TOPICS > Arts

Floods, Fires, Storms Are Fodder for Centuries of Poems

July 19, 2011 at 12:00 AM EST
In a year of floods, fires and storms making headlines around the world, poet and editor Jeffrey Yang chronicles how writers have grappled with the power of nature over the centuries in his new book. Jeffrey Brown and Yang discuss the poetic perspective of the beauty and power of nature.
LISTEN SEE PODCASTS

TRANSCRIPT

JEFFREY BROWN: And finally tonight, in a year of floods, fires and storms, we hear from poet and editor Jeffrey Yang at the High Line in New York City on how poets have grappled with the power of nature over the centuries.

JEFFREY YANG, New Directions Publishing: “The error consisted in believing that the Earth was ours, when the reality of the situation is that we belong to the Earth.”

My name is Jeffrey Yang. And I work as an editor at New Directions Publishing. I have been there 11 years. I am also a poet.

And for our 75th anniversary this year at New Directions, I edited this collection of nature poems called “Birds, Beasts, and Seas” that is culled from 75 years of New Directions Publishing history.

We have seen so many different natural disasters this year, with floods and wildfires in this country, the tsunami in Japan. It gets on people’s minds a lot.

I think poetry in general brings us to a certain kind of awareness about things. With nature poetry, a lot of these poems might not come directly out of, say, a natural disaster, but a lot of the poems, I think, relate to what is happening. And a lot of it is about how we heal in a lot of ways from these disasters.

How does our mind function in nature and what — how is this a part of nature? A lot of these poems kind of speak to that as well.

This is William Everson’s poem “We in the Fields.”

“We in the fields, the watchers from the burnt slope, facing the west, facing the bright sky, hopelessly longing to know the red beauty, but the unable eyes, the too-small intelligence, the insufficient organs of reception, not a thousandth part enough to take and retain.

“We stared, and no speaking, and felt the deep loneness of incomprehension. The flesh must turn cloud, the spirit, air, transformation to sky and the burning, absolute oneness with the west and the down sun.

“But we, being earth-struck, watched from the fields, ’til the rising rim shut out the light, ’til the sky changed, the long wounds healed, ’til the rain fell.”

He is writing from the perspective of a poet watching these fires coming, but unable to understand what is really happening. From what I saw editing this, the earliest poetry coming out of the Chinese and Greek, and on through, is, really, there is this mystery that is at the heart of nature, of not able to understand it.

This is Gottfried Benn’s poem “Epilogue.”

“The drunken torrents are falling. The blueness is dying now, and the corals are pale as the water round the island of Palau. The drunken torrents are broken, grown alien, to you, to me, our only possession the silence of a bone washed clean by the sea. The floods, the flames, the questions, ’til the ashes tell you one day life is the building of bridges over rivers that seep away.”