I’d like to share with you my dream to have an English class Garden of Poetry. It will be a rewarding project that will use interaction with the living elements of nature to inspire a more reflective, spiritual reading (and writing) of literature and poetry. Many great poets of the past and present have been gardeners, farmers, or naturalists, planting their words deep in the loam, deriving shape, form, and being from our nutrient-rich earth.
Theocritus’s Idylls in the third century B.C. captured the beauty of rural life. His creation of the poet-goatherd, Lycidas, became a shepherd type emanating through poetry for centuries, for example, in Milton’s “Lycidas.” An idyll, invented by Thocritus, was a short, pastoral poem describing rustic life. This short pastoral lyric was imitated by Virgil in his Eclogues, as well as by Dante and Petrarch, who each wrote bucolic works entitled Eclogues. In the Renaissance, the pastoral was an important marker for young poets. Sir Philip Sydney’s long prose work The Countess of Pembroke’s Arcadia and Edmund Spencer’s The Shepheardes Calendar were major pastoral works. And of course the Romantic poets—Wordsworth, Coleridge, Keats, etc., and their American Transcendental counterparts, Emerson and Thoreau—all returned with a fervor to nature, which became both their subject and source of inspiration. To name a few more: Yeats, Dickinson, and Hardy. Frost, Pound, and Wendell Berry.
Many of these poets penned much of their verse from the stimulation derived from their cultivation. Perhaps the act of planting and growing vegetables is what writes their poems for them. In this case, the garden functions as the muse.
In my English classes, I open each class period with a spirited reading and reflection of a poem. Beginning our learning time together with a poem is like a fastidious and thorough stretch; or like a first cup of fine organic coffee; or even like the sun’s rays spilling over the Chesapeake Bay Bridge on a crisp, fall morning. You cannot believe you are driving across that bridge, at just that perfect time. How did you find yourself there?
The beauty and wonder of cultivating a garden is similar to this. Gardens contain life; they lead us through our hands and through the earth toward illumination. Like literature, gardens have the ability to invent, to nurture, to grow. Harvesting and cultivation is a recurring motif in much literature, how much more will my students understand this motif by actually gardening!—by digging and chopping the soil into rows with their hands, feeling a few good blisters in the hands from meaningful work. True learning surely comes by way of theory connected to practice; the metaphysical conjoined to the physical.
What would we plant in this English Class Garden? Here are some possibilities: radishes, shallots, onions, potatoes, herbs, beetroots, carrots, parsnips, peas, beans, tomatoes, parsley, garlic, and other herbs and vegetables. Fortunately, a grassy tract (a section of the lawn:) exists outside my classroom that perhaps would work quite well for a garden. The proposed size would be about 40 feet by 50 feet. The students would be required to take part in the research, planting, tilling, and cultivation of the garden. They would be involved in each important step along the way: researching the conditions and techniques necessary for each vegetable or herb to grow (not to mention the exercise in reading a variety of texts); digging the soil; planting the seeds; watering and cultivating; and ultimately, eating the bounty together as a class! And in addition, the joy of giving many vegetables to others.
In the midst of this process, the students would be reading agrarian literature and poetry. A famous Thoreau quote reads (though oft-quoted, I still love it!):
“I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived.”
And not only would the students be reading great works of pastoral and nature poetry, they could also try their hand at writing some prose or poetry that would imitate the simplicity of agrarianism, the beauty of reaping and sowing. They’d have first-hand experience, after all. No need to keep them from writing too many poetic abstractions. Just write what the dirt looks like up close; write what you smell, or what you hear when you dig. Write about the color of the seed before you plant it. Perhaps let each stanza capture the imagery of each stage from the seed to the plant. The garden, then, would become the muse for my students, providing them much more than airy, abstract notions of nature. In the class garden, they could escape the anesthetizing fluorescent lights and scrape their hands in the dry (and wet) earth. This may be their only real chance for literary salvation.
Each year I talk to my students about my dream of having a Garden of Poetry. Each year I look to them to give me the courage to break the school rules and walk out of my classroom, and begin digging up the lawn outside my window. In the course of this discussion, I always read a short poem called “Hoeing,” by John Updike—perhaps the justification needed to take my students outside, to teach and learn again.
I sometimes fear the younger generation will be deprived
of the pleasures of hoeing;
there is no knowing
how many souls have been formed by this simple exercise.
The dry earth like a great scab breaks, revealing
the pea-root’s home,
a fertile wound perpetually healing.
How neatly the green weeds go under!
The blade chops the earth new.
Ignorant the wise boy who
has never performed this simple, stupid, and useful wonder.