Issue #8: POETRY

As this month’s content theme is Poetry I considered writing this entire note in rhyme, for approximately 3 seconds. Then I remembered those unfortunate wishing-well poems at weddings. You know the ones…’If you would like to give us a gift, a cheque would give us a lift’ etcetera? I think I will steer this ship away from such things. Immediately. And anyway, since when has The Planthunter been literal?

There is so much poetry in the plant world. It exists in the blooming, the setting of seed, the inevitable death. It is beauty and connectedness. It is life. As well as being visually and metaphorically poetic, nature has been a source of inspiration for writers, poets, and thinkers for as long as words have existed.

Way back in 1791, Erasmus Darwin (grandfather of Charles) wrote The Botanic Garden. It was a combination of two HUGE poems, The Economy of Vegetation and The Loves of The Plants. Drawing from Carl Linnaeus’s classification system for plants, the poems set to encourage readers to engage with science.

By embracing the sexualized nature of Linnaeus’s classification system, Darwin anthropomorphized plants, telling all sorts of erotic tales of stamens and petals and pollination, getting readers all hot and sweaty about botany. Brilliant, huh?

Darwin wrote prose about different plants, and after each stanza would give explanatory scientific notes to accompany the poem. For example:

Woo’d with long care, CURCUMA cold and shy
Meets her fond husband with averted eye:
Four beardless youths the obdurate beauty move
With soft attentions of Platonic love.

Curcuma (aka turmeric): One male and one female inhabit this flower; but there are besides four imperfect males, or filaments without anthers upon them, called by Linneus eunuchs.

I’m not sure if anyone else finds this as fascinating as I, but if you do, you can download the entire The Loves Of The Plants book here. Juicy honeymoon reading.

Jumping forward a few hundred years from Darwins musings, this month we will attempt to do justice to the vast subject of poetry and plants with a collection of stories exploring a range of ideas and mediums such as the role of metaphor in Chinese gardens, the typography of nature, a poetry playlist, a guide to reading poetry in the Sydney Royal Botanic Gardens, an exploration of Emily Dickinson’s herbarium, and MORE.

I feel like I need to end this note with a poem. Not a silly limerick, but something a bit richer, deeper. The late Stanley Kunitz knew a thing or two about poetry and plants and was far more eloquent than I. His last book The Wild Braid: Reflections on a Century in The Garden (with Genine Lentine) explores a range of themes relating to humans and the natural world and the interconnectedness of the two. And then some. It is a brilliant read, by the way. This poem is a wonderful example of his approach to life, drawing attention to the absolute interconnectedness of all existence, everwhere.

The Snakes of September
By Stanley Kunitz

All summer I heard them
rustling in the shrubbery,
outracing me from tier
to tier in my garden,
a whisper among the viburnums,
a signal flashed from the hedgerow,
a shadow pulsing
in the barberry thicket.
Now that the nights are chill
and the annuals spent,
I should have thought them gone,
in a torpor of blood
slipped to the nether world
before the sickle frost.
Not so. In the deceptive balm
of noon, as if defiant of the curse
that spoiled another garden,
these two appear on show
through a narrow slit
in the dense green brocade
of a north-country spruce,
dangling head-down, entwined
in a brazen love-knot.
I put out my hand and stroke
the fine, dry grit of their skins.
After all,
we are partners in this land,
co-signers of a covenant.
At my touch the wild
braid of creation