Literary Magazine

On the Nature of Poetry: Treading the path already taken.

“It was the month of May.

Trees in Harvard Yard

Were turning a young green.

There was whispering everywhere.”


In Canopy Heaney describes how someone had installed speakers amongst the branches of a tree in Harvard and how the whispering voices emanating from these speakers seemed to become the voice of the leaves, the tree, the earth itself, rising up and reminding us of its dominance.

One of the hardest things about writing is deciding what to write about. Nature is a recurring theme that we come across in all forms of literature and art, and it is ubiquitous in poetry. The beauty of the natural world is inspiring, euphoric and the desire to capture it in words can be irresistible but also desperately difficult. After all, how can a person write about nature without falling into cliché and repetition? Many of us can’t look at a daffodil without memories of schoolbooks and Wordsworth’s lonely wanderings springing to mind. The lyricism and vividness of the great nature poets such as Wordsworth, Shelly, Tennyson and Frost are daunting footsteps to follow in and often I have sat down and started to try and write about something of natural beauty, only to walk away in frustration knowing that it has  been said before and said better by someone else.

Why do we feel the need to return to nature so often as a source of inspiration? Perhaps it is because it is a reminder of our mortality, our impermanence, that all that we value is fleeting and ephemeral. Or perhaps we are trying to dominate it by trapping it in words, pinning it down as a lepidopterist does a butterfly.  Whatever our reasons, it is hard to find a poet in the literary canon who hasn’t embraced nature as a theme at some point.

I think the thing to remember however, is that when we write about something, it is our interpretation that we are conveying above all. A subject might have been written about hundreds of times already, but two different writers will write about a similar topic in completely dissimilar ways. Just as a Van Gogh landscape is different to a Monet landscape, a writer’s voice and individual style is what distinguishes him/her from another.  With this in mind, rather than being put off tackling a particular topic or theme because we feel it has been done already, we should embrace the opportunity to deconstruct and reinterpret it in our own particular way.

Writing is a difficult process, one that has to be practiced and honed over time. If we find a theme or topic that inspires us, we should run with it. In the words of Heaney, we all must navigate and find our place somewhere between the horizon and the dictionary.

Author: Anne Daly

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