Nalini Paul: The Place and the Personal in Nature Poetry
Place and the senses
Writing about nature is not all pastoral and stunning landscapes, though it can be these things. The genre offers unlimited scope for exploring hidden meanings, allowing the physical to influence and shape the abstract. Mountains, rivers and breathtaking views will trigger something beneath the surface, subliminal or subconscious.
The genre offers unlimited scope
Physical activity in the outdoors can inspire a poem’s deeper meaning, taking it beyond a simple, pretty description of a landscape. I often ask myself, ‘What is this poem really about (besides the place and/or sensations it describes)?
Place and sensation, the feeling of walking up a hill or a mountain or through a glen on a crisp autumn evening; looking at a seascape towards the Isle of Hoy in Orkney (where I lived for a year); or the smell of heather and peat after a springtime rain… these are all evocative of place.
Place and memory
Place for me, however, is rarely, if ever, confined to the physical setting of my poems. I may start with a striking or unusual visual image (such as a dead moth flattened inside a poetry book), and explore what that image inspires.
Or the sensation of being in a landscape, on a walk that is well underway, which leads to an engagement with the present and a connection to the place I find myself in, may tap into deeper meanings. These may be actual memories of growing up in Canada – I spent a lot of time in the outdoors and did a lot camping. Though I find myself walking through the woods at Chatelherault, something about the light, the smell of Sitka Spruce, the birdsong, may trigger what it was like to be in Canada as a child or adolescent.
Poetry can act as a conduit
It is that qualia, the ‘what-it-is-like-to-be’, which often inspires my writing. Poetry can act as a conduit between one’s perceptions and the act of reaching into the world ‘out there’ through language, communicating an idea or a feeling. Memory often takes place unexpectedly in these instances, so it’s important to write them down before they escape.
The personal as political
My nature poetry has, for a long time, had elements of the political – exploring issues of race, gender and identity. Striking the right balance between making political statements and achieving subtlety is a tricky one. It is a case of channelling your emotions, what you feel passionately about, through the discipline of writing – deciding what to withhold and what to convey – allowing the writing to really shine. Through this channelling, you can get your point(s) across without alienating people or sounding didactic.
Writing within the boundaries of a form, such as haiku, can help to distill the poem to its essence. Free verse, on the other hand, can offer a broader scope for exploring a connection between the abstract and the concrete, between memories, emotions and physical sensations.
A poem may be shaped through the exploration of an idea, such as the ways in which light and landscape reveal hidden memories and create a constantly changing sense of self. The landscape, which also changes, offers an uplifting way of exploring these connections.
Nalini was a one of our Robert Louis Steveson Fellows in 2017 and spent a month in France working on her first full poetry collection, inspired by the Bhagavad Gita and her mixed background. Find out more about the RLS Fellowship or read a poem inspired by her time there.
Image by FrankWinkler on Pixabay.