Someone has asked me if contemporary poets write nature poetry. Yes, though I suppose it depends on what you mean by the term "nature." Robert Frost looking at a woodpile or watching a buck swim toward him across a lake is not the same as Keats hearing a nightingale or Wordsworth regarding a waterfall. Elizabeth Bishop looks at an undistinguished landscape differently from the way Wallace Stevens beholds a wilderness.

And Louise Gluck's poems spoken by flowering plants, mostly cultivated, are something else again. "The Hawthorn Tree," from her celebrated book The Wild Iris, is a model not only of narrative economy, but also of respect for the natural object. Even though the tree is made to speak, in some essential way it survives as a tree, not a mere puppet for the writer. The tree is tall enough to see, it is aware of its immobility, it views the field beyond the garden as poisonous, and human behavior as destructive as well as transparent:

Side by side, not

hand in hand: I watch you

walking in the summer garden -- things

that can't move

learn to see; I do not need

to chase you through

the garden; human beings leave

signs of feeling

everywhere, flowers

scattered on the dirt path, all

white and gold, some

lifted a little by

the evening wind; I do not need

to follow where you are now,

deep in the poisonous field, to know

the cause of your flight, human

passion or rage: for what else

would you let drop

all you have gathered?

"Gathered" is a word that sometimes means "understood," and that seems to be part of the point here. Nature is itself and other; understood in a way morally but in another way not moralized, not contorted into a symbol.

Frost deals directly with that question of human meaning and natural being in one of his greatest poems, "The Most of It":

He thought he kept the universe alone;

For all the voice in answer he could wake

Was but the mocking echo of his own

From some tree-hidden cliff across the lake.

Some morning from the boulder-broken beach

He would cry out on life, that what it wants

Is not its own love back in copy speech,

But counter-love, original response.

And nothing ever came of what he cried

Unless it was the embodiment that crashed

In the cliff's talus on the other side,

And then in the far distant water splashed,

But after a time allowed for it to swim,

Instead of proving human when it neared

And someone else additional to him,

As a great buck it powerfully appeared,

Pushing the crumpled water up ahead,

And landed pouring like a waterfall,

And stumbled through the rocks with horny tread,

And forced the underbrush -- and that was all.

The last phrase has two opposite meanings: that was the All, and that's all there was.

In these two poems, both completely indelible for me, the difference between nature and humanity is made haunting yet distinct -- partly by entertaining fictional similarities between the two. (Louise Glück's poem "The Hawthorn Tree" is from her book "The Wild Iris." Ecco. Copyright © 1992 by Louise Glück. Robert Frost's poem "The Most of It" can be found in "The Poetry of Robert Frost," edited by Edward Connery Lathem. Copyright © 1916 by Henry Holt.)