The Poetry of Earth Is Never Dead


The title of this essay comes from the English poet John Keats. A person with a bat’s ear for poetry and an eagle’s eye for nature (which Keats, Wordsworth, Whitman, Dickinson, Rumi and other genius poets possessed) would even say that the poetry of earth is the distilled wisdom of the human life because in reality we live in and learn (knowingly or without acknowledging) from the natural world. Even our large cities are located within still larger natural settings – on a foothill, a river plain, the edge of a desert, or an ancient lake (for example, Salt Lake City, where I live), and so on. Nature and poetry: Each of these gives us inspiration, insight and joy, but a combination of them is magical.

I do not believe that there was any golden age in the past. All calls of “returning” to a particular period, place, or social system in the past seem to me to be distorted visions of history and twisted thoughts on the human nature. Human societies, now as before, have lived with greed and generosity, violence and love, envy and sacrifice, joy and sorrow, wisdom and stupidity, and so on. A Buddhist teaching says that we carry all these “seeds” within us all the time; it just depends on which seeds we let grow and fashion our life. Nevertheless, the modern lifestyle has increasingly been dominated by two factors: First, materialistic living; second, a fast tempo of social and individual life.

By materialistic lifestyle I mean the unprecedented manufacture, use (and waste) of goods and gadgets in a way that they have come to define the purpose of life itself. It is true that new materials and increased energy consumption have raised our living standards and physical comforts, and few of us would want to live without electricity and refrigerator, for instance. However, many people would also agree that relentless material consumerism filling our time, mind, space, and society at the expense of nature, morality, spiritual freedom, and happiness is not ideal. Something is out of balance here. In addition, the tempo of our life activities is increasingly being determined by computerized systems. Again please do not misunderstand me. I love being able to write this essay on a computer and send it by email or upload in a minute or so. But as humans we cannot compete with computers and digital systems; they have already beaten us in data storage, punctuality, calculation, and chess game; and perhaps it is unwise and unhealthy to let them control the tempo of our living – individually and socially. Here again the choice is not simply between black and white. Nonetheless, something is out of balance.

A combination of the materialistic and fast-paced life has left many of us with little time or even capability to go inward, to enjoy being alone in a meditative mood, and enjoy the freshness of the world around us and the life within us. The key solution to this problem is how to balance our life. This task, of course, requires individual effort but is not without social effects as well. Fortunately we have various tools to balance our life and make it a whole. Nature and poetry offer two of them. Whether we are religious or secular, being in touch with nature and enjoying poetry will be helpful because both of them require us to take time, relax, be one with existence, and look at reality, both inward and outward. Poetry inspired by nature has many dimensions and applications, and all of these are valid in their own ways. Some poets are religious and see the Divine through nature; some poets like to express environmentalist sentiments. A mystic poet may say that when he or she is saying a poem about nature, in fact, it is nature saying the poem through him or her. Consider this famous Japanese haiku by the thirteenth century Zen master Dogen:

In Spring: Cherry blossoms.
In Summer: The Cuckoo’s song.
In Autumn: Moonlight.
In Winter: Frozen snow.
How fresh are the seasons!

Who is saying this poem? Dogen or the four seasons of nature reflected and articulated in him? Perhaps both the poet and nature.
One can also find poems deriving spiritual insights from observation of nature. Consider, for example, this line from Rumi:
Be like melting snow: Wash yourself of yourself.

What a wonderful insight permeates this brief line, and the elegant way it correlates the melting snow to the purification of our life from the small, greedy, suffering ego. I had read this line many years ago, but it dawned on me the other day in an absolutely beautiful setting. Salt Lake City is actually a city of snow (this year we had snow on May 24!). And I enjoy the snow – both its falling on the ground and its melting. The other day, after our last snow, I was walking in a park. This particular park has a lake and the lofty snowy Wasatch Mountains on its eastern side just makes gorgeous background scenery to watch. Streams bring water from the mountain down to the valley, and one of them feeds water to this park’s lake. And that day, the stream was full of water running majestically through the park. Then I reflected on Rumi’s poem: How the melting snow had washed itself of itself and had become the running water, the lake, the green grass and trees that birds and people were enjoying that day. How can a poet come to such insights? John Muir has answered this question from his own experience: “I only went out for a walk and finally concluded to stay out till sundown, for going out, I found, I was really going in.”

It is impossible to forecast the humanity’s future, but perhaps as long as people are in an intimate contact with nature and continue to create paintings, songs, music, poetry and other art forms, we can be hopeful. Recently I came across a new, voluminous book entitled, Can Poetry Save the Planet? (by John Felstiner, 2009). A very nice piece of scholarly work, but it is title is not my favorite: Earth does not need our salvation; the question rather is: Can poetry with the help of Earth save us from ourselves? And the answer, I believe, is affirmative. Because by going out, we go inward; we become the melting snow. And a right step in this direction is to introduce (or expand) nature and poetry programs to our children’s education and upbringing, and let the children enjoy and participate in nature and poetry. Our society, thinking, and lifestyle will then be different, and for better. As for us, the adults, enjoying nature and poetry are not very costly, but they require time and our attentive eyes, ears, body, and mind.

“The poetry of earth is never dead.” In other words, the poetry of earth is fresh and lively; it brings balance to our life because it brings our mind and soul closer to reality, closer to the mountain, to the stream, and melting snow.

For more of my poetry translations and essays visit

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