About Nature

We need a paradigm shift in order to save the planet. It is a shift to some very simplistic thinking that, if we believed it and followed it, would make all other decisions and efforts regarding the environment easy. This is a shift to caring for each other, for each individual’s well being. Saving the planet begins with the respect of each other.

Walt Whitman had this idea and said it this way in Leaves of Grass:
+++In all people I see myself; none more and not one a barley-corn less,
+++And the good or bad I say of myself, I say of them.”

Don’t get me wrong. I’m not saying that we are above the rest of nature. I am saying that we are such a part of nature that not being as concerned with each other as much as we are concerned with the land, ocean, and air will stymie all of our efforts in these other areas. I am saying that we have to approach caring for each other as we would approach caring for the jaguar.

I’m also not saying that a religious approach to this would work. In fact, I would argue that religion gets in the way of respecting each other. We can’t seem to get over whose god is the right one so I’d suggest we set our gods aside if we want to save the earth.

Comedian George Carlin had the same idea and said it this way:

“We’re so self-important. So arrogant. Everybody’s going to save something now. Save the trees, save the bees, save the whales, save the snails. And the supreme arrogance? Save the planet! Are these people kidding? Save the planet? We don’t even know how to take care of ourselves; we haven’t learned how to care for one another.. . . And, by the way, there’s nothing wrong with the planet in the first place. … Compared with the people, the planet is doin’ great. It’s been here over four billion years . . . The planet isn’t goin’ anywhere, folks. We are! We’re goin’ away. Pack your shit, we’re goin’ away. And we won’t leave much of a trace. Thank God for that. Nothing left. Maybe a little Styrofoam. The planet will be here, and we’ll be gone. Another failed mutation; another closed-end biological mistake.”

George was right. We haven’t figured out how to care for ourselves.

If we really truly care for each other, caring for the rest will naturally follow. Cultures in which each individual is not respected – in which women or the poor are oppressed, for example (and you must include our country in this; we are one of the least caring of nations) – will never reach the measures needed to protect the planet. We must look at the bigger cost of our conveniences and expenditures to see who suffers at the price of a bottle of water or a gallon of gasoline. Who really pays for the American nuclear waste site or the oil spill along an African coast or the garbage in the ocean?

As a side note: To learn about how the environmental policies of Obama and Romney fair, read the article “Climate Change and the 2012 Presidential Debate” on one of The Boulder Stand blogs, which happens to be written by my daughter Lucy Higgins. The Boulder Stand, an on-line publication, “publishes and promotes the work of journalists, researchers and thinkers connected to the Boulder community–a nexus of science, technology and environmental research.”

Thoreau wrote: “In Wildness is the Preservation of the World.” I would argue that in the respect of each individual in every culture is the preservation of the wildness.

POEM:
About Nature

See that woman over there?  The one working along side you? Or the one
+++nursing 
her baby? Or the one with the burka? Or the one hauling water? She
+++is not 
your mother, sister, daughter.  She is
You. And because she is you,
You will make sure her water is accessible and clean.
You will not overtake her body, her house, her land because you understand her
 need +++for her to make decisions for her own being, her own shelter, her own
+++
sustenance.
You will care that she has food that is pure, healthy, abundant. Because she is you,
You will make sure the land is rich in natural nutrients, not chemicals;
You will see that cows eat what is normal for cows to eat so that
You eat what is normal to eat.
You will not grow or sell grain for the purpose of profit but for the purpose of
 respect
+++to those who will eat it with you.
You will not hoard water from those who are downstream. How can you drink
+++water 
that isn’t there?
You will not pour hazardous waste in to the streams. How can you drink
+++contaminated water?
You will not dump hazardous waste near any body. If you really care,
You will make sure there is no hazardous waste to dump.
You will allow a patch of garden for her because she is you and your body 
must
+++absorb what it was meant to absorb.
You will conserve, using resources respectfully instead of greedily so that you will
+++always have resources.
You will allow access to education, to the development of her mind, which is your
+++
mind, and allow access to the development of her spirit, which is your spirit.

See the child in that woman’s arms? It is you. It is not your son or daughter, but is
You.
You will allow the child to be a child by providing basic needs.  After all,
You need to eat food that is grown nearby in soil that is rich;
You need shelter that protects you from rain, storms, sun, snow, people;
You need clean water. Because you are the child,
You need access to safe streets, music, trees…

ELEMENT:
Anaphora

Anaphora is a term with its roots in Greek, meaning “a carrying up or back.” As a literary device, it refers to the repetition of an opening word or phrase and works as a type of parallelism throughout the poem or other pieces of writing, such as the short story “The Things They Carried” by Tim O’Brien. The repetition of opening phrases can often resemble a litany. In fact, as “one of the world’s oldest poetic techniques, anaphora is used in much of the world’s religious and devotional poetry, including numerous Biblical Psalms” (from poets.org – see link below).

The repetition of the beginning word or phrase thrusts the reader into each line, renewing and emphasizing the point. Anaphoric lines can also create a list-like effect. Walt Whitman used the technique frequently in his long poems and it is those poems I used as a model for the one above.  If you skim through Leaves of Grass, you will find anaphora such as in “I Hear America Singing”:
             I hear America singing, the varied carols I hear,
            Those of mechanics, each one singing his as it should blithe and strong,
            The carpenter singing his as he measures his plank or beam,
            The mason singing his as he makes ready for work, or leaves off work,
            The boatman singing…
            The shoemaker singing…
            The wood-cutter’s son…

Other anaphoric phrases that Whitman used include “Chants of…,” “I will…,” “See…,” “I know…,” “In vain…,” among many, many others including those found in one of his most famous poems “Out of the Cradle Endlessly Rocking.”

While perhaps we think of Whitman first for the use of anaphora, William Shakespeare used it in many of his pieces and Allen Ginsberg used it in his most famous poem, “Howl.”

Anaphora emphasizes the particular emotional tone of a poem and this is what I hope happens in the poem “About Nature.” Beginning so many lines with “You will” and later in the poem with “You need,” the intent is to constantly connect the reader back to well-being of every woman, child, or man on the planet.  Additionally, the repetition is intended to drive home that each of us has a responsibility for caring for each other.

Related Links (Poems, Places, Books, Videos, Events, etc.):
More on Anaphora at poets.org
Seeds of Self Reliance
Childhood Poverty Research and Policy Centre
SocialEarth
The Walt Whitman Archive

 

The Mother

Over the last 19 years, I have taught about 700 elementary and middle school students. Rarely though, do I write about my students or my experiences in teaching. It is all too close. But last week an unusual occurrence happened during an ordinary school event. I wanted to think it through a bit, and what better way to do that than to scratch out the beginnings of a poem.

POEM:
The Mother

Tentatively, the mother walks into my classroom,
and, unlike so many others,
eventually makes eye contact with me;
her son has been in my class
for over a year now, learning to read.
She has combed her hair,
has put on a clean sweatshirt,
frayed at the cuffs, for Open House.
When our eyes meet, I am struck
by how much she resembles a well-known
poet I know, another woman on top
of the world, powerful in her presence
and speech. Both of their faces are long
and narrow, their eyes wide, but the mother
has dark circles beneath hers,
and her thin-lipped mouth hangs open
in a small o in preparation for something
that might surprise her at any moment,
at any cost. Her son has grown a foot
since I started working with him,
and now he stands taller than us both.
He proudly introduces me to his
little sister, a round four-year-old
in a dirty dress who helps herself to a bin
of markers from the shelf, plops them
on a desk, pulls out a chair, scrambles up,
and waits for paper. I place a clean sheet
in front of her. She begins her lines.
The student proudly shows his journal
to his mother, the journal where he has written
the first sentences of his life. His mother
is the most beautiful woman I have ever met.

ELEMENT:
Process

Working through a poem should be a journey, an exploration of what is unknown at the beginning and what is discovered through step after step, word after word, line after line. For both poet and reader. Giving yourself up to the process can be daunting and frustrating, yet once through the other side, there is a feeling of, “oh, so that’s what that’s about.” If my poems accomplish what I set out to have them accomplish, I probably haven’t thought hard enough about both topic and manner in which to say it. I haven’t treated them, as poet Kwame Dawes says, “like a building;” I haven’t “come to them from all angles, enter[ed] each room till you find the best way in.”

I knew there was something about this parent coming to my classroom for the first time. I was struck by how much she resembled this well-know poet, and how sheer luck plops us into the life we were born into. I know many people believe that a greater being has something to do with where and when we are born, but when I think of myself, and see myself from a bird’s eye view sitting in my living room typing this, I don’t believe anything or anyone predetermined that I would be here and not  washing clothes in the Ganges River, for example.

What does this have to do with my poem and that mother and process and poetry in general? Well, the woman resembling another well-to-do woman really got my attention. She looked so much like this other person that I almost gasped when she looked at me. There was something significant about her because she wasn’t well known or a well-to-do person.

But the more I thought about her and the more I worked through that fifteen-minute interaction I had with her and her children, the more I saw how much she loved her children, and how on a work night she found not only the energy to visit her son’s school, but to meet his teachers with whom she wouldn’t be comfortable with. The more I thought about her, the more I found her absolutely beautiful, more beautiful than this famous person who she could pass for. This was the process I went through in coming to the final line of the poem, or at least the process thus far. Should I decide this poem is a keeper, there will be much more process to reckon with. To quote Kwame Dawes once more:  “the best poems are fantastically organic, they grow as we grow, in depth, complexity and power.”

RELATED LINKS (Poems, Places, Books, Videos, Events, etc.):
Class Matters. Why Won’t We Admit It?
Parent Involvement In Education
Sick (because I couldn’t resist).
Vermont Studio Center (where Kwame Dawes is scheduled to read some of his work on Monday, September 24, 8:00 p.m.).

 

Bald-faced Hornets

I went walking in the woods recently with a friend, and we came across a very large hornets nest – about two and a half feet in length and as wide as a basketball – hanging from a branch six feet above the ground. It was astoundingly beautiful. I learned that it was a bald-faced hornets nest. As you can see from the photo below, these hornets resemble Star Wars Storm Troopers.

Bald-faced Hornet.
www.fcps.edu

With the beauty of the woods that day and the chance encounter with a living work of art, I wanted to write a pastoral poem about it. But it just wasn’t happening. Instead what was happening was Todd Akin. Usually, after several days of the same news story broadcasted over and over again, I tune out, but I became fascinated with this one, mainly because I had no idea some people really believed what Akin said about rape and pregnancy. (This sort of shocking statement makes me wonder about my own ignorance, too. What do I espouse that is just totally wrong? It reminds me of my friend Nancy’s bumper sticker that reads “Don’t believe everything you think”).

In the Seattle Times, Gail Collins explains in her article “Todd Akin and the theory of the delighted womb” that Akin’s beliefs are not unique and certainly not new. She begins the article: “In colonial America, conventional wisdom held that women could not get pregnant unless they enjoyed the sex. People, who would have thought I’d have an opportunity to bring up this factoid right in the middle of a presidential race? Thank you, Rep. Todd Akin of Missouri!”

It seems as though what I intend to write about never actualizes, and every week I have to trust the winding way of discovery, reflection, and serendipity.

POEM:
Bald-Faced Hornets

The first time we came upon the hornets’ nest
back up in the woods, we were not looking
for anything. Not the nest, not peace and quiet,
not ourselves. We were just walking, relaxing,
minding our own business.

The first time we came upon the hornets’ nest
was the day the politician was not making
sense about anything. Not rape, not pregnancy,
not women. He was just talking, bumbling,
minding everyone else’s business.

Photo by Higgins

The hornets’ nest, shaped like an alien’s head,
held hundreds of bald-faced wasps that flew
in and out of the hole towards the bottom
of their home. They were not bothering
anything, yet the potential in that hive!

 

 

 

The politician’s belfry, shaped like an alien’s head,
held hundreds of the bald-faced comments that flew
in and out of the hole towards the bottom
of his face. He was not bothering
with any facts, yet the potential of those words!

Bald-faced hornets chew thin strips of wood
mix it with saliva and spit it out to build
their scalloped layers, creating a fragile
and beautiful yet functional home. Cells
inside provide each wasp its own space.

Bald-faced politicians chew thin strips of words,
mix them with saliva and spit them out to build
their scalloped layers, creating a fragile
and dangerous yet powerful following. Cells
inside their system provide each belief its own space.

The queen lays eggs and feeds them chewed up insects
after they’ve become larvae. These are only female
hornets, and they hatch to build new cells, collect food,
feed others, protect the nest. In autumn, the queen
lays more eggs – females and males hatch.

The politician lays ideas in people and feeds them chewed up facts
after they’ve become convoluted. These are about female,
or “other” targets, and they hatch, collect momentum,
feed others, protect the nest. In autumn, the politician
lays more eggs – female and males believe.

Finally the females and males mate, after which everyone
dies, even the old queen, all except the fertilized females.
These females burrow into old tree stumps or huddle
underground in winter to survive. Each builds a new nest
in spring. You can see the old ones, abandoned.

ELEMENT:
Metaphor

In the poem, “Bald-faced Hornets,” I use the beautiful hornets’ nest I found to speak of the hornets’ nest of politics. I could have continued the comparison for another stanza, or more, but I was already hitting the reader over the head with it. Despite its shortcomings, the poem does lend itself to discussing metaphor.

In a metaphor something familiar (the vehicle) is used to explain something unfamiliar (the tenor).  See the link below for famous examples – with one of my favorites by Walt Whitman, “And your very flesh shall be a great poem.”

Robert Frost is known for expressing that metaphor is saying “one thing in terms of another.”  This is only part of what he actually said, according to Jay Parini in his book, Robert Frost, a life:  “Frost believed that the ‘greatest of all attempts to say one thing in terms of another is the philosophical attempt to say matter in terms of spirit, or spirit in terms of matter’’’ (265).

Parini goes on about Frost’s use of metaphor: “In formulating this, he (consciously or not) is redeploying an aesthetic common to the German Romantics, especially Goethe, who famously wrote: ‘Whoever has truly grasped the meaning of history will realize in thousands of examples that the materialization of the spirit or the spiritualization of matter never rests, but always breaks out, among prophets, believer, poets, orators, artists, and lovers of art’” (265).

While at Stonecoast, I attended a lecture by Alicia Ostriker on metaphor. She discussed metaphor in terms of love. She said that in order to create metaphor you have to look at what you want to know (the tenor of the metaphor) carefully enough to notice, to compare, to connect, to jump, to leap, as you have to in love.  She spoke of metaphor as the erotic in language. Without it, language is chilling and cold, and we see this in the language of legal and medical documents, math and logic. Ostriker went on to say that “the pleasure we take in metaphor is consent, an agreement that the distance between the two things is less.” Metaphors allow us to discover and know something at a deeper level, and are not constructed as a game.

Which, perhaps, is how I constructed “Bald-faced Hornets.” But in doing so, I did think deeper about the world of political propaganda and the systemic workings of politicians who lull people into their camps through emotional speech and unsubstantiated “facts.”  And the last stanza in my poem above leaves the reader to interpret the metaphor for him- or herself.  This is an important piece of the poem, allowing the reader to continue the metaphor with personal knowledge, attitudes, and beliefs.

In her talk, Ostriker pointed out that in a metaphor the two things that are joined can neither be opposites nor be too similar. Comparing two things with no shared characteristics doesn’t work; there has to be enough similarity between the two so that the comparison makes sense. Comparing a woman’s hips, for example, to rain doesn’t really work (and I apologize to the song-writer who used this comparison). Hips are solid, powerful, meaty, sculped or bony. They do not share physical or other characteristics of rain, though maybe I’m missing something. Conversely, if there is too much familiarity (i.e. a teapot and a tea kettle) there is no point in comparing them.

(As a side-note, Ostriker also mentioned that language poetry – post-modern poetry – does not have metaphor which is a response to the increasing awareness of the suffering in the world. It is too painful to get so close to. She explained post-modernism as “modernism without the hope.” Scary).

While Ostriker takes on the serious side of metaphor, Tony Barnstone presents us with a fun exercise that gets to what Ostriker was referring to – getting to know the tenor through the vehicle. Barnstone was one of my mentors at Stonecoast and shared a Power Point he created on the “Controlled Surreal Image.” In it, he included an exercise of writing about shoes in a metaphorical way (see below in links). It is fun and gets to the idea of thinking of “one thing in terms of another.”

RELATED LINKS (Poems, Places, Books, Videos, Events, etc.):

Famous metaphors
Stealing the Language: The Emergence of Women’s Poetry in America, an amazing book by Alicia Ostriker, which was recommended by another of my mentors, Jeanne Marie Beaumont. Ostriker’s book is a must read for any poet, woman, or person interested in contemporary issues.
Barnstone Metaphor-Image Exercise