Writing Poetry About Nature

by Mavis Gulliver

Among my husband’s hoarded papers we found a small publication entitled Nature Poetry. He had picked this up during a working visit to the States in 1973. It was published in March 1964 as Volume 57, Number 3 of a series entitled Cornell Science Leaflets by the New York State College of Agriculture which is affiliated to Cornell University, Ithaca, New York, United States of America.

Within its thirty two pages are poems by Walt Whitman, Shelley, Tennyson, Rose Fyleman and Rachel Field. Many of the pages are illustrated with sensitive black and white photographs with such varied subjects as a house sparrow, a field of dandelion clocks, a spider’s web and ripple marks on a sandy shore.

In my experience, many people with a scientific approach to life fail to appreciate poetry. So I found it both surprising and refreshing that a College of Agriculture should have produced such a booklet.

It is difficult for me to decide if I am a naturalist who writes poetry or a poet who loves nature. Both areas are of equal importance to me and I write from meticulous observation complemented by reading to ensure that my facts are correct.

When I read work which includes errors and misconceptions in relation to nature I am both concerned and disappointed. These can be found in fiction as well as poetry, even in works by well known and respected authors. A flower growing in the wrong habitat, a bird making the wrong call, an animal behaving in an improbable way all jar on the senses of those who are more careful in their observations and in their choice of words. Errors such as these diminish the credibility of both the work and the writer; give false impressions to the uninitiated and break the spell for those who are more in tune with the world of nature.

Having held these views for many years I was delighted to find that this small volume included an article which made the same points. Verne N. Rockcastle who selected the poems, pointed out that those who observe nature closely and with sympathy, and make the effort to share their observations and feelings with others, do so in many ways – some with photography, some with painting and some with songs and stories but that some of the most vivid creations have come from poets.

The article goes on to quote from a talk entitled ‘The Common Ground of the Poet and the Naturalist’ by James G. Needham, Cornell’s first Professor of Limnology. Needham drew parallels between the botanist and the poet, describing how both approach their work through study which leads to interpretation. The naturalist achieves his goal through homologies and intellect, while the poet expresses himself through analogies and emotions. Each, in his own way, formulates and delivers a message through patient and accurate observation. Poets who are good naturalists tell the truth without reverting to poetic licence to fit the rhyme or the rhythm. Naturalists who are good poets do the same. Good nature poems should inspire the reader to observe closely in order to appreciate the experience which triggered the poem. While an observant naturalist who reads an accurate nature poem will see and appreciate the clarity of an experience which he has shared.

My plea, therefore, is to look, look and look again when writing about nature. Your poems will then provide a double pleasure, that of enjoyment in the words and rhythms together with the receiving of accurate information. This will stimulate and encourage the reader to learn from first-hand experience and in so doing to gain a greater appreciation of the natural world.

(This essay was previously published in a small magazine Earthlove which has since been discontinued; and in the poetry magazine Dawntreader, both several years ago.)