9 Poems of the Wild
What is the wild? Maybe the simplest definition is: that which is not under human control. All that is not domesticated by us, regulated by us, understood by us.
But in the age that’s now often called the Anthropocene — the era in which human activity creates vast impacts on the natural world, including climate change and mass extinction — even if we don’t know the wild, the wild knows us.
Here are nine poems, selected and annotated by the Center for Biological Diversity’s Victoria Bogdan Tejeda and Cybele Knowles, about the wild: wild animals, wild places and the distance (or sometimes nearness) from the wild to us.
We wanted to use this opportunity to introduce you to new voices. That means you may not find some of the better-known nature poets and poems in this list, but we hope you encounter some new favorites.
Diane di Prima is a legendary American poet sometimes associated with the Beat movement. Her poem “Life Chant” is structured around the repeated invocation of the phrase, “may it continue.” This hypnotic rhythm opens the mind to images that unfurl with sound and color (“cacophony of small birds at dawn” and “clumsy splash of pelican in smooth bays”), ultimately broadening to connect life through time and space (“astonished human eyeball squinting thru aeons at astonished nebulae who squint / back”). Di Prima challenges authority and human-caused suffering, putting humans in our place: not at the center but among living things. By the end of the poem, the phrase “may it continue” serves not just as prayer, but call to action.
A trophic cascade is a series of changes in an ecosystem caused by adding or removing a species to the top or the bottom of the food chain. Dungy’s “Trophic Cascade” describes one of the most famous trophic cascades: the ecological transformation that occurred when gray wolves were reintroduced to Yellowstone National Park in 1995 after a 70-year absence. As the poem describes, the changes to the ecosystem were so extensive that even the landscape was transformed. Dungy’s poem is a list poem with a twist ending that finds a resonance between the transformation of Yellowstone’s wild body and of her own.
Kay Ryan, who was appointed U.S. poet laureate by President Obama, is one of the most popular contemporary American poets. Her brief (10-line) poem “Green Hills” plays like a rich, minimalist song you want to hear over and over again. Ryan’s thoughtfully chosen cadence and language roll together like the hills of which she speaks. She quickly poses — and then resolves — a question about the landscape, disappearing with a sly grin and leaving evocative imagery in her wake.
Pulitzer Prize winner Mary Oliver’s “Summer Story” begins by observing a hummingbird feeding on a trumpet flower. In this quiet moment a refreshing epiphany enters: The narrator is jolted into awareness of “how many small, available things / are in the world / that aren’t / pieces of gold / or power.” From there, looking inward, she watches, “until the watching turns into feeling” that she is not only the hungry bird, but also the leaves and the blossoms.
Tohono O’odham poet and linguist Ofelia Zepeda’s work often invokes her home in the Sonoran desert. “Riding the Earth” depicts a person, referred to only as “she,” whose ability to see the world outside of her own experience allows her to transcend the human and become planetary. Zepeda’s portrait of this gifted individual can inspire the reader to take a new perspective on their place in the order of things, and the poem helps by creating a swirling momentum that lifts the reader up with “the centrifugal force of the rotation” into the stars.
Craig Santos Perez is a native Chamoru (Chamorro) from the Pacific Island of Guåhan/Guam who often writes about colonialism, environmental destruction and the connections between these two forms of violence. His “Sonnet XVII” is a poem of 14 lines in which the speaker expresses love for another. Love sonnets of the 16th century often used images from religion, astronomy and the unspoiled natural world to talk about love. For his love sonnet, written during the era of climate change, Perez uses images of human-caused environmental violence to express what his love is not — but also what it is.
Adrienne Rich (1929–2012) wrote bold, political poems addressing social justice, racism, identity and radical feminism. “What Kind of Times Are These” responds to a question posed by an earlier poet living in exile during World War II. Rich invokes the frustration of living “at the edge of dread” in a country that persecutes its people and operates in the shadows. Like a revolutionary speaking in code, she opens the possibility for a sliver of light and hope among the wild trees.
To create this experimental and experiential poem, Wendy Burk visited a ponderosa pine that grows in the Catalina Mountains of southern Arizona and asked it questions. She recorded the “answers” — what occurred in the space after her questions, including sounds of birds, planes, and wind — using keyboard symbols. One of eight interviews with different trees, this poem asks us to consider not just the life of a tree, but also the ways that language can not only limit but severely distort our perception of the other: in this case, the wild other.
Can a tweet be a poem? Absolutely.
Poet CAConrad is Frank O’Hara’s 21st-century heir, and this tweet-poem moves with the same seemingly effortless, charming ease of O’Hara’s conversational poems. Although brief, the poem expresses some key aspects of CAConrad’s work and world view, including spiritual engagement with the natural world, the power of collaboration, and composing out of intentional experiences that they have named “somatic rituals.” In a time when bee colonies are collapsing and we don’t why or how to stop it, CAConrad’s interest in spending quality time with insects represents a radical intelligence.
Photo credits: Blackbird at dawn by manfredrichter/Pixabay; Yellowstone Park wolf by Frank Crisanti/ Flickr; mountains by Free-Photos/Pixabay; hummingbird by Nicman/Pixabay; Earth courtesy NASA; swan and nest by opusbloo/Flickr; forest by StockSnap/Pixabay; ponderosa pine by azboomer/Pixabay; moth by Cybele Knowles/Flickr.
Additional sources: “Life Chant” by Diane di Prima, Revolutionary Letters (City Lights Books, 1979); “Trophic Cascade,” Trophic Cascade by Camille T. Dungy (Wesleyan University Press, 2018); “Green Hills” by Kay Ryan, The Niagara River (Grove Press, 2005); “Summer Story” by Mary Oliver, Red Bird (Beacon Press, 2008); “Riding the Earth” by Ofelia Zepeda, Jewed ‘I-Hoi/Earth Movement (Kore Press, 2005); “What Kind of Times Are These” by Adrienne Rich, Collected Poems: 1950–2012 (W.W. Norton & Company, 2016); “Pinus ponderosa (Ponderosa Pine)” by Wendy Burk, Tree Talks: Southern Arizona (Delete Press, 2016).