Do me a favour — look outside. What do you see? A building, maybe. A house. A tree. Look closer, damn it! You’re reading from a youth publishing magazine, make us proud! How do the leaves commend the wind that rustles them? The lilacs are blooming — how do they feel as they part, petal by petal, with the evaporating dew? These questions, although inspiring, are not new. The world around us — including clouds, trees, insects, rodents, birds and yes, even other humans — is alive and perceiving, and has served as a fountain of inspiration for artists throughout history.
One soul with such artistic sense was a German ecologist named Jakob von Uexküll, who invites us on a contemplative walk through the world of other living systems in his essay, A Foray into the Worlds of Animals and Humans. “We begin such a stroll on a sunny day before a flowering meadow in which insects and butterflies flutter, and we make a bubble around each of the animal’s living meadow,” Uexküll starts. “The bubble represents each animal’s environment and contains all the features accessible to the subject. As soon as we enter into one such bubble, the previous surroundings of the subject are completely reconfigured… A new world arises in each bubble.” Uexküll termed these perceptual bubbles the “Umwelt”.
Seeking artistic inspiration from beyond one’s conscious experience has been practically thematic of art’s history. The surrealists sought to interpret their subconscious into art, while the cubist movement sought to challenge the notion of a one point perspective by representing its subjects from multiple vantage points. Indeed, even a change of language might bring some inspiration; the late Pulitzer Prize–winning poet, W.S. Merwin, recalled this advice being given to him as a young man by Ezra Pound: “Translation … is your way of learning your own language.” What happens, however, when a poet or artist seeks to transcend not only their own language, but their own perceptual bubble? What worlds might they find in a foray into the experience of other living entities? What might a being’s experiential “Umwelt” look like once the familiar has been dissolved?
Into the “Umwelt”
John Wolseley’s Umwelt, the Life World of the Mangrove oyster, the Teredo worm and the Giant Marbled eel. Image Source: artsy.net
John Wolseley is an Australian artist familiar with the world beyond, and was most certainly inspired by Uexküll’s work, giving a nod is given to the late German ecologist in his work, Umwelt, the Life World of the Mangrove oyster, the Teredo worm, and the Giant Marbled eel. “My work over the last thirty years has been a search to discover how we dwell and move within landscape,” Wolseley writes on johnwolseley.net. When inspecting his art, one questions whether Wolseley truly means this “we” to be human.
In his work Umwelt, we may find a relatively blank parchment — certainly not the pastel-heavy Bob Ross-esque works we expect from an artistic rendering of an aquatic habitat. Rather, we find watery shadings that revolve around a central habitat common to three species: the mangrove oyster, the Teredo worm (aka the naval shipworm, a deceptively-named species of clam) and the giant marbled eel, each both living and colouring their immediate habitats with meaning. Whereas a typical human looking at the scene might see only dead wood, flitting invertebrates and mud, Wolseley has presented us with an unfamiliar set of spatial concerns to the oyster, worm and eel, conveyed through localized coloration and depiction. We see not a glossy representation of mud, but watery shades of concern, tunnels through the silt, a homely womb under the sand and a small realm of blue, lively water just outside.
As “Umwelts” Catch Fire
Image Source: watercoloursbyrachel.co.uk
In his work Umwelt, Wolseley has doubtlessly paid apt tribute to Uexküll’s notion of the “Umwelt” as a “bubble-world” of significance to the animal. This visual appreciation of the animal world, however, need not be the only means of appropriating the non-human “Umwelt” as a source of artistic inspiration and joy. The posthumously monumental Jesuit poet, Gerard Manley Hopkins, embodied this well in his poem, As Kingfishers Catch Fire.
As kingfishers catch fire, dragonflies draw flame;
As tumbled over rim in roundy wells
Stones ring; like each tucked string tells, each hung bell’s
Bow swung finds tongue to fling out broad its name;
Each mortal thing does one thing and the same:
Deals out that being indoors each one dwells;
Selves — goes itself; myself it speaks and spells,
Crying Whát I dó is me: for that I came.
I say móre: the just man justices;
Keeps grace: thát keeps all his goings graces;
Acts in God’s eye what in God’s eye he is —
Chríst — for Christ plays in ten thousand places,
Lovely in limbs, and lovely in eyes not his
To the Father through the features of men’s faces.
In As Kingfishers Catch Fire, Hopkins transitions from an outward appreciation of a kingfisher hunting in the sun to an inward, sympathetic appreciation for the kingfisher’s actions. From this experience, Hopkins claims — much as Jakob von Uexküll might — that “Each mortal thing does one thing and the same: /Deals out that being indoors each one dwells; /Selves – goes itself; myself it speaks and spells”. Being a Jesuit priest, Hopkins then meditates on this connection and comes to feel an ecstatic understanding of God: “For Christ plays in ten thousand places, /Lovely in limbs, and lovely in eyes not his”. For Hopkins, Uexküll’s notion of the “Umwelt” instead becomes, not a set of worldly bubbles to be explored, but the ten thousand-fold manifestation of God’s glory.
Hopkins’ poetry does not examine the world of animals through religious ideology alone. His posthumous fame is doubtlessly in part because of his invention of Sprung Rhythm, a system that emphasized use of accents called “spondees” over the popular iamb, a deviation from normativity which would go on to characterize the modernist movement’s use of free verse in poetry. In his poem As Kingfishers Catch Fire, we can see this buoyant verse give a vibrant play to the actions of the Kingfisher. “Stones ring; like each tucked string tells, each hung bell’s /Bow swung finds tongue to fling out broad its name.” Hopkins does not simply describe the Kingfisher’s delight and vibrance; he brings his poem to enact it. He was not, of course, the only poet to ever use rhythm to bring the “Umwelt” to verse.
Metering the “Umwelt”
U.S. poet laureate W.S. Merwin. Image Source: lionsroar.com
Poetry’s appeal to one’s own worldly senses has, of course, been the topic of investigation for art since time immemorial. Aristotle, in his On Poetics lectures, writes that “Poetry in general seems to have sprung from two causes, each of them lying deep in our nature. First, the instinct of imitation … Next, there is the instinct for ‘harmony’ and rhythm, meters being manifestly sections of rhythm.”
While Aristotle goes on to claim that meter is simply a matter of matching subject matter to the most pleasing rhythm, the comparison of meter across languages suggests otherwise. Paul Russel writes in Poetic Meter & Poetic Form (1979), “the English language is so heavily accented that no other of its characteristics but accent seems to furnish a basis for meter.” Smoother languages such as French, he argues, find better purchase with syllabic, not accentual, meter. Our language, then, informs the poetry we most enjoy — but what is the language of a kingfisher, or a lilac?
It would be pertinent here to turn to the late U.S. poet laureate and two-time Pulitzer Prize winner, W.S. Merwin. I mentioned him earlier for a reason. On the advice of Ezra Pound, W.S. Merwin graduated from Princeton University in 1948 and began to translate a wide range of literature, from Sanskrit love poems to Greek tragedies. In 1952, he published his first collection, A Mask for Janus, which drew heavily from ancient myth and was highly praised by poet W.H. Auden, who judged it worthy of the 1952 Yale Young Poets prize. There was little notable at the time, however, about Merwin’s form.
As Merwin’s life progressed, his verse began to loosen. Eventually, capitalization and punctuation disappeared altogether — and this was no random occurrence: W.S. Merwin’s gradual divorce from his classical meter occurred alongside a change in lifestyle. By the 1960s, W.S. Merwin was a practicing Zen Buddhist, and in 1976 he moved to a dormant volcano in Maui, Hawaii, near the town of Haiku and set to work transforming 18 acres of what was once a pineapple plantation into a “nearly pristine” plot of rainforest.
In an 18-word poem, Witness, from his from his 1988 collection The Rain in the Trees, Merwin wrote:
I want to tell what the forests
I will have to speak
in a forgotten language
It is not uncommon for poets to mourn a lost ideal, but it is certainly emblematic of W.S. Merwin’s personal contribution to the contemporary poetic canon to yearn for the ability to both understand and express the lost language of the trees. With his near complete abandonment of traditional meter and punctuation, W.S. Merwin’s poetry led an inspired attempt to bring to our minds the careful, thoughtful measure that flows with all the soft ponderance of sap in the springtime.
Whether this is the end of the meaning or inspiration to be gleaned from the “Umwelt” of other beings is doubtful. Just as Gerard Manley Hopkins brought the joy of a kingfisher to the glory of the Jesuit God on a galloping, bouncing horse of meter, so did W.S. Merwin and John Wolseley bring the “Umwelt” of the beings in the world around us to pen and canvas in their own forms. For those unsure how to proceed, perhaps it is best to let Merwin, poet laureate and island-dweller extraordinaire, have the final say with his poem Berryman:
I had hardly begun to read
I asked how can you ever be sure
that what you write is really
any good at all and he said you can’t
you can’t you can never be sure
you die without knowing
whether anything you wrote was any good
if you have to be sure don’t write