As long as there have been poets, nature has been there to serve as a muse. But what of the more immediate and tactile environment of the garden?
For some of the greatest poets, all the important lessons and metaphors about life can be found somewhere right outside the back door. Something as prosaic as a compost pile feeds not just the soil, but also the fertile imagination of someone like Stanley Kunitz, who spent summers working in his seaside garden in Cape Cod.
In his 1995 poem “The Round,” he tells us that the only thing he can see outside his study is the “bloated compost heap,” but that is enough to inspire a paean to his garden and its powers to renew his very being each morning.
For Genine Lentine, poet, lifelong gardener and writing teacher, the link between gardening and poetry seems obvious.
There is a “kindred experience” between the two, she says, and both are ethical pursuits, in that they demonstrate a deep caring for the world and a need to connect to it. This is not a one-way street: The garden in turn nurtures us. “A lot of poets walk around, asking: ‘How do we survive, how do we thrive, how do we flourish?’ And the garden takes us through those questions.”
This seems a timely consideration. On Dec. 6, the American poet Louise Glück received this year’s Nobel Prize in literature. Glück, who lives in Cambridge, Mass., is a gardener, and her horticulture has infused much of her writing.
One of her best-known collections, “The Wild Iris,” was written feverishly after a fallow period relieved by the act of gardening in rural Vermont. The work, which won her the Pulitzer Prize in 1993, gives voice to some of her plants. Lentine loves the title poem for its invention of an insistent iris, a rhizomatous perennial that suffers death each fall, only to be reborn in the spring.
“The idea of a bulb saying, ‘hear me out,’ is literally like a bulb sprouting,” Lentine says. “It implies a span of time and is asking us to listen. It returns from oblivion to find a voice.”
Glück’s work has long been admired for its precision, austerity and psychological depths.
“I think her poems are coming from a responsibility to speak accurately,” Lentine says. “Her language doesn’t diminish or exaggerate.” A good example of this, she says, is “The Sensual World,” where the earth is “sublime, indifferent, it is present, it will not respond./It is encompassing, it will not minister.”
Lentine’s interpretation: “Don’t expect life to keep you alive, but while you’re alive, it’s amazing.”
In her Nobel lecture, Glück made what she sees as an essential point about her poetry: Her reader is an audience of one. Her poems are not for collective consumption. She spoke of the influence of another gardener-poet in private conversation with her reader, Emily Dickinson.
Glück recalled reading Dickinson as a teenager. “Dickinson had chosen me, or recognized me, as I sat there on the sofa. We were an elite, companions in invisibility, a fact known only to us, which each corroborated for the other. In the world, we were nobody.”
Again, there are parallels for the gardener. Even in the community garden, gardening is, like one of Glück’s poems, a private compact between the cultivator and the cultivated.
For Lentine, the abiding experience of her writing life was the six years she spent as Kunitz’s literary assistant, until his death in 2006 at the age of 100. It was a role that morphed in summer into a co-gardener in the poet’s small, intensely cultivated garden around his beach house near the harbor in Provincetown. (All these roads seem to lead to Massachusetts.) He had turned a sandy slope into a three-tiered ornamental garden, anchored by conifers, then richly planted as a flower garden.
Kunitz seemed to draw such energy from the garden that he became almost comically blithe to his advanced age. When he was 95, he became the nation’s poet laureate. At 98, he decided to take down a mature spruce tree, so he could replant an area of the garden. At the end of each growing season, he would turn to Lentine to confer on what to plant the following year. Together, they wrote “The Wild Braid: A Poet Reflects on a Century in the Garden,” published in 2005.
In late summer, the owners of his boyhood home in Worcester, Mass., would send him ripe pears from the tree Kunitz had planted with his mother in 1914. The pears, the constancy of the fruit tree, reassured Lentine after the existential jolt of 9/11.
For Kunitz, this annual gift engendered “My Mother’s Pears,” encompassing memories of a boy struggling to plant the sapling. “I summon up all my strength/to set the pear tree in the ground,/unwinding its burlap shroud.”
Toward the end of Kunitz’s life, the planting became too much, but he remained nimble with his red-handled pruners, and no faded flower was safe. “He was fascinated by my own fascination with snails,” Lentine says. “His main thing was curiosity, and that was the joy of working with him. It’s not even accurate to say it’s a memory. I feel the force of Stanley when I’m in the garden now,” she says.
Paperwhites and amaryllis bulbs are best staked when planting. You can minimize stretching by placing pots near a bright window and rotating them 90 degrees daily as they grow. A little rubbing alcohol in the water will also promote compact stems.