“The tree which moves some to tears of joy is in the eyes of others only a green thing that stands in the way. Some see nature all ridicule and deformity… and some scarce see nature at all. But to the eyes of a man of imagination, nature is imagination itself.” ―William Blake, in a letter.
William Blake is one of the first poets I loved to read. Perhaps it was his darker poetry or maybe it was his drawings in the collection I had. The quote above is just a glimpse at his poetic thought. Today, Poet Hilde Weisert offers her thoughts on nature and inspiration.
Please give her a warm welcome.
That quote from a letter of William Blake’s is especially apropos right now, with yesterday Earth Day and a day of Marches for Science around the world, and Poetry Month the month we are in. What Blake saw is what we need to see now, that there is no separation between the natural world and our complementary ways of seeing and understanding it, through science and through the imagination.
I stumbled on the quote late one night many years ago when I was desperately paging through books looking for inspiration for a poem I was expected, as poet in residence at a large school system, to write, and then to read to the entire faculty on the opening day of school – the next day! It was to be an original poem on the theme for the year: Science, and specifically what the rainforest can teach us about diversity.
That is clearly a brilliant concept (the woman who conceived the program was and is a brilliant woman) and a great way to introduce poetry outside the usual “poetry unit.” I had educated myself enough about the rainforest to know, conceptually, that it indeed has volumes to teach us about diversity – millions of different life forms all existing in harmony, interdependence, and beauty. But write a poem about that? By 11 PM on the eve of my reading, the floor around my desk was littered with crumpled sheets from my yellow legal pad, each with some variation of why the rainforest is good, and why we should preserve it, and how our lives depend on it, and if its diversity matters, children, so does yours.
Like political or preaching “poems” so often are, all just words. Words coming from my head, and even my heart – because I did truly care about the rainforest and certainly about diversity – but there was some other essential part of poetry-making that was not engaged.
And then I found the excerpt from a letter of Blake’s. Nature is imagination itself.
That’s what’s at stake. If we lose our ability to see the natural world, we lose something essential inside ourselves, what W.S. Merwin said, in his Inaugural Address as Poet Laureate in 2010, may be what makes us uniquely human. And allows us to see the many ways in which we are, gloriously, different from and yet connected to all the beings in the natural world, as well as each other. To celebrate, with a kind of tingle in our imagination-nerve, when science discovers that the octopus, far from being mentally slow and lumbering, is remarkably intelligent and constantly learning. That trees, according to David Haskell in The Songs of Trees, are “nature’s great connectors,” part of vast networks. That crows know the faces of people who have harmed them.
For those of us in the northern hemisphere, National Poetry Month coincides with spring; in the southern hemisphere, with fall. Both are seasons that offer daily opportunities to see all around us the marvels that (I will change Blake’s line a little) a person of imagination can see. Which, I believe, can give us poetry, and give us ourselves.
What about you? What is essential to your imagination?
Here’s the poem I wrote, with Blake’s help.
Imagination Itself To the eyes of the man of imagination, Nature is imagination itself. — William Blake Who needs half a million unpronounceable forms of life Half a world away? Ah, you do, they say, And enumerate the ways: Glues, dyes, inks, Peanuts, melons, tea, Golf balls, paint, and gum, Mung beans, lemons, rice, And a fourth of all the medicines you take, And a fifth of all the oxygen you breathe, And countless life-prolonging secrets their wild cousins know to tell the Iowa corn and the garden tomato. And if that's not enough, think of rubber- and where we'd all be, rattling down the Interstate on wooden wheels. And that's only the stuff we know how to use, And that's only the half-million species we know how to name. And in the time it took to tell you this Five thousand acres more are gone. And by the time that this year's kindergarten class is thirty-five, most of what is now alive — But wait. What if — What if this deluge of mind-boggling statistical connectedness were, true as it is, only the least of it? What if the real necessity were of another kind, the connection not with what you consume, or do, but who you are? With your own imagination, the necessity there of places that have not been cleared to till, of the luxury of all that buzzing in the deep, of a glimpse of feather or translucent insect wing a color that's so new it tells you light and sound are, indeed, just matters of degree, and makes your vision hum And makes you think the universe could hum in something like the wild, teeming equilibrium of the rain forest.
From The Scheme of Things, David Robert Books, 2015, and published originally in The Sun.
About the Poet:
Hilde Weisert‘s collection The Scheme of Things was published in 2015 by David Robert Books. Her poem, “The Pity of It,” was winner of the 2016 Tiferet Poetry Award, and she’s had poems in such magazines as Ms, Prairie Schooner, The Cortland Review, Calyx, and several anthologies. She lives in Chapel Hill, N.C., and Sandisfield, Mass.