Urubamba river that runs below the ruins:
What do your harried scintillations whisper?Did your sly, rebellious flashgo travelling once, populous with words?Who wanders grinding frozen syllables,black languages, god-threaded banners,fathomless mouths and trampled criesin your tenuous arterial waters (41)?
Neruda suggests that nature’s ecological cycles are in part responsible for having erased evidence of the past from view. This in turn implies a paradox: That it is the poet’s duty to pay close attention to the innocent language and behavior of nature in order to imaginatively recover knowledge of historical injustice. One astounding fact about Neruda, which many critics have lost sight of, is that he was an extraordinarily gifted naturalist.
His enormous private collection of books, to which I gained access at the University of Chile’s library in Santiago, reveals a man obsessed with birds, trees, geology, geography, and marine biology. And his poetry, especially in the later years, became increasingly focused on the small miracles of nature and of everyday material life. Like Whitman, he was obsessed with the ocean and found meaning in the life forms he would occasionally find in his long searches along the beach near his home in Isla Negra. In perhaps some of the most stunning verse ever written about the sea, Neruda implies violence and death are part of the ocean’s capacity to renew. The ocean’s mystery and violence are poetry’s opportunity:
All your force becomes origin again.You only deliver crushed debris,Detritus removed from your cargo,Whatever the action of your abundance expelled,Everything that ceased to be cluster (Canto General 338).
Shells and undersea life, for Neruda, are emblems like poems that hint at the presence of an unkown past but that suggest reason for celebration, instead of eternal regret. In the end, as that past proves ultimately unreachable, what remains behind is the beauty and promise of renewed nature.
ALL YOUR FORCE BECOMES ORIGIN AGAIN.
YOU ONLY DELIVER CRUSHED DEBRIS,
DETRITUS REMOVED FROM YOUR CARGO, . . .
Like Neruda, Walcott has expended considerable energy criticizing the injustices of New World history, and he has also been critical of the tourist industry’s exploitation of the myth of the Caribbean as a terrestrial paradise, as a place vacant of any local poverty or suffering, where Westerners can come and recover their own primal innocence with nothing but a blank beach, a daiquiri, and a bathing suit. As he has grown older, now seventy-two years old, he has found increasing inspiration from nature’s seeming indifference to history, its extraordinary capacity for persistence and renewal, and its staggering beauty despite the way its beauty has been exploited. Like Whitman and Neruda, Walcott sees the blankness of the sea’s face and its constant erasure of traces on the sand as a metaphor for both the lamentable emptiness of our historical memory of such events, and the inevitability of Adamic renewal. If we merely lament our amnesia about the past, we would lock our imagination into permanent nostalgia, and we would then be unable to seize opportunities for a new and different future. Trees, wind, sky, sand, and water—essential elements of the Caribbean environment—move about in his poetry with only the vaguest of connections to the past, promising a chance to begin again. For this reason, he insists that when he sees his child playing in the sand, he sees:
A child without history, without knowledge of its pre-world,only the knowledge of the water runnelling rocks . . .that child who puts the shell’s howl to his ear,hears nothing, hears everythingthat the historian cannot hear, the howlsof all the races that crossed the waterthe howls of grandfathers drowned (“Another Life” 285).
Like his precursors, Walcott tries to see past the innocence of nature to find a forgotten past, but because he cannot translate the stories of suffering that nature hints at, his poetry becomes the language of elemental man who embraces the simplicty of the world around him.
When I visited St. Lucia last summer and interviewed him, it was apparent that he makes it a daily ritual to visit the beach near his house and take what he calls a “sea bath” (he will leave the salt on his skin for the rest of the day). He brings with him a small notebook upon which he writes his daily lines in his native English, but he is not so occupied that he won’t spend time chatting with the local fishermen, who pass along the coast, in French Creole—the island’s other native language. He wrote in a recent essay, “The less history one is forced to remember, the better for Art—better the name of a painter than a general’s, a poet’s than a pope’s. . . . What I look at from sunrise to sunset when the first lights pierce the dusk around the former island, [is] a past written in water, whose coins are not buried but glittering on the sea’s surface” (“Where I Live” 32). So even though the past is always there, he prefers to no longer look past the beauties of the present.
A CHILD WITHOUT HISTORY, WITHOUT KNOWLEDGE OF ITS PRE-WORLD, ONLY THE KNOWLEDGE OF THE WATER RUNNELLING ROCKS . . .
The fisherman, in Walcott’s view, strikes this balance best. He sees in their labors a metaphor for poetry’s own excavation of history’s forgotten tales and the fisherman’s appreciation for the many moods of the ocean. But perhaps he warns, we are forgetting the lessons of fishermen and poets alike:
It hurts to think of the fisherman fading, because his individuality was hisindependence, his obedience to the sea an elemental devotion, his rising before dawnand his return with his catch at the end of the day as much an emblem of writing,sending the line out, hauling in, with any luck, a wriggling rhyme, learning to keep hishumility on that expanse that is his home” (34).
My journeys to St. Lucia and to Chile revealed the fact that both Walcott and Neruda share an enormous devotion to the natural world, and despite their regrets about the past, are reluctant, as was Whitman, to turn their backs on the promises and beauty of the present. Their devotion to nature, its ever-changing and evolving forms, keeps their poetry full of hope and elation, instead of weighed down by regret and nostalgia. Their praise of natural beauty in the New World and their lingering sorrow about a past that we share in the hemisphere strike me as a model for a common culture in the Americas. Because their poetry expresses praise and gratitude, as we might imagine Adam and Eve’s first utterances about the new world around them, they are not held down by the weight of history, forever circling back around to what happened before and forever neglecting the possibilities of a new future. At the same time, however, they are not naive about the promises, the newness nature seems to hold. They recognize that only through a newfound solidarity across our American nations—natural and not political—can we bring about a new and different future.
IT HURTS TO THINK OF THE FISHERMAN FADING, BECAUSE HIS INDIVIDUALITY WAS HIS INDEPENDENCE, . . .
For this reason, I prefer to call the Americas the “NewWorld,” and I like to think that their poetry reflects an Adamic imagination that is uniquely akin to a Latter-day Saint conception of the Garden of Eden. We understand that Adam and Eve had forgotten a prior history, that in the Garden a veil of forgetfulness kept them from a full knowledge of their own prior membership in the family of God and their participation in, and understanding of, the creation. The paradox of our Adam and Eve is that naming things, and each other, in the Garden was really a renaming—even if it felt new. Their poetry turned out to be more like repentance than it was discovery. And only through a slow and incremental creation of a new and natural language could lost truths be recovered, especially the reality of their prior history and of our universal brotherhood.
Neruda, Pablo. Canto General, Trans. Jack Schmitt. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1991.
—. The Heights of Macchu Picchu, Trans. Nathaniel Tarn. New York: Noonday Press, 1999.
Walcott, Derek. “Another Life,” Collected Poems, 1948–1984. New York: Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, 1992.
—. “Where I Live,” in Architectural Digest 54:1, Jan 1997, pp. 30–36.
Whitman, Walt. Leaves of Grass, New York: Barnes and Noble Books, 1992.
Handley’s research was generously funded by grants from the Kennedy Center, the College of Humanities, and the Utah Humanities Council’s Albert J. Colton Fellowship.