American Poetry in the Age of Whitman and Dickinson

Posts Tagged ‘Blight

Of Plucked Flowers

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An addendum to my previous note

Frontispiece for The Voice of Flowers by Mrs. L. H. Sigourney

Frontispiece for The Voice of Flowers by Mrs. L. H. Sigourney

Looking this morning at Lydia Sigourney’s The Voice of Flowers (my copy a sweet miniature with tinted engravings), I found a parallel to these lines from Emerson’s “Blight”:

But these young scholars, who invade our hills,
Bold as the engineer who fells the wood,
And travelling often in the cut he makes.
Love not the flower they pluck, and know it not,
And all their botany is Latin names.

The parallel is right there at the start of Signourney’s book. Here are the title and first stanza of the first poem:

Flowers

Sweet playmates of life’s earliest hours!
They ne’er upbraid the child,
Who, in the wantonness of mirth,
Uproots them on the wild;
And when the botanist, his shaft,
With cruel skill, doth ply,
Reproachless ’neath the fatal wound,
Martyrs to science die.

I will have to do some research to figure out if the parallel is coincidence or trace of influence. Emerson’s “Blight” appeared in his 1847 Poems. The Voice of Flowers bears a copyright date of 1845 (my copy is the fourth edition from two years after). But it may be that Emerson’s poem was written long before, or appeared long before in a journal; and it may be that Sigourney’s poem also appeared or was written long before. So who knows?

But I’m leaning away from coincidence, as I hear yet another echo of Sigourney (I assume it’s Sigourney who came first) in these later lines from Emerson’s poem:

… to our sick eyes,
The stunted trees look sick,…
And life, …
… in its highest noon and wantonness,
Is early frugal, like a beggar’s child

This too could be coincidence — it probably is — but the conjunction of “wantonness” and “child” in consecutive lines strikes me as a meaningful parallel.

Anyway, if casual research turns up anything relevant I’ll add it as a footnote to this post.

Written by Ben Friedlander

September 30, 2009 at 1:02 pm

Emerson’s Blight

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ecopoetics
The new issue of Ecopoetics includes two interviews with Gary Snyder, one conducted by the editor, Jonathan Skinner, the other by Kyhl Lyndgaard. One portion in particular caught my eye from the former:

JS — You said at one point — in one of those interviews in The Real Work — that you never write of an animal or a plant that you haven’t seen.

GS — Not usually, no. Unless I dreamed it.

JS — Could you say a bit about the importance of that experience?

GS — I take animals seriously. They’re real beings. It’s exploitative to just try to play with them like counters. They don’t like it.

JS — Plants too?

GS — Yeah. You have to take into account …

JS — What about rocks?

GS — Anything. The world is solid. And spiritual. It’s just not something that you move around ny way you like. You have to give respect to it. Just like what Dick Nelson says about Koyukon, Athapaskan Indians in Alaska, in the Yukon area. He says they are so sensitive … to the etiquette of nature, that a mother will say, “Don’t point at the mountain, it’s rude.”

JS — I think there is a baseline rule for “ecopoetics,” in some respects, that it has to go beyond book-learning, beyond poems put together with the dictionary or encyclopedia.

GS — Koyukon are really something about that. Nelson talks about a guy trying to get his outboard started on the river there, and he’s getting kind of pissed off at it. And his friend says, “Don’t get mad at the outboard, it’s got feelings you know.”

The language philosophy underlying this exchange is a charming mixture of pragmatism and magical thinking. Pragmatism, because the emphasis falls on how words influence human action. For Snyder, the self-imposed discipline of writing about animals he has seen (or dreamt about!) and no others is a means of fostering respect — respect for animals and also for nature as a whole. It’s a constraint, but unlike the constraints of Oulipo and its progeny, Snyder’s constraint treats writing as part of the moral life of the writer. The magical aspect of Snyder’s practice lies in his further belief that words have an effect on the world, not just because they influence human action, but directly, as directly as any other tool. Even as guns, axes, traps, and engines alter the shape and character of the solid world, so too do words alter the shape and character of the spiritual. The exploitation of animals begins in the indiscriminate use of their names. Read the rest of this entry »