Naming the Natural World
I worked with a newspaper editor once who groused he had forgotten more about journalism than his boss had ever learned. That quote came to mind when I read an essay by Pattiann Rogers in The Georgia Review about her new book, Quickening Fields. The poetry collection had an unusual genesis—she was sorting through her basement and found poems that had been published in literary journals but hadn’t appeared in her 12 previous collections. At the same time, an editor wrote to her about how he had enjoyed teaching “Finding the Cat in a Spring Field at Midnight,” which had been published in Poetry in December 1982 but never elsewhere. She realized that there might be value in similar poems from the journals stacked downstairs.
The resulting volume, recently published by Penguin, includes 33 early poems plus 20 new ones. Rogers started the process of considering which poems to include by navigating piles of literary magazines sorted by letter on the basement floor, which “began to look something like a small city with streets running amongst twenty-six buildings on the rise,” she wrote. Because of her prolific output, she was able to forget—and, thankfully, rediscovered—more gem-like, book-worthy poems than many of us will ever write.
Rogers’s literary credentials are impressive, and her influence reaches far. Gregory Pardlo, who won the 2015 Pulitzer Prize in poetry, said it was one of her poems, with “the hand reaching out of a poem,” that started him writing poetry.
Her celebrations of science in poems such as “The Idea of Zero on a Moonless Night” and “Statement Preliminary to the Invention of Solace” and her approachable yet profound spiritual connection to the Earth in poems such as “The Verification of Vulnerability: Bog Turtle” delight, entertain, and elevate.
The following interview, by phone from Rogers’s home in Colorado, was edited and condensed.
I have always been amazed by your vocabulary and usually have a dozen words to look up after reading one of your books. Where do you get your words?
There was a point in my life when I began to realize that everything has a name [laughs]. Walking through a forest and finding that all those leaves and branches and trunks were individual things that had names and were oak or elm or sassafras or sumac and being someone that loves language, I thought, “Oh my goodness.” I began to buy field books, and later my husband and I would walk together, identifying the trees.
Of course, you’re never through learning everything, every word about every tree and every leaf is just the beginning. That was a revelation. I could see more. It was like everything being much more than I’d ever realized, and that was just for one small area of the natural world. And I think discovering this outside the school, the classroom—it wasn’t like I had to sit down and memorize parts of a plant. I’m out there, I’m around and in it all, and I liked it anyway before I began to realize there was this vocabulary. I’d actually get tears in my eyes, opening a field guide to wildflowers. There it is, a whole book, an entire book of names! It seemed endless and wonderful.
How does the time you spend in nature become more meaningful when you know these names?
Well, I think naming is a form of honoring something. I used to feel sorry for stars that didn’t have names, because I believe a name is a sign of respect and honor. Recently I heard someone say, “Words make thought possible.” This is something most of us realize, but it’s succinctly said. In natural history museums, usually there will be a terrarium or something similar full of living items not identified by their names. Children are generally asked, “What do you see in the terrarium?” They need the names of the items to answer that question. Sometimes, without a name, they miss seeing the item altogether.
How similar are you to the narrator of your poems?
I think people are disappointed when they meet me. They think I’m the person who wrote the poems, which I am, but I’m just a person. I just wrote a poem—that’s all. Sometimes I think I’m trying to create the person I wish I could be, but I’m not the person readers might think the poems suggest. I can be a much better person in my writing than I could ever be in real life.
You come across as worshipful and delighted, and it would be really hard to be that way all day long, I’d think.
Ask my husband. On second thought, don’t ask him. Well, that worship and delight is still there but suppressed when a child falls down and scrapes a knee or the dog is barking at the mailman or the pot is boiling over. Or as Robert Frost says in “Birches,” “When Truth broke in / With all her matter-of-fact….”
I was interested in your poem in Quickening Fields in which everything turned gray. It felt like a real leave-taking, and I was glad that it wasn’t one of the recent poems in the collection.
That’s “The Abandonment.” Some early poems really did not fit in any of my books, and this is one of them. The tone of that voice just didn’t fit in with the majority of my poems at that time. It’s a poem about language and art and observations and reality. As far as the poem and poet in the moment described are concerned, when observation and naming cease and the poet sleeps, nothing exists. Creation stops. Observation stops. The pen rolls off the edge of the page. It addresses an old question, an old thought actually: if a tree falls in a forest and no one is around to hear it, does it make a sound? And there’s a slightly similar question in subatomic physics too. When the poet goes to sleep, no observation, no creation, does everything disappear? I thought this interesting question ought to be in my work now, at this time.
Is there any topic you have trouble writing about?
I used to marvel about writers who could write genuinely good poems about their children. Any mother’s child is a human being who possesses all the flaws and qualities that have traditionally been considered repulsive about human beings, yet most mothers have the deepest, most enduring love possible for that child. Most mothers have cleaned blood off the floor from a child’s cut, cleaned vomit, wiped noses, washed bodies and diapers, and still that love is stronger than any of that, and that’s not even talking about a child’s disobedient behavior or rudeness. A mother’s love lasts through anything, surpasses anything. I’ve written two essays, “Cradle” and “For Me Mothers and the Mothers of Mothers…” which is a line from Whitman, about the subject of this remarkable love, especially a mother for her child and often with the father for the child too. I believe I’ve written interesting and passably good essays about this love, but I haven’t been able to write poems about it.
That’s what is hard to convey. I cannot write poems about my children. They are part of many of my poems but not identified as my children. And I think it is partly because there was no literary example to work with or against. The subject was missing. Unless anecdotal or superficial or clichéd, the subject was not there. It’s so important for women who are mothers to be able to express this kind of love in poetry; the literature needs it.
When I started writing, the confessional poets were prominent, and I knew from the beginning I didn’t want to write about myself. I just knew I didn’t want to. I wanted to ask questions. I wanted to explore with language. I wanted to try to express my excitement and fascination with the worlds around me, especially outdoors, other living beings.
I wanted to write about what science was telling us about the physical world. I feel the story of the cosmos that science is in the process of discovering and telling is enthralling and mysterious and amazing. Poets 35 and 40 years ago were not writing about that, though many more are now. They weren’t writing about that feeling of how magnificent this world, the universe, is, how intimate it is.
I was fortunate in that I did get some encouragement at the University of Houston, from Cynthia Macdonald, in one of the first workshops I had with people face-to-face, as opposed to via the mail. People in the workshop were looking at my work, every comma, every space, every word, and Cynthia was very good as a teacher for me because she did not try to impose her own aesthetic on what I or anyone in the workshop was writing. She tried to see what it was we were trying to do and help us get there. She was a very helpful audience. Whitman said great poets need great audiences. A great audience can demand more of what you’re doing or demand the very best of what you can do. Great audiences appreciate great achievements, so that demand is always there.
But you have to be careful of traps you might fall into, writing the same thing over and over to meet the demands of an appreciative audience. I really reached a point once where I did not want another animal in my poems. No more animals! So I started to write about human-created things. But the animals came slipping back in. I couldn’t keep them out.
Do you have an audience in mind when you’re writing a poem?
I do. Sometimes it’s very specific. When writing, I’m aiming for a specific communication to take place, and if I don’t imagine a communication taking place, then it’s not likely to happen. The audience can be yourself or the person you would like to be. I have four or five different audiences I imagine receiving my poem, and the audience I imagine influences the voice of my poem, the stance and the tone. If I’m writing something to please a creator, God or some being or essence that has an overall understanding of what’s happening here, like we don’t, then the voice may be prayerful or beseeching, sometimes angry, questing. It’s a prayer—“Do I understand this right?” It’s questioning, but it’s questioning a being or an entity that I imagine can answer—whether I receive an answer or not. The stance, the tone, the vocabulary shifts slightly depending on the audience I imagine. Imagining a perfect audience might produce a perfect poem!
Or if I’m writing to a lover, of course it’s a different voice altogether, maybe enticing or praising the body, erotic. Often the audience I imagine when I’m writing a description of the physical world is all those who are moved with me to celebrate the physical world. The voice is celebratory, unrestrained—“I’m happy, look at those seven large magpies all perched in that spindly little tree, this makes me happy”—just a joyful voice, and in that joy is a thank you too.
Whoever you have in mind as an audience is either going to limit that poem or have the possibility to strengthen it. For instance, people who’ve been in a workshop for a very long time begin to understand what kind of poem the workshop participants want to hear. Then a poet might unconsciously let them shape the poem with their desires. It isn’t a bad thing all the time.
What do you find to be the poetic power of lists?
I love lists. They energize me. Look at anything—wildflowers, birds, bugs, beetles, the seashore—and there are so many words, beautiful words, lyrical words describing the Earth and universe, a great resource for poets. With so many words, it’s easy to compose alliteration, assonance and off-rhymes and full rhymes and cadences. It’s just easy to put them in a musical order, and that creates a power. That music, it’s a power, and it’s evocative. Music involves the body. It makes me happy. It’s a trick, and one I don’t want to announce too loudly [laughs], but some people haven’t discovered it.
A faculty member where I was giving a reading said to me, “It doesn’t matter what you’re listing; the list turns out to be a celebration.” That’s almost true. I don’t know if it’s true about everything, but most things, once you start listing them, can be a celebration created by the music of the poem. But it seems to me that you can’t just list things helter-skelter. You have to put them in an order. I think you have to have something surprising in the list and music and know when to stop. I don’t always know when to stop, and you can’t wear your readers out. A successful list requires some talent and skill. You can’t just list anything and have it be a celebration. It can fall flat.
I like to look at The Pillow Book of Sei Shōnagon, written by a court lady in tenth-century Japan who kept a book full of different thoughts and notes and observations. Interspersed in this are lists. I like to read it because she’s so carefree, honest, and totally opinionated. She wrote one list titled “Things that are hateful,” a very humorous list. For instance, she finds it hateful when a lover gets out of bed at dawn and scurries around putting his clothes on, leaving in a hurry. Among other items in her list of “Elegant things,” she includes “plum blossoms filled with snow” and “a pretty child eating strawberries.”
She lived centuries ago in a totally different culture, yet I understand her perfectly. Sei Shōnagon hates it when someone sneezes. I’m like that. When someone sneezes, irritation just wells up in me. The sneeze interrupts everything. It interrupts the pace of whatever is happening, a conversation or a concert or a poetry reading, diverting attention like a firecracker going off. Once I told one of my classes about how it irritates me when someone sneezes; later I found out that they were all very afraid they might sneeze in class. I was sorry for that. I taught The Pillow Book of Sei Shōnagon a couple of times, to give my students a different sense of what poetry can be. It’s not typical of any other kind of poetry, not sonnets or stanzas or haikus or traditional forms, yet at least translated by Ivan Morris, practically all of it is pure poetry.
Who do you want your audience to be when you give readings of your work?
A lot of it was picked up by environmentalists, so that was good. They were wonderful audiences, often along with biologists and landscape architects and people who worked with the national or state parks.
I had done a lot of writing with scientists in mind as an audience because I wanted it to be interesting to them. I wanted them to feel that there were artists who were moved by their work and trying to express it in their own art.
When I was in college, I read an essay by Richard Feynman, a Nobel-winning physicist, titled “The Value of Science.” In one section of that essay, “The Grand Adventure,” he describes the process of science. “The same thrill, the same awe and mystery, come again and again when we look at any problem deeply enough…we turn over each new stone to find unimagined strangeness leading on to more wonderful questions and mysteries. …” Then the two sentences that stunned me: “It is true that few unscientific people have this particular type of religious experience. Our poets do not write about it, our artists do not try to portray this remarkable thing. … Is nobody inspired by our present picture of the universe?” He called what I had been experiencing … “a religious experience.” I knew then that this is what I wanted to write about.
How did you start to tackle honoring the discoveries of science?
I have never forgotten the first time I finally wrote a poem I thought captured the voice and the tone and the imagery that allowed me to successfully include some scientific terms and thought within it. I remember taking the final draft of the poem from the typewriter and saying to my husband, “I think I did it this time.” The poem is “The Rites of Passage” in my first book, The Expectations of Light.
As an undergraduate, I minored in zoology. One of my professors was doing research with frog eggs. There were many discussions about the development of frog eggs. I had acquired a frog egg vocabulary. Our class went out one night and caught and tagged frogs in a forested pond, to number them and trace their activities. I used that vocabulary in the poem along with the imagery of the nighttime tagging event.
I asked myself: what could knowledge of the development of a frog egg mean to the human soul? That question was the essential challenge of the poem. I began to feel as I wrote the poem that I was learning how to respond to such a question poetically. From then on, after finishing this poem, I wrote poems as fast as I could because I was afraid I wouldn’t be able to do it again, that I would forget how to get to the voice, the stance, and the words I needed.
Did capturing that stance help you become so prolific?
I used to feel that I didn’t want to neglect any living creature in my writing. I wanted every living creature to be mentioned in a poem or have a poem of its own. I do have a poem to a one-cell creature finally, in Wayfare. I don’t expect to get every beetle mentioned—too many kinds of beetles. When you have a goal like this, it’s hard to be bored.
Is abundance a conscious theme of yours? Your lists illustrate the abundance of the world, and Quickening Fields owes its existence to an abundance of poems in boxes in your basement. How does the idea of abundance figure in when you are writing?
Every once in a while, a Robert Louis Stevenson rhyme comes to my mind: “The world is so full of a number of things, I’m sure we should all be as happy as kings.” I wanted to express that abundance because people, I think, suffer more from boredom than anything else. Why do they get in trouble? They get bored, they have to do something, and often it’s something destructive. They get frustrated when they’re bored. I know that’s the most painful thing for me, to be bored, so I thought, that’s just because you’re not aware of everything that’s going on around you on the Earth.
How do the new poems in the collection differ from those previously published in magazines?
A lot of these earlier poems are from the eighties, 30 or so years ago, and life changes. The situations you deal with as you try to write change. Nothing stays the same. The birth of my grandchildren really distracted me. I haven’t made any conscious changes, but I sense that the new work is maybe a little more deliberate, a little slower maybe in tempo—you know I’m slower in tempo too!
Does it seem right for a grandmother to write love poems? I could, but I’m hesitant about it. That’s a change from the earlier work.
I still like to take risks, like to change a phrase or the definition of a word as it’s normally used. In Quickening Fields, I have a section of poems titled “Seven Variations on Redefinition,” in which I play around with the language of a term or a typical way of perceiving or thinking to see what happens.
Are you still writing fresh poems?
Not like I used to when I worked on three or four poems at the same time. That was close to the time I found the kind of voice that allowed me to express some of the things I wanted to do, when a lot of pent-up things hadn’t gotten written yet, because I didn’t know how to do it.
Now I’m slower. I’ve never finished a poem in a day. I have to let it sit overnight at least, to see whether it’s working or isn’t. A typical poem goes through 30 or so drafts, but that’s always been true of my writing. I do know it takes a lot of energy and stamina to write. You can write something that’s mediocre and passable without getting tired, actually physically tired. But if I’m trying to write something original, that I never heard before or never thought before, at that kind of discovery point I have to concentrate very intently. And that’s tiring [laughs].
I always found it comforting that Einstein came up with only three original ideas. Of course, they were hugely original. Of course, I’m no Einstein. [laughs]. To try to say something in a way it’s never been said before, even by yourself, and something that also creates a new perception is not easy. At least for me it isn’t easy.
Tina Kelley is the author of Abloom and Awry, Precise, and The Gospel of Galore, winner of a 2003 Washington State Book Award. She coauthored Almost Home: Helping Kids Move from Homelessness to Hope, and she reported for the New York Times for 10 years, sharing a staff Pulitzer Prize for 9/11 coverage.