“If you have a garden in your library, everything will be complete.”
~ Marcus Tullius Cicero, Epistulae Ad Familiares, Letter IV; To Varro (BC 116-28)
Other miseries notwithstanding, lockdown has been kind to gardening. As anyone with any experience knows, growing and caring for plants is an incipiently productive as well as pleasurable way to spend time, bringing discernible psychological as well as physical health benefits. Gardening, we might say with more or less literal accuracy, grounds. Which seems to me to be part of the point garden-writer Sydney Eddison is making when she declares in Gardening for a Lifetime (2010) that “Gardens are a form of autobiography”. Absolutely.
I’ve been gardening – in a decidedly amateurish way – since I was small. It’s long seemed a reflex response to a mainly sedentary working life: the hours spent inside my head, inside books, on-screen, inside my study, can all be compensated for with a brief spell outside, however limited or mundane the excuse. My garden is tiny, but even before lockdown I knew how I depended on recharging in it after a desk-bound day, and my good fortune to have it at all.
The narrative told in lockdown has roundly confirmed the power of gardening to soothe, salve and heal. For psychologist-turned-gardener Sue Stuart-Smith, “Gardening is about setting life in motion and seeds, like dead fragments, help us recreate the world anew” (The Well Gardened Mind, 2020). German philosopher Martin Heidegger is among the people who got there before her, in his much-quoted observation that “To dwell is to garden”. For Heidegger, I should add, “to dwell” is much less passive than some readers might assume; those more familiar with this philosopher will know that his use of the verb presumes on some kind of profound interrelation with the oikos (the home or environment), which surrounds and roots us. To be for Heidegger means living in the fullest imagination of the human experience; to be in this way requires investment in the elements involved in being the person you are: committing to, imprinting yourself on, caring for and about where and how you live. That state of existence emerges – can only evolve -in the ongoing dialogue between carer and cared-for: this is the nature of the “dwelling” which Heidegger famously envisages.
Heidegger draws his argument from the Roman myth about the deity Cura or Aeracura, credited (with Jupiter’s assistance) with the creation of human beings from a lump of river clay. From this story he shapes his “double sense of cura [as] care for something as concern, absorption in the world, but also care in the sense of devotion”. I’ll come back to Cura. In the meantime, it doesn’t seem like rocket science to detect in the horticultural processes of plant nurturing and care, tracked to the passage of the seasons, modified by local conditions of soil and weather, adjusted to personality and taste, and all of it requiring thought, patience and commitment, powerful mitigation for the frustrations and circumscriptions of what has come to pass for ordinary life – for our collective biography – in the last twelve weird months. Caring seems at some level more than likely to be curative.
However, it’s taken me all year to realise, in fact, that it’s no more getting outside – to feel the play of fresh air, sun, rain, even snow on my skin – than the chance to flex some creative muscle which energises my gardener self. It’s not just the quiet routine of planting, watering, and waiting for the joy of watching things grow; not the satisfactions of a rotund compost pile; a brimming pot or something frothing an unsightly corner into temporary charm that compels, gladdening as they all are. No. Or at least, not only. More compelling for me is my sense of the affinities between my garden – any garden – and poetry. Bear with.
Although I teach all kinds of literature, as my kids, friends and students will confirm, my scholarly life is mainly taken up with poetry. Poetry – like gardening and indeed most forms of creative expression – is frequently assigned therapeutic power; no surprise that this assumption has generated its own share of locked-down chat.
Many poets view such claims with scepticism. For bilingual Welsh poet Gwyneth Lewis, who has written powerfully about her own depression, poetry is less therapist than brutal overlord. According to Lewis in Sunbathing in the Rain (2007), “Poetry has acquired a fluffy image, which is totally at odds with its real nature. It’s not pastel colours, but blood-red and black. If you don’t obey it as a force in your life it will tear you to pieces”. She points us to Dylan Thomas, who reputedly likened writing poetry to “walking over broken glass with your eyeballs”. Nice.
Now, I’m safe from the agony these writers report, because my job involves reading and writing about poetry rather than writing it myself. And I’m certainly not the first person to compare poems with gardens. There are countless poems, both more and less expert, about gardens. Thus, if like me you think that any poem is at least partly about poetry itself, you’ll appreciate that their cross-continental legacy, stretching from antiquity to the present, offers plenty of reason to align the two forms of self-expression.
In poems, as for gardens, form and content are indivisibly, undecideably, part and parcel of each other.
Why does the comparison between the poem and garden work so well? To my mind, the parallels hold up from three angles. First and most obviously, both invite and should satisfy in their formal characteristics: the aesthetic integrity and coherence of their material shape, their structural beauty. Russian philosopher Michael Marder’s depiction of the garden as “the form of form, a meta-order bent on preserving order” seems neatly to echo my own expectation that any decent poem be seasoned with at least a degree of self-referential discipline.
Likewise, both gardens and poems pretty much by definition call attention to the nature, efficacy and ambition of what I want to call their engineering: the intersection between their formal materialities and the architecture – the machinery – of the whole. In the case of a garden, I’m talking about the interplay between, say, vertical (a hedge, sentinel conifer or row of obelisks) and horizontal details (path, pond or groundcover) as they bear on the space as a whole; in the poem, the conversation between elements of rhythm or rhyme threaded in and through different stanzas, or the disruptive or suturing effect of punctuation. For one of my favourite poets, the American writer William Carlos Williams, any poem “is a machine made of words”.
Finally there is the extent to which each experience, textual or horticultural, opens itself up to the imaginative consciousness of its audience, the visitor-reader; the extent to which it invites us into its expressive processes; constructs us as co-implicated in, co-producers of, its richly provisional experience.
For this enthusiast, the aesthetic pleasures which any poem or garden offers will have been produced by the combined and simultaneous action of those three confluent elements on my sense-perceptions and emotions; its firing of my creative imagination. In poems, as for gardens, form (the shaping/arrangement of its constituent materials) and content (the materials themselves) are indivisibly, undecideably, part and parcel of each other.
In affirmation, Marder notes the semantic evolution of the very word garden, from the adjective meaning (enclosed or sequestered) modifying the Latin expression hortus gardinus or “enclosed garden”, to the noun we know today. In his words: “Form became content”.
This formulation summons another American poet, Robert Creeley (subject of my doctoral research in the nineties, and major influence on my critical imagination ever since), explaining of his own poetry that “Form is never more than an extension of content” (Jacket 25). Borrowed by his friend and mentor Charles Olson for the latter’s ground-breaking 1950 essay-manifesto PRO-jective Verse, Creeley’s formula continues to resonate in contemporary poetic practice and its discourses even today. Interestingly, his words also summon the Brazilian landscape artist and ecologist Roberto Burle Marx, “A garden is a complex of aesthetic and plastic intentions; and the plant is, to a landscape artist,… a color, a shape, a volume or an arabesque in itself” (Landscape Architecture Magazine, 1954). Burle Marx might easily be describing the poem, a kind of textual garden contoured by line and stanza, its word-planting controlled and coloured by a touch of rhythm here, a hint of rhyme there.
For this reader, both observations testify to the perfect co-dependence between artist and materials which is reflected everywhere in creative expression; a reciprocity which binds produced and producer to each other in a finely balanced power-relationship over which neither ever has the last word. As canvas and paint to painter, staves and notes to composer, soil and plants to landscape artist, so page and words to the poet.
Every time I think about a poem, I do so in conversation – sometimes unintentionally – with all the ways in which it has been read before me.
Let’s recall the writer Vita Sackville West, the novelist and self-taught gardener responsible, with husband Harold Nicholson, for the enormously popular gardens at Sissinghurst Castle in Kent. Sackville-West’s weekly gardening column for The Observer, ‘In Your Garden’, ran from 1946 to the year before she died. She is less well-remembered today for her award-winning poetry. The long pastoral The Land was published to acclaim in 1926. Its equally lengthy successor The Garden, appeared exactly twenty years later.
The four-part arrangement of The Garden follows the seasonal passage of the year. Early on, Sackville-West’s gardener is captured in repose, dreaming “his own special alloy / Of possible and the impossible”. Her phrasing exactly explains why the depiction of gardener as custodian care-giver, of the garden as cared-for, submitting (gratefully?) to such interventions, fails the terms of a decidedly two-way relationship.
Ironically Sackville West’s words implicitly parallel her protagonist and her composing self, both striving to find a balance between power and subjection, call and response, utterance and silence. Similarly, in The Garden: An Essay on the Human Condition (2009), Robert Pogue Harrison parallels the garden’s “will to expression” with “the way poems… are loquacious. In effect [both] amount to the beginning of a dialogue, and the interlocutor is whoever takes the time to notice and wonder at them”. He’s quite right. Reading a poem is always provisional: each and every encounter renders even the most familiar text new in some way. Likewise the outdoor space, in which stasis is unthinkable. The dynamism both consoles and stimulates me; it lies at the heart of my academic life and work.
Every time I think about a poem, I do so in conversation – sometimes unintentionally – with all the ways in which it has been read before me. Scholarship in the humanities is founded on this breadth of approach; accordingly, in the academy, ‘literary criticism’ is hardly ever critical in the sense of objecting to a plate of salty food or denigrating someone’s driving.
I tend to construct my own practice as much more like wandering around a gallery hung with not only all kinds of ideas and texts, but also all kinds of conversations about those ideas and texts. My role, and responsibility, is to clear the most effective route through the resulting ‘noise’, plotting the path of my argument to show each of its elements from the most relevant and helpful angle. To be persuasive, this process – which both fixes and doesn’t – must avoid both slight and slavishness.
This multi-angled dialogue feels – as Harrison anticipates – very much like being in my garden: whatever the task, I’m always positioned between the twin imperatives of the predictable and the unexpected, every move a recognition of and response to whatever conditions, circumstances and materials face me: what’s the weather like? Which seeds germinated? What succumbed to the last frost? What needs doing now, and what can wait for sun/rain/another season? In this ceaseless to-and-fro, give-and-take, any intervention is provisional, moderated by the complex re/generative organism of the garden as a whole. And the view of an imaginary always more experienced visitor-interlocutor.
Together, the precarities of my scholarly work and my horticultural efforts propel me back to Cura, from whose name comes not only ‘caring’ and ‘curing’ but also curation. The latter seems a better description of the co-dependent relationship between the organo-dynamic matrix of germination, growth and decay we call nature and its ‘cultivation’. Likewise, I’d argue, co-dependence between a literary reader and the text (in the ‘organo-dynamic’ complex processes of its production, consumption and reception through time) seems much better represented by the term ‘curation’: the thoughtful shaping of a response conditioned – rather than confined – by the immediacies of space, time, taste and cultural convention.
Whether I’m working in the garden or concentrating on a poem, I feel involved in precisely this kind of co-creative activity: the subjective interrelation of self with artefact (the text-garden) and affects which recognises its own transience. Any curation of anything expects to be overwritten. Which is why, as Harrison puts it, ”in the final analysis, human gardens do not, as one hears so often, bring order to nature; rather, they give order to our relation to nature”. Like any creative act, it might be argued; like the poem.
Cover image: follower of Ogata Korin, Chrysanthemums by a Stream (c. 1715-30 or later), The Cleveland Museum of Art via The Public Domain Review.
This is part of FIELDS, a section of The Learned Pig devoted to exploring fields as natural and (agri)cultural, invisible and visible, poor and productive, created and creators. FIELDS is conceived and edited by Marloe Mens.