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. As Sydney Eddison declares, “Gardens are a form of autobiography” (3). Absolutely.
I’ve been gardening – in a decidedly amateurish way – since I was small. 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 I’ve always needed to recharge in it after a desk-bound day.
The narrative told in lockdown has confirmed the power of gardening to soothe and salve. 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” (21). German philosopher Martin Heidegger goes further in the much-quoted comment “To dwell is to garden” (239). For him, “to dwell” is in fact “to be” in the fullest experience of the term, in the sense of our investment in, care for/about the oikos (the home or environment) which roots and reciprocally cares for us.
Heidegger’s argument comes from the Roman myth about the deity Cura or Aeracura, who is 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” (241). I’ll come back to Cura. In the meantime, it doesn’t seem like rocket science to detect in the processes of nurturing and care, tracked to the passage of the seasons, modified by local conditions of soil and weather, adjusted to personality and taste, powerful mitigation for the circumscriptions of what has passed for ordinary life in the last twelve months.
However, it’s taken me all year to realise, in fact, that it’s not just getting outside which energises my gardener self. It’s not just the quiet routines 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, gladdening as these are. More compelling are the affinities between a garden and poetry. Bear with.
Poetry – like gardening and indeed most forms of creative expression – is frequently assigned therapeutic power, which has itself generated a good bit 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, “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” (55). She points us to Dylan Thomas, who likened writing poetry to “walking over broken glass with your eyeballs” (215). Nice.
If not for their therapeutic powers, then, how do poems and gardens compare? To my mind, first and most obviously, in their formal characteristics, their aesthetic satisfactions. According to the Brazilian landscape artist 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” (200). He 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.
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. Both testify to the co-dependence between artist and materials which is reflected everywhere in creative expression; the mutual involvement of produced and producer in a power-relationship over which neither can ever have the last word. As canvas and paint to painter, soil and plants to landscape artist, so page and words to the poet.
Similarly, 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” (47). 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 practice.
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 think of my own practice as like wandering around a gallery hung with all kinds of ideas and texts, and with 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. Curation 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 similarly ‘organo-dynamic’ matrix of a poem: a thoughtful response conditioned by space, time, taste and cultural convention.
Whether I’m working in the garden or on a poem, I feel involved in precisely this kind of co-creative activity: the subjective interrelation of artefact (the text-garden) and affects which recognises its own transience. Any curated event or experience expects to be overwritten. Which is why, ‘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” (Harrison 48). Like any creative act, it might be argued; like the poem.
Most people encounter poems in their most popular form, the anthology: those beautifully produced volumes which you’ll see in bookshops: 100 Poems for a Rainy Day; The Nation’s Favourite Thirty Poems, and so on. Coincidentally, or not, the word anthology comes from the ancient Greek (anthologia) and means a “collection of flowers”. I rest my case. ◾️
Professor Alice Entwistle is a literary critic with specialist interests in modern and contemporary poetry. She is currently completing the first critical study of bilingual Welsh poet Gwyneth Lewis for the University of Wales Press.
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Photographs from Alice's garden.