Shortly after I retired, someone observed that I wrote free verse. Not sure what they meant, I looked up the definition and examples of it. During this “research,” I discovered Harriett Monroe, founder of Poetry magazine and the Imagist movement. In 1917, she published The New Poetry, in which she and others breaking with Victorian poetics defined Imagists’ verse as poetry written with directness, simplicity, sincerity, individual and nonconforming diction, rhythm, and precise emotion. Since then, many have called this classic free verse.
Although my favorite poet changes with each poem I am working on, Wendell Berry, Ted Kooser, Gary Snyder, and R. S. Thomas stand above all others as favorites.
Among their common attributes that attract me are their sense of place, their concern for threats to the natural world and indigenous subcultures, and their apprehension over increasingly negative relations between society’s aspirations and the environment. As writers, they think globally, but write regionally, expressing in their own ways the spirituality of nature and worrisome environmental crises.
Wendell Berry (b. 1934). Farmer-writer and environmental philosopher, Berry lifts his readers into the spirituality of man and his natural environment. He understands the various meanings and implications of humankind’s dominion over all living things. At the same time, he is committed to agrarian values and to solving problems of living in the reality in which he finds himself, using nature as his model. A quotation from Berry’s A Timbered Choir: The Sabbath Poems, 1979-1997 (1998) that I take to heart is “a poem need not be just a fabric of printed words to be laboriously raveled out by students or critics, but is (or can be) written in a speakable and hearable language, the integrity of which begins and ends in the quality of the music.”
Ted Kooser (b. 1939). Former U.S. Poet Laureate (2004-2006) and winner of the Pulitzer Prize, Kooser is retired from a career in insurance. For most of his life, he has lived in rural Nebraska, writing primarily short, often imagistic poems that focus on ordinary people living on the Great Plains and coping with such mundane tasks as spring plowing, using a hearing aid, or surviving a hot summer night (Flying at Night, 1985). Kooser writes slowly, revises relentlessly, and is always searching for clarity and freshness.
Gary Snyder (b. 1930). Pulitzer Prize winner and ecological conscientiousness leader, Snyder was a college roommate of future Beat poets Lew Welch and Philip Whelan. During the summers of 1952 and 1953, he worked for the United States Forest Service in the headwaters of the Skagit River in the North Cascades Mountains, just east of my family home. It was while a fire lookout on lonely mountaintops that Snyder began to develop his poetic voice. This voice continued to mature during his multifaceted life including stints in a logging camp on an Oregon Indian reservation; as a longshoreman in San Francisco; living with Jack Kerouac; sharing a cottage with Allen Ginsburg; studying Japanese, classical Chinese and Amerindian anthropology at University of California-Berkeley; as deckhand on a fuel freighter in the Pacific; and climbing mountains and studying Zen in Japan.
Although identified with the original San Francisco Beat Poets, Snyder saw “beat” as a state of mind temporarily shared by the group before each of them went their separate ways. In the early sixties, he combined his knowledge of Asian and Amerindian cultures and their traditional relationship with nature with his global experience into a comprehensive worldview: “Humanity is but a part of the fabric of life—dependent on the whole fabric for our very existence.” (“Four Changes” in Turtle Island , 1974) Subsequently, Snyder established the benchmarks for America’s ecological conscientiousness movement and has earned recognition as the foremost ecological poet of the latter twentieth century. He continues to practice sustainable living in the Sierra Nevada foothills and expanding his concepts of ecological conscience to a larger community.
To Snyder, art is the cultivation of dreams and imagination, and poetry is a variety of song expressed in spoken words. He frequently composes without conventional meter or intentional rhyme, time, place, or punctuation. His one-word lines evoke my imagination.
R. S. (Ronald Stuart) Thomas (1913-2000). Anglican priest and Anglo-Welsh poet, Thomas is probably the most dissimilar of the foursome. He was reared, educated, ordained into the Church of Wales, and lived out his career and retirement in Gwynedd, Northwest Wales.
The Welsh and their landscape were Thomas’s life passions. He chose to exemplify his personal philosophy by living an almost monastic existence with his wife and son in a small cabin near Aberdaron.
Thomas’s writing style evolved from lyrical narrations of hillside farmers written in loose traditional forms to more metaphysical subject matter written in freeform. Never nostalgic or romantic, his poetry was a harsh and vivid portrayal of Welsh life as he saw it.
I shall end this two-part essay as I began Part I: My path to poetry has been neither deliberate nor direct. Its wandering may be followed through “A Path Lately Taken,” “My Parents’ Dreams,” “Selected References,” and “Acknowledgements,” all in the back matter of Reimagine: Poems, 1993-2009.