New Twist for Nature Poetry

Environmental concerns find their way into the work of poets like Jack Collom. BOOKS: INTERVIEW

WE know that whole species disappear in extinction year after year, but perhaps a poet can best help us appreciate the tragedy these losses represent to the world, moving us to stop these disappearances. Jack Collom is such a poet. His new book, ``Arguing with Something Plato Said (A Few Environs Poems),'' (Rocky Ledge Cottage Editions, $7.50) goes beyond nature lyricism and the indignant sloganeering of eco-politics to crisp, sometimes amusing, sometimes startling perceptions about the loss of a species or the interaction of man and animal and plants in various (even suburban) environments. [See poem from ``Arguing'' in box at lower left.]

Collom first started writing poetry in the Air Force while stationed in Tripoli, Libya, in 1955. But his commitment to nature began in early childhood, when his father took him for walks in the woods and he began to recognize birds and plants and to identify with foxes and other animals. He loved the sciences in school and went on to study forestry in college.

When he decided to become a poet, however, he turned his back on science.

``As a green young punk, it seemed to me poetry and science were irreconcilable,'' he tells me over a snack at a restaurant in the Denver Museum of Natural History. ``Poems became my substitute birds.''

Poets usually don't make a living at their craft. Reading performances support a few, but most teach or work at any number of other jobs to pay the rent and fill the larder. So, after he was discharged from the Air Force, he continued to write poetry almost constantly, working at a succession of factory jobs to support himself and his family while he wrote. Eventually, he earned his master's degree in English at night on the G.I. Bill. And by the time his son, Chris, went to college, the young Collom's interest in science resparked the elder's own interest.

``It became evident to me that science was getting poetic,'' he says. ``It really had been for some time. If you think of the implications of relativity, physics at its edges had been poetic since Einstein. I had been anti-science because of various stereotypes derived from applied science's dry, materialistic image. But in advanced science there is a sort of rambling energy and an uncertainty that resembles the forces of art. Evolution has been reseen by Stephen Jay Gould and others as somewhat different from that slow, stately process based solely on cut-and-dried survival factors we learned from Darwin.''

The concept of ``punctuated equilibrium'' - things go along at a sustained level for a while, and then there is an abrupt upswing or shift and rapid change - was particularly appealing to Collom in its resemblance to the creative process. ``It validates energy, eccentricity, exploration, and experiment,'' he says, ``all part of the creative process and nature itself.''

Collom resisted taking up the subject of ecology in his poetry for a while. ``Poetry is a very delicate thing; you stumble in delicate ways through the exploration of the mind, and you can't then, at the same time, go marching along with signs,'' he says.

``Slogans are not poetry. I don't like social poetry usually, anyway, because it tends to be sloganeering and too often oversimplifies truth. I have mixed feelings about involvement with causes, too, because rebellious social groups can sometimes initiate their own form of fascism. On the other hand, they often do initiate change. And then I felt ripe to try poetry about the environment.

``Poetry is itself an ecology of words. It's contextual, interrelational. That's what ecology means - interrelationships. Poems have implications and resonations in the culture,'' he explains. ``There's a ripple effect even when only a few really understand it - only a few understood Einstein. It affects others who in turn affect others.''

Collom has always felt, too, that making a good poem was ecologically sound. ``People imbued with art are less likely to rampage through the woods with a bulldozer. Art tends to promote a more gentle, perceptive approach to one's surroundings. But then, I wanted to write directly about the environment. I didn't want to be sentimental - `Please save our furry friends.' I tried to create, on the basis of poetically hip moves, a little world, and then see if out of that world I could say `save a leaf.'''

One of the finest poems in ``Arguing with Plato'' concerns the extinction of the passenger pigeon in the US. ``Passage'' is a long poem incorporating many styles and rhythms, quotes from eye-witnesses who wrote about the birds in the 17th, 18th, and 19th centuries, dozens of facts about the abundance of the bird, and descriptions of the wonder that was the pipio. ``Each pipio stuck its black beak in drink, sucked/ up continuous drafts of water/ (bird-unique; all others/ gargle at the moon).''

Collom quotes as verse the testimony of Chief Pokagon of the Pottawottomi, the last of the Pokagon band, who saw the last great migration of the passenger pigeons. Then Collom breaks into a prose-poem, describing in clear, forceful terms the wasteful slaughter of millions of birds for sport and commerce.

This year, for the second time, Collom was awarded a poetry fellowship by the National Endowment for the Arts. But he makes his living primarily as a teacher now, and serves as artist-in-residence at various elementary schools.

At Naropa Institute in Boulder, he teaches eco-lit - literature from the past and the present, crossing cultures and forms, in great variety, but all touching on issues of interrelatedness in nature. ``Annie Dillard once said that Herman Melville's `Moby Dick' is the greatest book on nature ever written,'' he says.

``The concern for nature is opening up. A lot of young poets are beginning to write about the environment. And, of course, there are poets like Gary Snyder, Michael McClure, and Joanne Kyger who have been writing about this for many years.''

Collom returns each year to Salmon, Idaho, to teach poetry for three months in the the town's elementary school, and he has found over the last three years there that poetry tends to lead consciousness toward conservation. He does not teach ecology to the kids; nevertheless they have, he finds, a natural affinity with animals. He also finds that, when you introduce poetry-writing to children early and often, they love it.

Collom is the author of ``Moving Windows: Evaluating the Poetry Children Write,'' as well as seven books of poetry published before ``Arguing.'' He is currently co-writing a book about how to teach poetry in the schools - not just in English classes, but in all kinds of subjects like science and history.

Poetry may not be ``investment friendly'' as most of the other arts are. And surely there has been a decline in the late 20th century in its use among the people. Collom cites several reasons for this - TV and movies and other media, for example, are ``hot'' media.

``Poetry is basically an oral art that has come to be represented on the page - which may be roughly equivalent to taking in music by reading sheet music,'' he says. ``Still, thousands of people in the US are would-be poets, and there are hundreds of small networks of poetry readings.

There is music in speech, and the way we think is largely a matter of language, Collom believes. ``Poets chip away at the outer edges of language, constantly refreshing it, constantly breaking up calcifications. Any bright person who writes does that - helps us think in fresh ways - but it's the poet's special job.''

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