earthweal weekly challenge: AN EAR FOR WILD LANGUAGE


It’s taken a couple of years, but in my morning walks my ear is slowly tuning to sound of what’s there. And I swear I’m learning to hear the world think.

But I first have to dial back all that septic me-speak—you know, that incessant whine of I Me Mine. If I can shut that yammering down, I become a creature walking in the fullness of creation: My ears and eyes have wings for the crows and hawks flying overhead, I nourish in nests woven in the arms of sycamore and cypress trees, I reflect the still morning sky in lake waters crested by flies, leaping bass and cruising gators.

Slowly, the poetry of the world emerges. All it takes is a languid ear and the time it takes to notate it right.

A master of the world’s song is Seamus Heaney. Take, for example, this fifth sonnet from his Glanmore series, published in Field Work (1976).

Soft corrugations in the boortree’s trunk,
Its green young shoots, its rods like freckled solder:
It was our bower as children, a greenish, dank
And snapping memory as I get older.
And elderberry I have learned to call it.
I love its blooms like saucers brimmed with meal,
Its berries a swart caviar of shot,
A buoyant spawn, a light bruised out of purple.
Elderberry? It is shires dreaming wine.
Boortree is bower tree, where I played ‘touching tongues’
And felt another’s texture quick on mine.
So, etymologist of roots and graftings,
I fall back to my tree-house and would crouch
Where small buds shoot and flourish in the hush.

(from Field Work, 1976)

What I love most about Heaney is his delicate craft getting the music right — something visceral, ancient and ever-present. It rises from “opened ground” in a poetry writ for the ear.

As David Abram writes in The Spell of the Sensuous (1996), such worldly language is available to anyone who’s listening to the living landscape:

We regularly talk of howling winds, and of chattering brooks. Yet these are more than metaphors. Our own languages are continually nourished by these other voices — by the roar of waterfalls and the thrumming of crickets. It is not by chance that, when hiking in the mountains, the English terms we spontaneously use to describe the surging waters of the nearby river are words like “rush,” “splash,” “gush,” “wash.” For the sound that unites all these words is that which the water itself chants as it flows between the banks. If language is not a purely mental phenomenon but a sensuous, bodily activity born of carnal reciprocity and participation, then our discourse has surely been influenced by many gestures, sounds, and rhythms besides those of our single species. Indeed, if human language arises from the perceptual interplay between the body and the world, then this language “belongs” to the animate landscape as much as it “belongs” to ourselves.  (82)

Is our human language really special? We have a much larger vocabulary than other species, but most of that is for abstract thought — words thinking about words. It is the patter of a society lost behind the walls it erected. That abstracted world has lost most of its natural connotations; it is sterile, dry, and easily wanders off through a maze of meanings lost.

Our living language, on the other hand, is a constant response to its environment. It carries gut meaning and is instantly recognized. Abram, again:

… All truly meaningful speech is inherently creative, using established words in ways that have never been used before, and thus altering, ever so slightly, the whole webwork of the language. Wild, living speech takes up from within, the interconnected matrix of a language and gestures with it, subjecting the whole structure to a “coherent deformation.”

At the heart of any language, then, is the poetic productivity of expressive speech. A living language is continually being made and remade, woven out of the silence by those who speak … And this silence is that of our wordless participations, of our perceptual immersion in the depths of an animate, expressive world. (84)

If you have been writing poems for any length of time, you may have noticed that something deep within is constantly calibrating its response to the world. The well of poetry is deep: there we discover the ten thousand things, each with its own plumage and song. I listen to the outside within and open my mouth: out comes wind round the stones at Carnac, the mewing of an eagle chick in its nest high over a landscape, the slick leap of a salmon in a rising edifice of gushing river-water.


Ultimately, then, it is not the human body alone but rather the whole of the sensuous world that provides the deep structure of language. As we ourselves dwell and move withing language, so, ultimately, do the other animals and animate things of the world; if we do not notice them there, it is only because language has forgotten its expressive depths. “Language is a life, is our life and the life of things …” (writes Richard Nelson in Make Prayers to the Raven: A Koyukon View of the Northern Forest, 1983). It is no more true that we speak than that the things, and the animate world itself, speak within us. (85)

What is this wild language in the deep forest back of our mouths? Let’s take a walk there and sing what we find!

— Brendan

(Note: The challenge is open until 4 PM EST Friday, July 15, when earthweal rolls out it open link weekend forum.)




Galway Kinnell

I love to go out in late September
among the fat, overripe, icy, black blackberries
to eat blackberries for breakfast,
the stalks very prickly, a penalty
they earn for knowing the black art
of blackberry-making; and as I stand among them
lifting the stalks to my mouth, the ripest berries
fall almost unbidden to my tongue,
as words sometimes do, certain peculiar words
like strengths or squinched,
many-lettered, one-syllabled lumps,
which I squeeze, squinch open, and splurge well
in the silent, startled, icy, black language
of blackberry-eating in late September.

From Mortal Acts, Mortal Words (1980)



May Swenson

Part otter, part snake, part bird the bird Ahinga,
jalousie wings, draped open, dry. When slack-
hinged, the wind flips them shut. Her cry,
a slatted clatter, inflates her chin-
pouch; it’s like a fish’s swim-
bladder. Ahinga’s body, otter-
furry, floats, under water-
mosses, neck a snake with white-
rimmed blue round roving eyes. Those long feet stilt-
paddle the only bird of the marsh that flies
submerged. Otter-
quick over bream that hover in water-
shade, she feeds, finds fillets among the water-
weeds. Her beak, ferrule of a folded black
umbrella, with neat thrust impales her prey.
She flaps up to dry on the crooked, look-
dead-limb of the Gumbo Limbo, her tan-
tipped wing fans spread, tail a shut fan dangled.

from Nature, 1990



George Bradley

It makes one all right, though you hadn’t thought of it,
A sound like the sound of the sky on fire, like Armageddon,
Whistling and crackling, the explosions of sunlight booming
As the huge mass of gas rages into the emptiness around it.
It isn’t a sound you are often aware of, though the light speeds
To us in seconds, each dawn leaping easily across a chasm
Of space that swallows the sound of that sphere, but
If you listen closely some morning, when the sun swells
Over the horizon and the world is still and still asleep,
You might hear it, a faint noise so far inside your mind
That it must come from somewhere, from light rushing to darkness,
Energy burning towards entropy, towards a peaceful solution,
Burning brilliantly, spontaneously, in the middle of nowhere,
And you, too, must make a sound that is somewhat like it,
Though that, of course, you have no way of hearing at all.

— from Terms to Be Met, 1986



Theodore Roethke


Over the low, barnacled, elephant-colored rocks
Come the first tide ripples, moving, almost without sound, toward me,
Running along the narrow furrows of the shore, the rows of dead clamshells;
Then a runnel behind me, creeping closer,
Alive with tiny striped fish, and young crabs climbing in and out of the water.

No sound from the bay. No violence.
Even the gulls quiet on the far rocks,
Silent, in the deepening light,
Their cat-mewing over,
Their child-whimpering.

At last one long undulant ripple,
Blue black from where I am sitting,
Makes almost a wave over a barrier of small stones,
Slapping lightly against a sunken log.
I dabble my toes in the brackish foam sliding forward,
Then retire to a rock higher up on the cliffside.

The wind slackens, light as a moth fanning a stone —
A twilight wind, light as a child’s breath,
Turning not a leaf, not a ripple.

The dew revives on the beach grass;
The salt-soaked wood of a fire crackles;
A fish raven turns on its perch (a dead tree in the river mouth),
Its wings catching a last glint of the reflected sunlight.


The self persists like a dying star,
In sleep, afraid. Death’s face rises afresh,
Among the shy beasts — the deer at the salt lick,
The doe, with its sloped shoulders, loping across the highway,
The young snake, poised in green leaves, waiting for its fly,
The hummingbird, whirring from quince blossom to morning-glory —
With these I would be.

And with water: the waves coming forward without cessation,
The waves, altered by sandbars, beds of kelp, miscellaneous driftwood,
Topped by cross-winds, tugged at by sinuous undercurrents,
The tide rustling in, sliding between the ridges of stone,
The tongues of water creeping in quietly.


In this hour,
In this first heaven of knowing,
The flesh takes on the pure poise of the spirit,
Acquires, for a time, the sandpiper’s insouciance,
The hummingbird’s surety, the kingfisher’s cunning.

I shift on my rock, and I think:
Of the first trembling of a Michigan brook in April.
Over a lip of stone, the tiny rivulet;
And the wrist-thick cascade tumbling from a cleft rock,
Its spray holding a double rainbow in the early morning,
Small enough to be taken in, embraced, by two arms;
Or the Tittabawasee, in the time between winter and spring,
When the ice melts along the edges in early afternoon
And the mid-channel begins cracking and heaving from the pressure beneath,
The ice piling high against the ironbound spiles,
Gleaming, freezing hard again, creaking at midnight,
And I long for the blast of dynamite,
The sudden sucking roar as the culvert loosens its debris of branches and sticks —
Welter of tin cans, pails, old birds’ nests, a child’s shoe riding a log—
As the piled ice breaks away from the battered spiles
And the whole river begins to move forward, its bridges shaking.


Now, in this waning of light,
I rock with the motion of morning;
In the cradle of all that is,
I’m lulled into half sleep
By the lapping of waves,
The cries of the sandpiper.

Water’s my will and my way,
And the spirit runs, intermittently,
In and out of the small waves,
Runs with the intrepid shore birds —
How graceful the small before danger!

In the first of the moon,
All’s a scattering,
A shining.

first published in The New Yorker, Nov. 19, 1960


earthweal weekly challenge: WILD STILLNESS


For all the rising fury of summer afternoons in the 21st century, they yet transpire in an almost bewitched stillness — a wilderness of eternity.  I look out the window and it’s a photograph of clouds in blue stasis framed by trees growing a millimeter a day for their century. All is in motion, and yet singles down into one frame.

Stillness is the singularity of all possibilities merged into one — light on the lake on late summer afternoons, the pause of an egret feeding by the shore, a forest of sycamore leaves bending in one tree’s ecstasy in rainstorm.

We have explored many aspects of the wild here at earthweal – the language of the wild; the wild heart; wild mind; the sacred wild; the wild dark; wild music; even the Anthropocene wild.

We have gone far and wide searching for that wild. (Sherry has just taken us to wild African shores.) But isn’t that wild in every still frame we pull to view, if we would but notice it? If wild is the weal of our earth, poetry its wilderness.“There is a property in the horizon which no man has but he whose eye can integrate all the parts, that is, the poet,” Emerson writes in “Nature.” To be in that integrative moment, “a man casts off his years, as the snake his slough, and at what period soever of life is always a child.”

He continues,

… In the woods, we return to reason and faith. There I feel that nothing can befall me in life, — no disgrace, no calamity … which nature cannot repair. Standing on the bare ground — my head bathed by the blithe ai and uplifted in infinite space, — all mean egotism vanishes. I become a transparent eyeball; I am nothing; I see all; the currents of the Universal Being circulate through me … I am the lover of uncontained and immortal beauty.

A transparent eyeball is transfixed by stillness. How much can one behold in daffodil? For Christopher Smart, “flowers are the poetry of Christ” whose “right names” are “still in heaven.” In the Psalms it is written: “Be still, and know that I am God.” So we enter heaven, stilled.


For those of you south of the Equator who are reading this now, you know that stillness holds to the depths of winter as well. Thoreau writes in Walden:

After a still winter night I awoke with the impression that some question had been put to me, which I had been endeavoring in vain to answer in my sleep, as what—how—when—where? But there was dawning Nature, in whom all creatures live, looking in at my broad windows with serene and satisfied face, and no question on her lips. I awoke to an answered question, to Nature and daylight. The snow lying deep on the earth dotted with young pines, and the very slope of the hill on which my house is placed, seemed to say, Forward! Nature puts no question and answers none which we mortals ask. She has long ago taken her resolution. “O Prince, our eyes contemplate with admiration and transmit to the soul the wonderful and varied spectacle of this universe. The night veils without doubt a part of this glorious creation; but day comes to reveal to us this great work, which extends from earth even into the plains of the ether.

Stillness is the essential pole which balances its opposite of action in the world. It also allows us to embrace the warring tendencies of the time. Lyanda Lynn Haupt writes in Rooted: Life at the Crossroads of Science, Nature, and Spirit:

Amphibious, we wander at the singular, radical intersection of science, nature and spirit. Here resides a multifaceted understanding of the interdependence of earthly life and the engaged activism that such an understanding inspires and requires. Here are the interwoven pathways of inward, wild stillness and outward, feral action. At this crossroads there is intelligence, and sacredness, and wildness, and grace. There is clear-sighted hope in a time of despair. Rooted ways embolden us to remember that with our complex minds we can feel — and live — more than one thing simultaneously. Anxiety, difficulty, fear, despair. yes. Beauty, connectedness, possibility, love. (22)

For all its purity, stillness yet must be nurtured. We are beings of a hurtling time. Things happen so fast that yesterday is a Sphinx. How are we to properly see and value anything if we can’t hold it in stillness? “Take your well-disciplined strengths and stretch them between two opposing poles, for inside humans is where God learns,” Rilke writes in “Just As The Winged Energy of Delight.”

Let’s write this week of WILD STILLNESS, and find the wilderness there.

— Brendan


Mary Oliver

Today I’m flying low and I’m
not saying a word
I’m letting all the voodoos of ambition sleep.

The world goes on as it must,
the bees in the garden rumbling a little,
the fish leaping, the gnats getting eaten.
And so forth.

But I’m taking the day off.
Quiet as a feather.
I hardly move though really I’m traveling
a terrific distance.

Stillness. One of the doors
into the temple.

from A Thousand Mornings, 2012



Octavio Paz

Between going and staying the day wavers,
in love with its own transparency.

The circular afternoon is now a bay
where the world in stillness rocks.

All is visible and all elusive,
all is near and can’t be touched.

Paper, book, pencil, glass,
rest in the shade of their names.

Time throbbing in my temples repeats
the same unchanging syllable of blood.

The light turns the indifferent wall
into a ghostly theater of reflections.

I find myself in the middle of an eye,
watching myself in its blank stare.

The moment scatters. Motionless,
I stay and go: I am a pause.

translated by Eliot Weinberger

from Collected Poems, 1986


Larry Levis

In this place, beside a sigh of traffic
Regretting nothing as it passes, there
Was once an endless trilling in a wood.
They say it, & saying it makes it so.
Nor does it matter whether these miles
Of warehouse quiet a hundred years ago
Had as their tenant & overseer only
The gray snake hidden among gray leaves,
A smell of roots decaying in a stillness
Meant to last forever, & no one there,
Not even the mad widow with her axe
Lying in wait to welcome you, her smock
A faded yellow blending perfectly
Without her into the grasses of some rumor
Until what was gnat song, swamp, and carp eyes
Rising slowly in their sullen yellows
To nibble at the pond’s taut skin,
Became wind in the pines, an unending wood
Which was never there but rises now;
Behind the nothing & number of what
We are, the billboards’ blank amnesias,
That wake of all we were still trembles:
First nakedness & summer & that hush,
Its hymen no more than a cuticle
Of cattails bordering a marsh,
And beyond it, the hem of the darkest wood.

The worst thing one can know on days
Glazed by ice is that the cattails & marsh
Are there, as they’ve always been, their deep browns
Perfect, & perfectly unaware of it,
Swaying listlessly, then going still again.
The worst thing one can know is that
Gazing at them would be different now,
With something off to one side always &
Nudging you away from them, & you going
Willingly with it in the weightless air,
Allowing it to lead you up the hill,
Though nothing is there, no one is there,
The usher at your side not even the rustling
Of wind in the grass, until it all seems distant,
As if the cattails in the waters of a marsh
Belonged to a castle in a book by now,
And to the child reading it, as if the sawing
Blades of sea-grass that once cut your thumb,
Or the speckled, rosy fading of some blossom,
Had all been make-believes, a fakery.
The place of desire has no place for you.
Now, whoever you are, whatever you meant
By stopping here, has ceased to matter, for you
No longer can possess a speck of anything
Slipping toward the river’s mouth & the sea
Not the leaf gliding onto the smooth water
And outside history, not a grass blade,
Its pallor more solemnly blonde than ever
You had imagined it. You turn away,
Noticing nothing but that sharp, passing
Taste of yourself in your mouth, that hint
Of metal with a flavor of the end,
A taste you savor the rest of your days,
Something as blank & familiar as the light
At dawn filling the abandoned squares
Of the city & spreading effortlessly over
The green identical benches in the park.

from The Widening Spell of the Leaves, 1991