Human Nature


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Stick to nature poetry. Ignorance doesn’t show quite so painfully.
— Jerry C.


This is a representative example of the e-mails I received in response to my column on Arizona’s recent immigration legislation. Many were rude in one way or another. Some attacked my position (four), my usage and mechanics (two), or my analysis of Dickinson’s poem (three). That’s nine emails — the most I’ve ever received in one week! I should be happy that so many readers are taking an interest in my column, but these e-mails, which disregard the playful “Ask a Poet” spirit and instead embrace a “Tell a Poet” invective, upset me, not because I’m too sensitive, and not entirely because I’m 35 weeks pregnant and have some very worn reins on my emotions right now, but because Jerry C.’s comment in particular not only insults me, but also “nature poetry.”

To imply that “nature poetry,” through some inadequacy of its own, is light, apolitical, unserious or somehow capable of masking ignorance, especially one as monolithic as mine, is beyond absurd. The truth is that good nature poetry brings to light new facets of the natural world and exposes everybody’s ignorance. The poems in Alison Hawthorne Deming’s most recent poetry collection, Rope, do just that:

The Lake

The rowboat bobs and bangs at the dock.
I want to float the canoe into the shallows
where yellow water lilies bloom.

This place makes sense to me as a child.
I can read the distance from dock to raft
arms pulling to join the cousins out there

a mile from our charming, oblivious, and
haply drunken parents. Did I know anything
then about beauty or need to? Yes.

I caught a sunfish once—a golden marvel
the size of my hand. They’re no good
for eating, someone said, throw it back.

I stared at the fine weave of its scales
the pale calico of white, yellow, orange
the body so thin I knew the place it came from

was deeper than I could ever see or dive to
that beauty could come up from a dark and cold place
and mercy was a skill my hands would have to learn.

Do you see what I mean, Jerry C.? Deming begins by scanning the landscape, describing the scene with sonically rich descriptions and images. Then she zooms in: one climactic moment, holding life in the hands, ending with a profound truth about human nature. You’re cruising down a highway in a shiny coup — then you hit a bump and your dirty undercarriage falls beneath you. Did you know that your hands could learn to be merciful? Or am I simply not as lucky as that sunfish? Well, I’m no good for eating either, but I hope you enjoyed the experience. And you didn’t ask for it, but here’s my advice:  Don’t say “nature poetry” like it’s a dirty word. Some people might think it shows your ignorance. • 22 June 2010