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Maureen Scott Harris : Writing Philosophy

Maureen Scott Harris. Praising the World : a Statement About My Writing

Praising the World

The following essay was written in response to an invitation from CV2 to submit work for their Green Issue (vol. 32, issue, Summer 2009). It appears here with their permission.

Almost twilight on a day in early January. Looking out my window I see roofs partly covered with snow, smoke curling from chimneys, branches and twigs black against a dull white sky. A few moments ago a rustle and patter overhead - not the squirrels who have gnawed their way into our roof again, but a spate of rain. Who in Ontario expects rain in January? Or, for that matter, nearly 60 cm of snow in little more than a week in Vancouver? Changeable uncharacteristic weather is the norm this winter; everyone everywhere is talking about it.

Almost twilight on, if not already over, the edge of deep biological and cultural impoverishment. Species disappear now at the rate of one every ten minutes, while the local is steadily transformed into the generic, thick with concrete parking lots and franchise businesses. Where I live the air is often bad, water can be unsafe to drink, food is full of preservatives and hormones, traffic frequently at a standstill. Elsewhere languages are disappearing and people are starving to death. And now, as the newspapers blare daily, we must add economic entropy to the general entropy of the planet.

What are we called to by the suffering world? Change and reparation, certainly, but where and how to begin?

Poetry, with its responsiveness, its gifts for bearing witness, and both embodying and expressing emotion, may be the only form adequate to articulating fully the losses that unroll around us. But it's also able to shift angles of vision in essential ways, and so might true our perspective on what is happening and where we belong. It might remind us that, though twilight is overtaken by night, night is followed by dawn.

Barry Commoner's First Law of Ecology states: Everything is connected to everything else. This understanding was expressed poetically a couple of centuries ago by William Blake, when he wrote: For everything that lives is Holy, life delights in life. Contemporary nature poetry knows this truth. It also knows the world to be real and of value, in and for itself, not as the backdrop to human activities nor as a mirror reflecting us to ourselves.

Poetry makes connections, often surprising ones, and is interested in the relationships it can envisage among words, and among things. Lyric poetry's ravishment by detail, by the precise delights of the particular, and its urge to replicate that thinginess in its own being, map a way of attending to the world. Its marginal place in the culture, its strangeness to (if not estrangement from) ordinary ways of speaking and thinking, allow poetry to reveal insights and understandings unavailable by the culture's usual means. Its pleasure in change, shiftiness, metamorphosis, its refusal to be fully constrained by rules, even those of prosody, its evasion of sameness, its embrace of both regularity and brokenness, all make it impossible, like the world, to sum up in a series of simple statements. It cannot be fully explained. In this too it is like the world.

Change seems the dominant principle of life on this planet-crustal plates shift, weather blows hot and cold, the seasons fall into each other, organisms grow from infancy to adulthood changing in size and shape as they do, ideas change, beliefs change wrenchingly, history walks into the future, and we change our minds constantly.

In order to understand where we fit, human beings need to relearn who we are in the context of planetary life. We have evolved here and could not have evolved elsewhere. We are not separate, but woven intricately and intimately into the web of relationship and connection that constitutes it. Other beings do not exist for our use, though we live in a culture that for centuries has assumed humans are the pinnacle of development and rulers by divine right over everything else. Rooting out such assumptions is like trying to get rid of quackgrass in your lawn. But it's not impossible.

Metamorphosis may be the most radical form of change we know. What is required now is change, in us, as radical as metamorphosis. Biologically, metamorphosis — the root meaning of which is transformation — refers to the change in form from egg to adult of most if not all insects, and some other creatures such as frogs and toads. Human beings experience something like metamorphosis during adolescence, when the human brain undergoes structural changes. (No wonder teenagers spend so much time sleeping!) In the life cycle of the Monarch butterfly, when the larva is suspended in its chrysalis, most of its body breaks down into a semi-liquid — as if the caterpillar had melted — then slowly reconstitutes itself as the butterfly that emerges.

The process of metamorphosis involves a period of apparent rest or withdrawal, within which breakdown occurs, followed by re-formation. We need to break through old attitudes and understandings in order to articulate new principles that will guide us to live in a more just and harmonious way on the earth. A rebalancing is necessary. We are called not only to live in a different way, but to be in a different way. To do this requires taking time away from frenetic busyness to think deeply, and to attend to the world with reverence, allowing it to teach us alternative ways of being.

Metamorphosis is one of the great recognitions and preoccupations of poetry. In the first century AD, Ovid depicted it as the principle underlying everything, describing the creation and history of the world as a series of metamorphoses. Metaphor, one of poetry's central strategies, posits the identity of two different things, for an instant transforming one into the other — thereby being itself a small performance of metamorphosis.

The impulse to turn to the other-than-human world for consolation and delight is deeply human; our capacity to respond to that world says something solid and good about us, and indeed may be the precise thing that will let us shake off our narcissism and self-involvement enough to begin making the changes required.

As a nature poet, to borrow the words of A.R. Ammons, "it seems obvious to me that things and the world came first." The world and its things are the foundation of my practice. The world offers me some perception of itself, to which I respond; since language is my other passion, my response is words. I want to speak or write — not about the world so much as to it, in a kind of call and response, a dance between outer and inner. The world urges me towards language that will give vent to the pressure of inchoate unarticulated feeling and thought that rises when I attend to it.

Because we are part of the living world we have the capacity to be permeable to it: that is, to be seized by it. In fact we are hard-wired to be seized. When we spend time in nature, attentive and curious, we are cast back on our senses; our experience begins in our bodies, not our minds. As the world opens us we are variously delighted, awe-filled, grateful, astonished, terrified, reverent. The knowingness of this experience teaches us something of where we belong. It enters language naturally as poetry, particularly lyric poetry. Reading poems that present moments of permeability confirms such experiences in our lives, showing us what it is like to be at home.

Lyric poetry is thus a powerful strategy for reparation. Inhabiting the territory of shifting and divagatory meaning, it understands metamorphosis. Because it rises from the body it links us to its subjects viscerally. Attending to poetry's engaged response to the world whether as reader or writer, we feel the connections between ourselves and the rest of the planet. We need to change our behaviour and activities, to drive less, consume less, live within our means. But such changes, to be lasting, must be rooted deep within both psyche and body, carried by structures of understanding and belief that reflect the truth of our place within the complex web of relationships that make up the planet.

Both poetry and the world are sources of deep pleasure. Drawn by those pleasures we learn the weight of meaning that lies in the world, meaning in which we participate whether we know it or not. What delight to discover ourselves part of the whole! Poetry that attends to the world loves to praise it; in doing so it calls upon what is holy in us to greet what is holy in the world — as Blake said, life delighting in life.

Maureen Scott Harris

Maureen Scott Harris's works copyright © to the author.

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