The Wilds of Poetry:
Adventures in Mind and Landscape
Talk of mysteries!—Think of our life in nature,—daily to be shown matter, to come in contact with it,—rocks, trees, wind on our cheeks! The solid earth! The actual world! The common sense! Contact! Contact! Who are we? Where are we?
THESE VERY WILDS
Midway in his two-year stay at Walden Pond (1845-47), a period of solitary reflection on the nature of things, of who and where we are, Thoreau set out on a grueling two-week journey to the summit of Mount Ktaadn in Maine.
Far from the relatively tame and domestic environs of Walden Pond, it was a challenging and disorienting journey into extremely remote wilderness. Indeed, the mountain was so remote that only a few white people had ever climbed it. After more than a week of travel by boat and foot through increasingly wild territory, he and his friends arrived at the mountain. Thoreau made two attempts to climb the peak and failed because the mountain was smothered in windblown cloud, though it almost seems he found the raw wildness of the place as daunting and impassable as the billowing cloud-cover.
It was on the descent that Thoreau’s experience of existential Contact occurred: a moment where all the explanations and assumptions fell away and he was confronted with the inexplicable thusness of things, this immediate reality, unknowable and unsayable, reality that is pure question, pure mystery. We can imagine Thoreau’s state of mind. His perceptual experience on the mountain had been intense and bewildering: following a tumbling torrent of water, he struggled up steep and tumultuous rock tangled with strange weather-stunted vegetation, the broken rocks seemingly coming to life (as he says); on a flat shoulder below the summit, he crawled across the top of gnarled and weather-stunted black-spruce, krummholz he occasionally slumped through or gazed down through seeing bears in their dens; and looking out from the mountain, views were largely reduced to the whites and grays of windblown mist and cloud (“hostile ranks of clouds”), but occasionally opened to vistas of mountain and surrounding landscape that were in turn quickly erased. All of this made his reason “dispersed and shadowy, more thin and subtile, like the air” as he faced “vast, Titanic, inhuman Nature,” and it was “more lone that you can imagine.” Thoreau had failed in his mission and was now descending with no further goal, which would have left him open to absorb unexpected implications of his disorienting experience on the mountain. The physical difficulty of the journey was continuing, the cumulative exhaustion building. This all led somehow to an intensification of Thoreau’s encounter with the Ktaadn wildness he described as “primeval, untamed, and forever untameable Nature, or whatever else men call it . . . pure Nature . . . vast and drear and inhuman.”
How powerful questions can be. They can suggest so much more than is known at the time they are asked, for if there were an adequate answer they would not be posed. They are therefore wiser than answers, and they point the way forward. Answers settle things, end movement, but questions open the possibility of something more, something to come. Thoreau’s questions do all of this for his moment in Western intellectual history, and they encapsulate the philosophical inquiry driving the central thread of innovative poetry in twentieth-century America, the subject of this book. They are the most profound questions possible, really, for at their deepest level they allow no answer. They simply pose the unsayable reality of Contact, which is all question and all mystery—a moment in which the mind’s orienting certainties fail, even the certainty of self-identity, leaving one open to the experience of sheer immediacy. It is the experience of a mind perfectly emptied of all content, all the received explanations and assumptions about who we are and where we are; and so, a mind open to the fundamental reality of the material Cosmos in and of itself, open therefore to these very wilds we inhabit day-by-day, however rarely we are aware of that existential level of immediacy.
That experience itself is absolute. As soon as we try to explain, it is lost, because explanation involves language and concepts, the human structures that preclude wholesale Contact. Thoreau’s foundational questions are in fact rhetorical questions that actually say: there is no knowing who and where we are. And it’s true, there is no knowing at this level. Nevertheless, those questions can be taken as a starting point, and they distill the central issue in nineteenth and twentieth century intellectual history: what is the self, what is the Cosmos, and what is the interrelation between them. They were crucial questions because science and common sense had rendered the culture’s traditional answers no longer tenable.
Those answers, handed down from Greek and Judeo-Christian philosophy, went something like this: We are souls, made from spirit-stuff fundamentally different than the material world we inhabit. This transcendental soul is the center of abstract rational thought; it is immortal; and it is a visitor on this planet, a kind of alien whose true home is in some heavenly sphere, dwelling-place of God, who created both the spirit-realm of souls and the material realm of the empirical universe. The implications of this scheme are manifold, but they all devalue the physical earth and our relation to it. Abstract “truth” is valued over immediate experience. Rational mind is valued over body, which is considered impure and evil. The earth is considered nothing more than a resource base for human use; and additionally, as a proving ground, the backdrop for our human drama of eternal salvation or damnation. Thoreau witnessed in the early days of his Ktaadn journey the menacing impact this clutch of beliefs has on the world, for he spent those days traveling through the wastage of clear-cut logging that was destroying the primeval Maine woods. While native cultures had inhabited those woods for ten thousand years and left the ecosystem intact, white colonizers devastated the ecosystem in a matter of decades.
Enlightenment science was showing how false those traditional assumptions were, which left the field open for answers that were more empirically valid than the traditional ones. By the time of Thoreau’s Contact, the traditional cosmology had long-since been replaced in intellectual history by various kinds of post-Christian/scientific pantheism—most notably Deism, which had been the prevailing conceptual framework among America’s intellectuals for over a century, including America’s founding fathers. Deism considered art and science to be the true religion, because those practices engaged us with the immediate reality of the Cosmos, and that reality was itself the divine. Closely related to Deism’s scientific pantheism were various versions of pantheism among romantic poets and painters, for whom the natural world evoked a profound sense of awe , awe they could only explain as a kind of religious experience.
A realm that is beautiful and spiritual, sustaining and transforming—we take for granted these attitudes toward the wild, but they were all but unknown in the West prior to the Deists and romantics. Instead, the wild was generally sees as loathsome and hideous, fearsome and threatening, desolate and evil and devilish. Hence, romantic and Deist thought represents a transformation in our relationship to the natural world so profound it is difficiult now to imagine it. At the outset, pantheism was necessary to invest the wild with an aura of the divine, thereby explaining that romantic feeling of awe or wonder or the sublime, but eventually that began to change in the work of Alexander von Humbolt, and following him: Thoreau and Whitman.
Humbolt was an international superstar, and his hugely influential science dispensed with God or the divine and proposed that romantic awe in the face of sublime wilderness derives from our “communion with nature” as a magisterial presence, “a unity in diversity of phenomena; a harmony, blending together all created things, however dissimilar in form and attributes; one great whole animated by the breath of life.” Here he means breath not in the sense of some divine agency, but as a single unifying life-force inherent to the material Cosmos, for he elsewhere describes the Cosmos as “animated by one breath” and “animated by internal forces.” Humbolt described earth as an organic whole, a living web of interrelated life: a “net-like intricate fabric,” a “wonderful web of organic life.” In this he essentially invented the idea of “nature” as we now know it.
No less important in terms of intellectual history, he confirmed romantic intimations that the human mind is woven into the material web of life:
External nature may be opposed to the intellectual world, as if the latter were not comprised within the limits of the former, or nature may be opposed to art when the latter is defined as a manifestation of the intellectual power of man; but these contrasts, which we find reflected in the most cultivated languages, must not lead us to separate the sphere of nature from that of mind . . .
Standard pantheism leaves the human out of divine nature, as soul, but the powerful inner experience Humbolt and the romantics found in the presence of nature (communion, awe, the sublime, etc.) suggested otherwise, suggested for the first time in a broadly influential way that consciousness is integral to the material Cosmos.
Humbolt’s revolutionary ideas appeared not only in the form of conceptual propositions, but also in the form of widely-read books that combined scientific information with poetic descriptions of landscape to form an emotional fabric of communion between the human and the wild. This combination (which we now call “nature writing”) was transformative for Thoreau, making him into the writer we know; and for Whitman, who kept Humbolt’s books on his desk as he wrote “Song of Myself” (p. 26). And they turn out to be the very ideas this book will follow through twentieth century poetry, where they are accessible not simply as an idea, but as immediate poetic experience.
It is in the midst of this transformation in intellectual history, just prior to encountering Humbolt, that Thoreau found himself on Mt. Ktaadn with all explanations (old and new) gone, experiencing Contact. As that Contact returns us to a place before the structures of mind, it is an experience of an original nature of consciousness prior to its separation from the world as alien soul: consciousness in its primitive openness, before writing and ideas and religions started closing us in on ourselves, separating us out as centers of identity somehow disconnected from all of that other. In this openness, who we are is woven into where we are, and consciousness moves with the same patterns and rhythms as everything else—the seasons and winds, mountains and stars.
The philosophical transformation from a spiritualist to an empiricist worldview remained central to philosophical and scientific endeavor; culminating philosophically in the existentialists (as the name suggests), especially in the radical phenomenology/ontology of Husserl (“Back to things themselves.”), Heidegger, and Merleau-Ponty. But this transformation has perhaps found its most radical manifestation in modern American poetry, whose central task over the last century has been to rediscover that primal nature of consciousness, to reimagine consciousness not as a spirit-center with its abstract process of self-enclosed thought, but as an openness to immediate experience—as, indeed, a site where the Cosmos is open to itself. For it is in that immediate experience that who we are is woven into where we are. In this, the twentieth-century American avant-garde has been a philosophical/spiritual endeavor, reinventing that form of consciousness as actual lived experience rather than the kind of abstract ideas that philosophy and science offer.