Earth Song Book Club
After years of reading poetry, Seamus Heaney’s The Rain Stick is still my favorite. I could read the poem over and over, and that’s just what the verses are about: giving attention, receiving, giving attention again and retrieving more depth and nuance than we suspected on the first shake-down of “grit and dried seeds” cascading their different-same paths through the hidden rickets of a polished wood cylinder.
“Upend the rain stick.”
“Listen now again.”
Heaney urges something our fast-paced lives don’t know the meaning of. Lynda Barry, in her intensely creative, attentive book Making Comics, says something similar:
“Part of our work is to take time, to wait like any bird-watcher, to hold still and be taken in.” And, “You will have to be quiet.”
I think both nature and poetry call us to this way of living: you will have to be still if you want to deeply engage with life, if you want to truly be part of the natural world, if you want to know any poem – if you want to, as Heaney says, “enter heaven through the ear of a raindrop.”
This is a gift poetry gives us: both the reason and the imperative to set our loud, unlistening ways aside for a minute or an hour or however long. This is a particular gift of the poetry collection named Earth Song, which was editorially composed to read like a symphony, each poem leaning against the prior and the next and playing variations on themes that strike a series of chords leading you into a rainstick experience.
“You stand there like a pipe
being played by water.”
If this were my Tenth Grade Language Arts class, and you were my students, I would issue an imperative: Read each poem at least twice.
I try to tell those fifteen-year-olds, bright-eyed as they carry themselves in general, skeptical as they tend to be about poetry in particular, “Always read a poem twice—once to get the big, symphonic picture, and again to catch the subtler pitching of note against note.”
(By the time our class arrives at Ezra Pound’s incredibly brief, imagist In a Station of the Metro, it’s fun to tell the kids they’re going to have a tough time getting through this one twice, but see if they can do it. They approach their homework with great trepidation that evening and laugh the next day; Mrs. Martin really got them this time.)
No imperatives in this book club, but a suggestion: if you’re able, read the whole book through before our first meeting on Wednesday, September 7th. You’ll have sat through an entire first performance of the symphony, your own copy of Earth Song’s opening night. You’ll be ready each week of September to upend the rain stick a second time for a handful of the poems.
Of course, if you’re not able, come as you are, receiving each assigned poem for the first time. There’s beauty in that, too. The neat thing about a poem-centric book group is that you can dip in and out as needed and still experience a number of poems that can stand on their own.
One last thing: Does it feel strange to read nature poems in (depending where you live) the final full flush of summer or the “shining from shook foil” as fall blazes in?
I normally seek out my favorite nature writing (Annie Dillard, Wendell Berry, Noel Perrin) at the equinox round the other side of the earth’s annual bend, the smell of turned soil and sight of nest-building birds waking me up to the growing life around me.
Autumn holds its own natural glories, though, doesn’t it? So let’s meet in September, on the cusp of the year’s waning as the earth readies itself to wait—an active, anticipatory sort of rest, ourselves ready to hear the notes editor Sara Barkat has so aptly chosen to lead us along, learning better to love this earth we live on in any of its seasons.
Questions Before We Begin
What poem or poet comes to mind when you think of “nature poems”?
Are there any nature poems you already know well and return to, in particular?
Answer in the comments. I’ll share my own answer there, too.
Join us in September for a special book club discussion of this collection. Become a Patron to Join This Club.
Week I / September 7th p. 13-41 (“From the Editor” through “The Woodpile”)
Week II / September 14th p. 42-66 (“Tornado Warning/Joann Fabric & Craft” through “Scent”)
Week III / September 21st p. 67-95 (“I Pity the Garden” through “Home and the Homeless”)
Week IV / September 28th p. 96-126 (“The Oak Desk” through “The morning sea of silence broke into ripples of bird songs”)