Luther Hughes’ You Smell Like Outside: The Nature Poem
“You Smell Like Outside” is Luther Hughes’ wonderful column for Frontier where he seeks to answer the question every month: can poetry help us with our real, day-to-day life? For October, Luther turns toward craft, with an insightful and interrogative eye on the nature poem.
The Nature Poem
For a long time, I figured nature poems have only done one thing: talk about nature. In my earlier years of poetry, I was obsessed with the idea of poems having to “say something,” so when I came across one of my favorite poems during those years, “The Negro Speaks of Rivers,” by Langston Hughes, I didn’t consider it a “nature” poem, or, which is probably just as likely, wasn’t presented to me as a nature poem but a Black poem by a Black writer. Both are true. In fact, if you allow me the permission, “The Negro Speaks of Rivers” is a wonderful example of what nature poems (and poems in general) can do; it shows that nature is more than, just, well, flowers and trees. This is not to say nature poems necessarily need to do more or be about more than just observation of nature. Those poems have a place, too.
In the essay, “We Must Be Careful” by Ed Roberson in black nature, an anthology of nature poems by Black writers, edited by Camille T. Dungy, Roberson writes:
Today’s ecologically conscious poet sees the world of human existence resting in, on, or arising, precipitating out of the Earth: out of all life, out of Nature. The nature poem occurs when an individual’s sense of the larger Earth enters into the world of human knowledge. The main understanding that results from this encounter is the Ecopoetic: that the world’s desires do not run the Earth, but the Earth does run the world.
This really broadens the idea of what nature poems can do, are. Or, more so, it tells me that nature poems, or eco-poetry, is more than “the human,” and pushes past idiosyncratic woes of the flesh. I guess this is why, in my formative years of studying poetry, I never understood the pull of nature poems, having came to poetry with my own desires. This is also why “The Negro Speaks of Rivers” didn’t feel like a “nature” poem, because what I got from the poem was less about the Earth, but more about the history of Black lives, culture, and bloodline. Before getting deeper into this conversation, here’s “The Negro Speaks of Rivers”:
I’ve known rivers:
I’ve known rivers ancient as the world and older than the flow of human blood in human
My soul has grown deep like the rivers.
I bathed in the Euphrates when dawns were young.
I built my hut near the Congo and it lulled me to sleep.
I looked upon the Nile and raised the pyramids above it.
I heard the singing of the Mississippi when Abe Lincoln went down to New Orleans, and
I’ve seen its muddy bosom turn all golden in the sunset.
I’ve known rivers:
Ancient, dusky rivers.
My soul has grown deep like the rivers.
One thing to notice off-top is Hughes speaks immediately of the human experience, using words like, “ancient,” “human,” “blood,” and “veins.” All of which are relatable. Hughes then moves to develop these things by incorporating history: Euphrates, Congo, Nile, Mississippi, New Orleans—making sure to collapse history, saying we all belong to one thread. Notice this happens after announcing: “My soul has grown deep like rivers.” What’s important for me in calling this a nature poem is, yes, talking about rivers and our relation to rivers and thus history, but is the repetition of “I’ve known rivers.” There’s something for me that becomes meditative and branches beyond, say, “The Negro” experience even if it is written solely for us, Black people. “Rivers” becomes everything it can resemble, which is why, I think, “human,” “blood” and “veins” begin the poem.
However, is it fair to disassociate humanity from nature, or, more so, the society from nature? I don’t know. For this question, I turn to Carl Phillips’s analysis of Marilyn Nelson’s poem, “My Grandfather Walks in the Woods”:
Nelson’s poem presents a racialized landscape, racialized by what the speaker brings to the landscape in terms of identity and history—in this sense, the natural world is threatening, dangerous, but only because of what humans have done with it. At the same time, the speaker’s grandfather turns to nature for answers about ancestry, perhaps because these aren’t findable in a human society built on and around slavery, and also because the wilderness, in being detached from racism, and by virtue of being so much older than human civilization, may be the only source that both is trustworthy enough and has been around long enough to know the past.
What I learn about Phillips’s analysis is that nature poems cannot be, totally, divorced from the human experience because the human experience is tied to nature.
One poem I greatly admire that reminds me of this is “Frequently Asked Questions: #10” by Camille T. Dungy that opens with the quote, “Do you see current events differently because you were raised by a black father and are married to a black man?” and goes on to describe—the poem—having too many grackles. The poem starts as so:
I am surprised they haven’t left already—
things have gotten downright frosty, nearly unbearable.
A mob of them is apparently mouthing off outside
when I put down my newspaper and we all gather
to stand beside my daughter in the bay
of kitchen windows. Quiscalus quiscula:
This name sounds like a spell which, after its casting,
will make things crumble into a complement
of unanswerable questions. Though, if you need me
to tell you God’s honest truth, I know nothing
but their common name the morning we watch them attack
our feeder. I complain about the mess they leave. Hulls
—the poem is allegorical, obviously, playing on racial tension and how Black people are often referred to, to describe the birds the speaker and the speaker’s family feed. How could this poem have worked without knowing about racial tensions, something supposedly of only “human” experience? Or could the poem have been as powerful without the quote? I’m not sure, but I do believe it’s the human experience that makes this nature poem expansive, and in this way, I believe it fulfils the idea, or at least the gesture, of ecopoetics. In fact, the poem’s ending, then, becomes quite beautiful:
The dawn sky—blue breaking into blackness—
is what I see feathering their bodies. The fence
is gray. The feeder is gray, the aspen bark. Gray
hulls litter the ground. But the grackles,
their passerine claws—three facing forward, one turned
back—around the roost bar of the feeder are,
so bright within their blackness, I pray they will stay.
So how does one write a nature poem? Does said poem have to be divorced from human desires? Should said poem express the human desire? I fear I have thrown question after question at you, dear reader, but I mentioned the escapism of nature poems, or at least how they escape me. How is any poem successful? A poem is successful when the attempt matches the intention. I think a nature poem is successful when it understands that it cannot be divorced from the human; we cannot ignore that fact that we are in and of nature.
Luther Hughes is a Seattle native and author of Touched (Sibling Rivalry Press, 2018). He is the Founding Editor in Chief of The Shade Journal, Executive Editor for The Offing, and Editor-at-Large of Frontier Poetry. A Cave Canem fellow, his work has been published or is forthcoming in various journals including, Hayden’s Ferry Review, New England Review, TriQuartlery, Four Way Review, and others. Luther received his MFA from Washington University in St. Louis. You can follow him on Twitter @lutherxhughes. He thinks you are beautiful.