Poetry and the parks are always there for us when we seek beauty, solace and meaning. Today, we celebrate that timeless connection ― and National Poetry Month ― with some of our favorite national park poems.
What we experience in our national parks can sometimes leave us at a loss for words, but park-inspired poets prove that finding those words can be nothing short of extraordinary.
To honor the National Park Service centennial in 2016, the Academy of American Poets commissioned 50 poems to celebrate national parks in every state. Today, we’re taking a closer look at five of our favorites, including:
Episode 17, “A Collision of Breaths,” was produced by Todd Christopher.
Original theme music by Chad Fischer
Audio clips courtesy of the American Academy of Poets. For the complete collection “Imagine Our Parks with Poems,” please visit: https://poets.org/imagine-our-parks-poems
The Secret Lives of Parks is brought to you by:
Todd Christopher – Producer & Host
Jennifer Errick – Producer & Host
Bev Stanton – Online Producer
Vaness Pius – Social Media Manager
The Secret Lives of Parks is a production of the National Parks Conservation Association. With more than 1.6 million members and supporters, NPCA is the nation’s only independent, nonpartisan advocacy organization dedicated to protecting national parks. Learn more at npca.org
A Collision of Breaths
Todd Christopher: What we experience in our national parks can sometimes leave us at a loss for words, but park-inspired poets prove that finding those words can be nothing short of extraordinary. Today, we celebrate National Poetry Month, park-style.
I’m Todd Christopher, and this is The Secret Lives of Parks.
Poetry and the parks may not seem to have a lot in common, but I would suggest that they do ― we so often turn to both to find beauty, solace, meaning and truth.
And they both certainly have a way of giving us greater perspective. Whether you’re edging up to the rim of the Grand Canyon or easing your way into T.S. Eliot’s “The Wasteland,” you’re going to find yourself with an awful lot to think about.
Maybe that’s it ― poetry and parks, each in their own way, illuminate our human existence, but on a very different scale.
The parks are the big picture. The parks trade in magnificence. The Smokies are Great, after all, just as the Tetons are Grand and that famous Bend is Big. Whether it’s the enormity of a landscape, or the enormity of the history and cultural significance of place, when we come to the parks, we confront an almost unimaginable whole and take away a little fragment at a time, visit after visit, that we can weave into our understanding of the world, and of ourselves.
I think it could be said that poetry is much the same, but in reverse. Poets have an eye and ear for exquisite details, for the deeply intimate and personal. They stitch together fleeting moments and indelible images... and in the process, they somehow find a way to reveal at least a glimpse of something much, much bigger than ourselves.
In 2016, the Academy of American Poets, the organization that inaugurated National Poetry Month 27 years ago, celebrated the centennial of the National Park Service by commissioning 50 poets to write poems about a park in each of the 50 states. The project, Imagine Our Parks with Poems, resulted in some incredible works, and we’ve collected five of our favorites for this episode. You’ll hear the poets Ada Limón, Nathalie Handal, Arthur Sze, Meg Day and Major Jackson read their works aloud, and I think and hope they’ll move you, too.
Ada Limón is the current Poet Laureate of the United States. She lives in Kentucky part of the time and wrote this poem for that state’s best-known park.
Ada Limón: This is Ada Limón reading “Notes on the Below”
Notes on the Below
—For Mammoth Cave National Park
Humongous cavern, tell me, wet limestone, sandstone caprock, bat-wing, sightless translucent cave shrimp,
this endless plummet into more of the unknown, how one keeps secrets for so long.
All my life, I’ve lived above the ground, car wheels over paved roads, roots breaking through concrete, and still I’ve not understood the reel of this life’s purpose.
Not so much living, but a hovering without sense.
What’s it like to be always night? No moon, but a few lit up circles at your many openings. Endless dark, still time must enter you. Like a train, like a green river?
Tell me what it is to be the thing rooted in shadow. To be the thing not touched by light (no that’s not it) to not even need the light? I envy; I envy that.
Desire is a tricky thing, the boiling of the body’s wants, more praise, more hands holding the knives away.
I’ve been the one who has craved and craved until I could not see beyond my own greed. There’s a whole nation of us.
To forgive myself, I point to the earth as witness.
To you, your Frozen Niagara, your Fat Man’s Misery, you with your 400 miles of interlocking caves that lead only to more of you, tell me,
what it is to be quiet, and yet still breathing.
Ruler of the Underlying, let me speak to both the dead and the living as you do. Speak to the ruined earth, the stalactites, the eastern small-footed bat,
to honor this: the length of days. To speak to the core that creates and swallows, to speak not always to what’s shouting, but to what’s underneath asking for nothing.
I am at the mouth of the cave. I am willing to crawl.
Todd Christopher: Each of the poets also shared a statement about their poem. Here is Limón’s:
“This poem came out of a recent, almost urgent, need to point back to the earth. We have done so much harm in this life—to one another, to the ground we think we own—and I wanted the chance to speak directly to a sacred place and look for answers, or to simply lay my buzzing mind down at the mercy of the earth’s core.”
Born in Haiti, the poet Nathalie Handal has lived all around the world but found Nevada’s only national park to be transcendent.
Nathalie Handal: This is Nathalie Handal reading my poem, “Accepting Heaven at Great Basin.”
When you doubt the world look at the undivided darkness look at Wheeler Peak cliffs like suspended prayers contemplate the cerulean the gleaming limestone the frozen shades the wildflowers look at the bristlecone pine a labyrinth to winding wonders listen to the caves sing silently remember the smell of sagebrush after a thunderstorm that Lexington Arch is a bridge of questions in the solitude of dreams that here distances disturb desire to deliver a collision of breaths the desert echoes in this dark night sky stars reveal the way a heart can light a world.
Todd Christopher: As her statement reveals, the experience affected her deeply.
“I’m an urbanite but when I started teaching at the low-residency MFA program at Sierra Nevada College and discovered the numinous openness of Nevada, something unnamed untangled me. Standing under the crisp golden-red light then the infinite dark at Great Basin for the first time felt like being in the middle of my heart and asking, where do I go from here? Where does one go after they’ve lived wars, been too close to death’s shadows, and then sees a version of heaven? Can we give ourselves permission to inhale its glory without betraying those who couldn’t flee, or didn’t survive? Perhaps we are meant to see such wonder to inform us of how beauty resists.”
The poet and translator Arthur Sze was the first poet laureate of Sante Fe, New Mexico, and he drew inspiration from his state’s newest national park.
Arthur Sze: This is Arthur Sze, and I’m reading my poem, “White Sands.”
—walking along a ridge of white sand— it’s cooler below the surface—
we stop and, gazing at an expanse of dunes to the west, watch a yellow yolk of sun drop to the mountains—
an hour earlier, we rolled down a dune, white sand flecked your eyelids and hair—
a claret cup cactus blooms, and soaptree yuccas move as a dune moves—
so many years later, on a coast, waves rolling to shore, wave after wave,
I see how our lives have unfolded, a sheen of wave after whitening wave—
and we are stepping barefoot, rolling down a dune, white flecks on our lips,
on our eyelids: we are lying in a warm dune as a full moon lifts against an ocean of sky—
Todd Christopher: In his statement, Sze shares what inspired this piece:
“White Sands, in southern New Mexico, is the site of the world’s largest gypsum dunefield. In summer, the sunlight can be blinding; the temperature can rise to over 100 degrees. At sunset, when the sand is cooling, it is marvelous to walk along a ridge, and I’ve used this physical edge to explore memory and desire.”
The poet Meg Day, who teaches in the MFA program at North Carolina State University, wrote “The Permanent Way” about Pennsylvania’s Steamtown National Historic Site. Created in 1986, Steamtown preserves the history of steam railroading in America, especially from the mid-19th to mid-20th century.
Meg Day: This is Meg Day, reading “The Permanent Way.”
We weren’t supposed to, so we did what any band of boys would do & we did it the way they did in books none of us would admit we stole from our brothers & kept hidden
under bedskirts in each of our rooms: dropped our bicycles without flipping their kickstands & scaled the fence in silence. At the top, somebody’s overalls snagged, then my Levi’s, & for a few deep
breaths, we all sat still—grouse in a line— considering the dark yard before us, how it gestured toward our defiance— of gravity, of curfews, of what we knew of goodness & how we hoped we could be
shaped otherwise—& dared us to jump. And then we were among them, stalking their muscled silhouettes as our own herd, becoming ourselves a train of unseen movements made singular,
never strangers to the permanent way of traveling through the dark of another’s shadow, indiscernible to the dirt. Our drove of braids & late summer lice buzz cuts pivoted in unison
when an engine sighed, throwing the moon into the whites of our eyes & carrying it, still steaming, across the yard to a boilerman,
her hair tied up in a blue bandana. Somewhere, our mothers were sleeping
prayers for daughters who did not want women to go to the moon, who did not ask for train sets or mitts. But here—with the moon at our feet, & the whistle smearing the cicadas’ electric scream, & the headlamp
made of Schwinn chrome, or a cat’s eye marble, or, depending on who you asked, the clean round scar of a cigarette burn on the inside of a wrist so small even my fingers could fasten around
it—was a woman refilling the tender in each of us. We watched her the way we’d been told to watch our brothers, our fathers: in quiet reverence, hungry all the while.
Todd Christopher: Day’s statement is a powerful reminder of the importance of a park system that tells a more complete American story:
“Much of my youth was spent on family road trips to National Parks—I can map with ease the different phases of my childhood and adolescence based on the geography of the parks system in the United States. In many ways, the NPS was how I learned about this country and the people who lived in it; ‘The Permanent Way’ attempts to correct some of the omissions in that early education, of which there were many.”
We end with the poet Major Jackson, the Gertrude Conaway Vanderbilt Chair in the Humanities at Vanderbilt University, whose poem, “Song as Abridged Thesis of George Perkins Marsh’s Man and Nature,” was inspired by a seminal work of environmental literature.
His statement explains:
“In cataloguing the harmful effects of man’s impact on Earth from both a historical and scientific perspective, George Perkins Marsh, diplomat, scholar, and writer from Vermont, effectively launched the environmental movement as we know it today. His was the first and loudest cry to call attention to deforestation, over-fishing, and soil erosion, among other abuses, which led to the founding of the National Forest System and the National Park Service, signed into existence by an Act of Congress on August 25, 1916.”
Here is Major Jackson.
The pendulous branches of the Norway spruce slowly move as though approving our gentle walk in Woodstock, and the oak leaves yellowing this early morning fall in the parking lot of Marsh-Billings-Rockefeller. We hear beneath our feet their susurrus as the churning of wonder, found, too, in the eyes of a child who has just sprinted toward a paddock of Jersey cows. The fate of the land is the fate of man.
Some have never fallen in love with a river of grass or rested in the dignity of the Great Blue Heron standing alone, saint-like, in a marshland nor envied the painted turtle sunning on a log, nor thanked as I have, the bobcat for modeling how to navigate dynasties of snow, for he survives in both forests and imaginations away from the dark hands of developers and myths of profits. The fate of the land is the fate of man.
Some are called to praise as holy, hillocks, ponds, and brooks, to renew the sacred contract of live things everywhere, the cold pensive roamings of clouds above Mount Tom, to extol silkworm and barn owls, gorges and vales, the killdeer, egret, tern, and loon; some must rest at the sandbanks, in deep wilderness, by a lagoon, estuaries or floodplain, standing in the way of the human storm: the fate of the land is the fate of man.
Todd Christopher: The Secret Lives of Parks is a production of the National Parks Conservation Association. Episode 17, “A Collision of Breaths,” was produced by Todd Christopher, and our small-but-mighty team includes Jennifer Errick, Bev Stanton and Vanessa Pius. More at thesecretlivesofparks.org
Original theme music by Chad Fischer
Audio clips courtesy of the Academy of American Poets. Founded in 1934, the Academy supports poets and poetry in America through programs including Poem-a-Day and National Poetry Month, which has been celebrated every April since 1996. Learn more at poets.org. See the show notes for this episode for a link to the Academy’s complete collection of 50 national park poems.
For more than a century, the National Parks Conservation Association has been protecting and enhancing America’s national parks for present and future generations. With more than 1.6 million members and supporters, NPCA is the nation’s only independent, nonpartisan advocacy organization dedicated to protecting national parks.
Learn more and join us at npca.org