Friday 14 January 2011

Poetry and Gardens

It's not surprising that gardening has been compared to writing poetry. Like gardeners, poets mark out an enclosed area within which elements of the natural world are manipulated for aesthetic ends. What's stranger is how close the two disciplines have stayed through history. For the ancient Chinese nature was orderly, peaceful, and helpful to humanity so conflict between nature and artifice was minimal. Gardens were poems where man could come to terms with the universe: scaled models of nature. Arabs had a different attitude. The gardens of the Taj Mahal and the Alhambra emulated the idea of Persian paradise, an escape from the desert heat. Even as late as medieval times, Britain's gardens were much more humble affairs. Most of those that we know of were associated with monasteries. But in Europe during the renaissance when there was a sudden increase in gardening, the balance changed. Over the next century or two, landscape architects rose to fame, organising cheap labour and writing treatise about how cascades, canals, gilded figures and follies could help owners flaunt their mastery over Nature. Meanwhile for the poor, gardens provided nothing but sustinance, and poetry was only for churches and balladeers.

Theories of landscape aesthetics were developed, many features applicable to poetry: desire for a sense of unity and proportion, inspired exploitation of natural features, use of texture and colour, light and shade. More than just something to view from a terrace, gardens were an experience: somewhere to walk, paths carefully contrived to surprise with twists in the plot and new vistas. And there was a recognised need to offer something different on each revisit.

Tired of French formality and grandiosity, the emphasis in the 18th century was on naturalism and curves: assymmetric groves and serpentine lakes. In the 19th century, as a reaction to this, people concentrated on fussy detail or indulged in uncontrolled eclecticism. Keen amateurs slaved over crowded Victorian cottage gardens. In the early 1900s exotic foreign influences lead to the introduction of many new plants. But nature was found to be insufficient. Species were developed that could only survive in a garden, regressing back to a wild state if neglected or, like second rate verse, unable to reproduce.

Now the trend has reverted to naturalism again. We are content to do the spadework, provide nourishment, control weeds and do a bit of pruning. We let plants have the last say, no longer striving to conquer nature, but compromising with it. We've long forgotten how few common flowers and words are native. The artificial is acceptable as long as it's educational, kept under glass, a different world subject to different rules. Hothouse academia can only exist by virtue of artificial pollenation.

Exotic cultures flower in our modern verse, arranged in the rhythms of demotic speech. Now anyone can have a windowbox, and a visit to a garden centre or writers group will assure if not originality then at least competance. Gardens can so easily become suburban, utilitarian. One thing we can be certain of is that there never was a garden of Eden, a place of pure poetry, of contemplation. That first mythical garden was responsible for the first farmer, content to sow line after line of the same seeds each year for profit, rotating crops rather than innovating. We need farms much as we need novels, but gardens are what we'll always retreat to, what we'll treasure.


  1. As I have mentioned a few times online when my wife and I were looking to buy a flat she did most of the grunt work. I left it to her and never even saw inside the flat we now live in until after we’d bought it; that’s how much I trusted her. I did, however, place two conditions on her choices: 1) enough rooms so that we could each have our own office, and 2) no garden. Both were met and I’m perfectly happy with the place. Gardening is something I loathe. When my father died it was left to me to take care of my mother’s garden which, as a dutiful son I did, but there was no joy in it for me; I did what had to be done and no more. So you’ll forgive me if I fail to see any connection between poetry and gardens. The flat we live in does, as it happen, have a back garden which gets mowed by someone. I only even go into it to deposit a black bag in a wheelie bin and then I scurry back inside. I’m not anti-Nature but gardens aren’t especially natural are they? They’re pruned and trimmed and mowed and organised. I don’t get them.

  2. Stanley Kunitz wrote "I think of gardening as an extension of one's being, something as deeply personal and intimate as writing a poem." and "I associate the garden with the whole experience of being alive, and so, there is nothing in the range of human experience that is separate from what the garden can signify in its eagerness and its insistence, and in its driving energy to live - to grow, to bear fruit."

    Sarah McGuire's a trained gardener. I'm no gardener, but we have an allotment.