1. Emily Dickinson, “A narrow Fellow in the Grass”
Dickinson was annoyed when a friend published this poem as “The Snake”—she wanted no title, as if the poem were a riddle. Later, her family wasn’t happy about her independent stance, so they changed “Boy” to “child.” And uneasy about her slant rhymes, they changed “Noon” to “morn,” which rhymes better with “corn.” But in this famous poem’s suggestively sexual language, the flagrant words remain: “fellow,” “shaft,” “whip lash,” and then again “this Fellow,” a sort of churl. As for her “cordiality,” the heart (cor) in that word suffers near-angina at the end, “tighter breathing,” and brings on the poem’s only full rhyme, when “alone” gets audibly frozen into “Zero at the Bone.”
2. Gerard Manley Hopkins, “God’s Grandeur”
Not “The heavens declare the glory of God” (Psalm 19) but “The world is charged”—energized, loaded, entrusted, maybe even assailed—with God’s grandeur. Then two lines of monosyllables, every one bearing a stress or accent, labor under the Industrial Revolution—agricultural depression setting in, farmhands leaving for the city, technological gain breeding brutality, poverty, misery. The rough Anglo-Saxon “trod” overrides its rhyme word “God,” and “seared . . . bleared, smeared” grind out this waste. But the sonnet turns to our world (and God’s). And that “ah!” An astonished intake of breath turns a metrical moment into a moment of redemption.
3. Edna St. Vincent Millay, “Hearing your words, and not a word among them”
Add this to Millay’s bohemian candle burning at both ends when you’re looking to nature to put personal pangs in a new light. The sonnet’s opening and closing lines, blowing off unrequited love, leave (and frame) a throbbing island seascape, a Maine way of living a marine with its indigenous rhymes (“through the Gut” / “doors blew shut”), wavelike cadences, and local lingo.
4. George Oppen, “Psalm”
Why “Psalm”? Why that title for a poem that is about the closest possible encounter between humans and animals? Why the dots after “Veritas sequitur . . .” (“Truth follows . . .”)? Why “small” beauty, then eventually “small” nouns? Why is there no “I”—except maybe within the last line? What does “this in which” actually point to? It must be a fuller, more inclusive dimension than simply the forest. Remember the earlier California poet Robinson Jeffers, who praised the beauty of nature’s “organic wholeness” but said, “Love that, not man / Apart from that.”
5. William Stafford, “The Well Rising”
Ongoing participles in each stanza: “The well rising . . . the plowshare brimming,” then the stanza open-ending on a dash; rhyming lines 1 and 3 instead of 2 and 4 so we keep leaning, expecting some final statement. Then “the swallow heart from wing beat to wing beat / counseling decision, decision: thunderous examples.” But do swallows make decisions? And they’re examples of—what? Even the poem’s only full sentence, “I place my feet / with care in such a world,” still leaves that world unidentified. “Care” must be the point. Or, per Williams: “So much depends / upon // a red wheel / barrow. . . .”
6. Denise Levertov, “In California: Morning, Evening, Late January”
Teaching at Stanford for some years, Levertov brought there, as elsewhere, her interwoven passions for spirit and nature. This contemporary psalm joins praise to anger, emblazoned palm and pine to pesticide “poking” at weeds, “oakshadow” to “babel,” “Scripture of scintillas” to bulldozers, tying nature to history and the sacred, finding a phrase for it all: “Fragile paradise.” She asks “[w]ho can utter” the praise and shame of this world. By the end, we know who can.
7. Gary Snyder, “Kyoto: March”
Light flakes, weak sun, birdsong, plum buds—What’s the point? New moon, dove cry, dawn snow dusting the peak, clear air sharpening the gullied green. Maybe they’re the point: clean nouns, fresh verbs, beginnings, marked by breath and meditation. So much depends—in college, Snyder heard Williams read—upon seeing afresh and saying anew: “No ideas but in things.” Also from Snyder’s Riprap, see “Mid-August at Sourdough Mountain Lookout.”
8. Robert Hass, “Iowa City: Early April”
Pure wildness would mean D.H. Lawrence’s mountain lion, Elizabeth Bishop’s armadillo, Galway Kinnell’s bear, Ted Hughes’ pike. Here we meet suburban beasts, challenging because close to home. Language alone might solve the human-nonhuman standoff: the fawns’ “almost mincing precision,” the way Hass’s mind’s eye catches a deer’s “neck bobbing in that fragile-seeming, almost mechanical mix of arrest and liquid motion.” It’s the imagination’s deep, exact attentiveness that may give us the tact to live decently in this fragile, resilient world.
9. Pablo Neruda, “Floods”
Los pobres viven abajo esperando que el río / se levante en la noche y se los lleve al mar: “The poor live on low ground waiting for the river / to rise one night and sweep them out to sea.” You’d think nature would be impartial when it comes to floods. But not always. One stunning phrase drives this home: “snowy collars flutter on the line.” No water rises to a gentleman’s pristine, privileged collars, but the poor stay tied to forces of nature: Neruda sees “roughcut tables” and “the luckless trees” rolling past at flood level. They “bob and tumble,” which sounds playful until the poem closes where it began—on the poor, who like the luckless trees, are exposed like “bare root.”