[Image description: trees on the opposite bank of a high, swollen river. Blue sky with clouds behind, and a gnarled root in the foreground.]
The old voice of the ocean, the bird-chatter of little rivers,
(Winter has given them gold for silver
To stain their water and bladed green for brown to line their banks)
From different throats intone one language.
So I believe if we were strong enough to listen without
Divisions of desire and terror
To the storm of the sick nations, the rage of the hunger-smitten cities,
Those voices also would be found
Clean as a child’s; or like some girl’s breathing who dances alone
By the ocean-shore, dreaming of lovers.*
A poem, in ten lines and two sentences, shows us what’s at stake in an uncritical ‘nature poetry’. Even the title, ‘Natural Music’, turns nature into a tool of description, with a sleight of hand that erases all the differences between poetry and music. Despite this pose, the poem as always is really a grammatical exercise, so to examine it I have prepared the following as a reading of sentences.
Although it might look at first glance as though it is about poetry, the first sentence, to a plain-text reading (that is, a reading that imagines that poetry does not exist), devotes itself entirely to describing the waters; speech is just the vehicle of the metaphor. This sentence is about water, and that it is compared to speech is irrelevant except so far as it elucidates what is to be said about water. The second sentence inverts this relationship with its opening ‘so’, and asks us to consider ‘voices’ as ‘storm’ (metaphorical) and ‘rage’ (metonymic). The comparison is by the same token, but exchanged in the opposite direction. The premise is that the great insight of the poem is that ‘nature’ and ‘humanity’ can be swapped for one another in the marketplace of understanding, but this relies on believing that in the real world they are mutually exclusive.
That we refute the idea of poetry, a highly mediated mode of language, as ‘natural music’ is not as important as the unpicking the continuity and flatness the poem tries to give to different modes of communication by establishing them all as ‘natural’. The ‘voices’ of storm/rage are linked through an imagining of purity, ‘clean’ and virginal (that virginity established by the solitude of the girl’s ‘dreams’ before ‘lovers’; virginity is established by the studied/thought absence of lovers), that does not necessitate thinking about where the sickness, hunger, and rage have come from. The individual humans isolated for praise as against the massed, uncontrollable crowds of ‘nations’ and ‘cities’ are marginal and depersonalised figures, and the dismissive misogyny in the description of ‘some girl’ in line 9 is not incidental; the girl, like ‘a child’, is fungible – ‘some’, any, whatever. Her identity is not important, only her position, at the related margins of ocean and dream. Her ‘breathing’ and dance are the only relationship figured between music and the body, and here too they are inverted: elsewhere, music has been voiced (and bird-chattered), but this girl/some girl/any girl/girls dance in silence to their own breath.
The unthoughts of the poem are many, but we could start with racial capitalism, which identification would further refute the diagnosis of (natural, inevitable) ‘desire and terror’ (and the ‘weakness’ of our listening skills) as the reasons for division – ‘divisions’ such as those of race and class, which are responsible for the conceptual framework that sets innocent individuals (‘we’) against violent undifferentiated masses (‘sick nations’, ‘hunger-smitten cities’), are the inheritance of colonialism and slavery and the necessary condition of continuing capitalism. These conditions are divorced from history and reduced to generic abstractions as if they occur naturally.
I have so far ignored the parenthesis of lines 2-3, but it is relevant for two reasons. One is its obnoxious intrusion into the first sentence, which already luxuriates in the displacement of ‘from different throats’ (which allows the line and sentence to end on ‘language’, making it the centre of the poem, and making the poem about poetry as natural music). These syntactic distortions, along with a highly mishearable ‘intone’ (in tone) tucked into the folds of line 4, prevent any semantic content from being fully understood, at least until the sentence has been finished and most likely until the poem has been read multiple times.
I don’t condemn this necessity to re-read in and of itself, and indeed if there’s something worth paying attention to about this poem it’s its occlusive grammatical structure; however, it does apply additional pressure on the syntactic level, asking us to hold in our heads a dense, self-contained third sentence within a poem that only includes two sentences in the first place. Although the semantic content of the poem will ultimately be found to be straightforward, even trite, we are obstructed at every possible turn, particularly in the first sentence. By the time we reach something resembling a ‘message’ (namely, the poem’s pat liberal politics against ‘division’), we are already tangled in syntax and layers of metaphor.
The other reason this parenthesis is relevant is that its apparently unrelated description of nature in fact prefigures many of the terms which are to be used in the later lines of the poem. The idea of winter as a trader who gives (way to) spring in exchange for time spent in winter stands out as a novel image against the relatively conventional comparisons drawn in the rest of the poem. This is not articulated beyond these lines, but it also, with ‘gold for silver’, draws on an archaic metaphors connecting ‘nature’ with ‘treasure’. The second line describes another trade, ‘bladed green for brown’, which does not draw on that source, and notably the line break comes not between the two trades, but in the middle of the first trade, so that the second line is bracketed with two equivalent phrases: ‘to stain their water’, ‘to line their banks’. This both emphasises ‘gold for silver’ by isolating it on the shorter line 2 and de-emphasises ‘bladed green for brown’; it also sets up an opposition between water and banks, two elements which become like responsibilities of the rivers, which the winter has given them supplies to help them discharge.
That these resources are attributed to winter rather than to spring serves to disguise the fact that this is a ‘nature poem’, as does its single occurrence of ‘green’, tucked away in that parenthetical third line. There are no other plants mentioned; bodies of water are the representatives of nature. The ‘little rivers’ have ‘bird-chatter’ for a voice, but this is a one-word metaphor which bears no apparent relationship to the image-complex of the rest of the poem. The ‘ocean’ does return in the final line, which might prompt a comparison between the ‘bird’ and the ‘girl’, but notably she does not chatter, is almost silent: she only breathes as she dances, speaking with her body and not her voice. The parenthesis, then, helps to disguise this poem as a nature-lyric rather than a centrist sermon, and in so doing helps situate its conclusions as natural.
This tragic misprision of the nature/culture split is typical of much twentieth-century anglophone lyric; nevertheless, it reveals how the erotics of poetry functions even in those poems which we may not find politically useful, and which are inert in the face of the conditions of their own reproduction. The real ‘divisions of desire and terror’ are not those that prevent us from recognising the innocent individual in the inchoate mass (which is a structural division inherent in colonial-capitalism, of which ‘desire and terror’ are mere structural consequences), but rather those created by grammar in order to effect the experience of meaningfulness. In other words: isolating linguistic elements by placing them in erotic opposition is what makes poetic meaning possible.
The theorists have not yet improved upon Barthes’ account of the compositional process in which writing is derived from the endless ‘dictionary’ of prior text, but while it is true that there ‘the writer’ is not able to transmit ‘his’ ‘passions’, text’s anteriority guarantees that passions are derived in its milieu. Even if we imagine pre- or non-linguistic erotic ‘drives’ (without getting lost in the psychoanalytic weeds, we might call this the ‘authentic erotic’), this is ultimately irrelevant to textual questions because text and textual subjects (readers, writers) are only able to interact with these drives linguistically. We can only understand our desires and terrors as imperfect recognitions of the expressed desires and terrors of others, and so on, stretching back to the origin of language which is found in this respect to be simply an erotic technique.
Consider that there is no authentic erotic accessible even to one’s own conscious mind beyond the mediation of language in our understanding of it. The experience of shared feeling appears to demonstrate that such an erotic solipsism is inadequate. So we must assume the existence of, rather than an impenetrable boundary between the ‘technical-erotic’ and ‘authentic-erotic’, a mutually permeable intermediary layer which makes possible the resonance that exists between technical and authentic erotics. That layer, I suggest, is form. And so poetry, as the most formally diverse and formally self-aware linguistic mode, has unique access to it.
In ‘Natural Music’, the ‘belief’ that we might be able to ‘find’ purified innocents and fellow erotic subjects within the mass social text of ‘rage’ depends on our demonstrating ‘strength’ that would enable us to put aside ‘division’. However, ‘division’, which is to say, form, is what makes meaning possible, and we cannot understand hunger without understanding the social forms that bring it about. The poem considers ‘hunger’ as an authentic erotic drive (the cities are ‘smitten’, erotically contaminated, with it); however, in the social text of the world as mediated by capital, hunger is a technical erotic, and the consequence of a division: hunger is a form that is created and maintained (the resources of the planet would feed everyone, but that is not how they are distributed). Sometimes hunger is authored – one person tells another, ‘you will go hungry’ – but as a phenomenon it emerges from a complex of oppressions, so we can no longer understand it as a ‘basic’ drive. The stated aim to ‘eradicate’ hunger is articulated as if hunger were unfortunate but incidental; by contrast, to truly oppose hunger would mean to oppose the systematic ways in which it is created by and for profit.
‘Natural Music’ imputes drives to collective of textual subjects (again, reader-writers – ‘if we were strong enough’), only to ask us to put aside those drives in favour of an enlightened liberal individualism. The quality that will allow us to do this is ‘strength’. According to the politics of the poem, if ‘we’ can put aside our own drives, we can also see past those of the masses, imagined as inchoate and incomprehensible, to the innocent, ‘clean’ individual who communicates by means of language-as-drive (or drive-as-language), the ‘natural music’. And so this idea, that poetry comes as naturally as leaves to a tree, is not just wrong but responsible for the political inertia of the (innumerable) poems created under its sign. As a minimum requirement for their usefulness to collective liberation, poems must be alive to their responsibility and capability of constituting us as textual subjects, a process we might call erotic artifice.
* Robinson Jeffers, ‘Natural Music’, Collected Poetry vol. 1, ed. Tim Hunt (Stanford UP, 1988), p. 6.
Callie Gardner 2020