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Leaning Toward Light: A Posy of Poems Celebrating the Joys and Consolations of the Garden

Leaning Toward Light: A Posy of Poems Celebrating the Joys and Consolations of the Garden

“Gardening is like poetry in that it is gratuitous, and also that it cannot be done on will alone,” the poet and passionate gardener May Sarton wrote as she contemplated the parallels between these two creative practices — parallels that have led centuries of beloved writers to reverence the garden. No wonder Emily Dickinson spent her life believing that “to be Flower, is profound Responsibility.” No wonder Virginia Woolf had her epiphany about what it means to be an artist in the garden.

The garden as a place of reverence and responsibility, a practice of ample creative and spiritual rewards, comes alive in Leaning toward Light: Poems for Gardens & the Hands that Tend Them (public library). Envisioned and edited by poet and gardener Tess Taylor, it is a blooming testament to the etymology of anthology — from the Greek anthos (flower) and legein (to gather): the gathering of flowers — rooted in her belief that “the garden poem is as ancient as literature itself.”

Dahlias by cyanotype artist Rosalind Hobley.

Punctuating some of the loveliest poetic voices of our time are a handful of classics — Keats’s ode to autumn, a yawp of wildness from Whitman’s Song of Myself, Lucille Clifton’s spare, stunning “cutting greens” — and a miniature modern counterpart to the vintage gem John Keats’s Porridge: Favorite Recipes of American Poets: garden-grown delicacies like Jane Hirshfield’s braised fava beans, Ashley M. Jones’s glazed carrots, and Ellen Bass’s melon and cucumber gazpacho with basil oil.

In the garden, the poets find consolation for grief, connection to the cosmic compost that made us, consecration of our finitude and of the infinite in us — for “the gardener digs in another time, without past or future, beginning or end… the Amen beyond the prayer.”

Mostly, they find vitality, find reassurance, find reasons for rejoicing in the aliveness of life. Again and again, the most exultant of poetic forms rises from the page like a sun: There is an ode to the tulip and to the turnip, to fennel and to its cousin the carrot, that kindest of vegetables, and not one but two odes to garlic — but no ode more splendid than that to the peach by Ellen Bass, uncommon poet of perspective.

Gilded peach from Peach Culture by James Alexander Fulton, 1882. (Available as a print and as stationery cards, benefitting The Nature Conservancy.)

by Ellen Bass

Only one insect has feasted here —
a clear stub of resin
plugs the scar. And the hollow
where the stem was severed
shines with juice.
The fur still silvered
like a caul. Even
in the next minute,
the hairs will darken,
turn more golden in my palm.
Heavier, this flesh,
than you would imagine,
like the sudden
weight of a newborn.
Oh what a marriage
of citron and blush!
It could be a planet
reflected through a hall
of mirrors. Or
what a swan becomes
when a fairy shoots it
from the sky at dawn.

At the beginning of the world,
when the first dense pith
was ravished and the stars
were not yet lustrous
coins fallen from the
pockets of night,
who could have dreamed
this would be curried
from the chaos?
Scent of morning and sugar,
bruise and hunger.
Silent, swollen, clefted life,
remnant always remaking itself
out of that first flaming ripeness.

With her Buddhist training and her singular sensitivity to the elemental in us, Jane Hirshfield considers the meaning of faith:

by Jane Hirshfield

In the evenings
I scrape my fingernails clean,
hunt through old catalogues for new seed,
oil workboots and shears.
This garden is no metaphor —
more a task that swallows you into itself,
earth using, as always, everything it can.
I lend myself to unpromising winter dirt
with leaf-mold and bulb,
plant into the oncoming cold.
Not that I ever thought
the philosopher meant to be taken literally,
but with no invented God overhead,
I conjure a stubborn faith in rotting
that ripens into soil,
in an old corm that rises steadily each spring:
not symbols, but reassurances,
like a mother’s voice at bedtime reading a long-familiar book,
the known words barely listened to,
but joining, for all the nights of a life,
each world to the next.

Broken tulips by Clarissa Munger Badger, who inspired Emily Dickinson. (Available as a print and as stationery cards, benefitting The Nature Conservancy.)

Given the special place snails hold in my heart, I was delighted to see Thom Gunn celebrate a creature regarded by many gardeners as a foe:

by Thom Gunn

The snail pushes through a green
night, for the grass is heavy
with water and meets over
the bright path he makes, where rain
has darkened the earth’s dark. He
moves in a wood of desire,

pale antlers barely stirring
as he hunts. I cannot tell
what power is at work, drenched there
with purpose, knowing nothing.
What is a snail’s fury? All
I think is that if later

I parted the blades above
the tunnel and saw the thin
trail of broken white across
litter, I would never have
imagined the slow passion
to that deliberate progress.

Snail by Paul Sougy, 1955. (Available as a print.)

Ross Gay — poet laureate of the garden’s delights — offers a poem almost too beautiful and bittersweet to bear, a poem as necessary as sunlight:

by Ross Gay

Is that Eric Garner worked
for some time for the Parks and Rec.
Horticultural Department, which means,
perhaps, that with his very large hands,
perhaps, in all likelihood,
he put gently into the earth
some plants which, most likely,
some of them, in all likelihood,
continue to grow, continue
to do what such plants do, like house
and feed small and necessary creatures,
like being pleasant to touch and smell,
like converting sunlight
into food, like making it easier
for us to breathe.

From W.S. Merwin comes a lush prayer for presence, originally published in his poetic farewell to life — his breathtaking final collection Garden Time:

by W.S. Merwin

Late in May as the light lengthens
toward summer the young goldfinches
flutter down through the day for the first time
to find themselves among fallen petals
cradling their day’s colors in the day’s shadows
of the garden beside the old house
after a cold spring with no rain
not a sound comes from the empty village
as I stand eating the black cherries
from the loaded branches above me
saying to myself Remember this

Complement these fragments from the wholly wonderful Leaning toward Light with Diane Ackerman’s sensuous poem “The Consolation of Apricots” and the Victorian poet and painter Rebecca Hey’s illustrated encyclopedia of poetic lessons from the garden, then revisit two centuries of great writers and artists on the creative and spiritual rewards of gardening.

Published August 31, 2023




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