In the early Romantic text On Naïve and Sentimental Poetry, Friedrich Schiller distinguished between two ways poets experience the natural world. What Schiller called a “sentimental” experience of nature was synonymous with what we would call an intellectual one, involving philosophical reflection, moral reasoning, and external knowledge. The naïve experience, on the other hand, was a deeper and more intuitive response, letting the poet form a vision of nature organic to his own mind. Goethe was the great naïve poet to Schiller, who was himself sentimental. One finds this distinction in the British Romantics between Blake and Wordsworth, and to a degree, in American poetry between Thoreau and Emerson.
Michele Glazer’s new collection, On Tact, & the Made Up World, finds the author experimenting with a more sentimental mode, moving out of the strange and intuitive observations in her previous work and into a voice that seems to be less trustful of language, less precise in its vision, and more engaged with the subtle opacities of communication. To be sure, Glazer is still writing about the natural world, exploring all of the shifting definitions and contradictions of that term, but in this volume she seems to be intent on charting the interior difficulties of the poet as she observes herself observing.
The tension between these impulses is felt most acutely in the longer poems of the collection, including the title poem, “Notes on tact & the made up world,” which refers both directly and obliquely to the production, beginning in 1887, of nearly three thousand glass flowers for the Harvard Botanical Museum by the father and son glassmakers Leopold and Rudolph Blaschka. The poem opens in the museum, at the precise intersection of nature and artifice:
The glass flowers lodged under glass make transparency's virtue transparent, make perfection the object of the object. I sing glass for flesh glass for cells. Flower that says something a flower can't.
The poem’s subject matter poses some wonderfully rich questions about degrees of artifice—why we prefer glass flowers to plastic ones, for example. But the historical story remains, in some ways, richer than the poem. Glazer is right to resist making the poem a truly intellectual exercise, but at the same time she seems unwilling to abandon argument altogether. This resistance slows down the swerving motion that makes her other poems so effective: her poems are best when she allows these swerves. In fact, the most memorable moment of “Notes on tact & the made up world,” has nothing to do with its argument, but involves the sight of men pissing against a wall, which the poet misperceives as praying. The difference, she realizes, is irrelevant to the wall, which remains “standing for nothing save / the attention of prayer and waste.” A light moment—full of tact, in the archaic sense.
Elsewhere, we find a distilled version of this tension in the poem “On religion, war, nature, and the horse,” whose title signals the poet’s intent to set up, or send up, the pedantic impulse. Here, though the natural world appears to provide access to a naïve imagination, when Glazer writes, “I should study nature,” what follows is actually an indictment of nature-watching:
The horse, for instance, the further away it runs the more abstract. Or the idea of the idyllic garden. A child in a garden in Lebanon whose legs and arms suddenly mismatch— Alarmed by how they don't connect burning flesh to burning flesh— If I turn the page now how abstract is that.
It seems as though Glazer is trying to call our attention to the way that appreciation of “nature” as an abstracted idea, especially as an abstracted poetic idea, discourages us from engaging with the mess of the world. The graphic violence that intrudes upon the serene study of a garden is meant as a wake-up to our dreaming observer, but the question of abstraction becomes a real problem here: is the burning child any less abstract for being vividly rendered, or is he, like the wild geese of Mary Oliver or Matthew Arnold’s waves at Dover, half-symbol to begin with? Are humans exempt from the symbolic species list? In the end, the poem wants to show us the danger of making the real abstract, but can’t help enacting the very thing it condemns.
More than anything, this collection is a record of the difficulties—ethical, geographical, personal—of defining and observing the natural world. Often, the poems are interested in the interface zone between man-made and natural spaces, such as a drainage ditch or a beach along the highway. The value of these places, it seems to Glazer, is the way they trouble our perceptions, as in the prose poem “Mattress,” where an irregular piece of rock is mistaken for “a mattress tossed there by an angry sea…or thrown over the embankment from the highway above by some sonofabitch….” Implicit in this mistake is a clever critique of how we think nature ought to look: its irregularities are, in fact, just as natural as its symmetry.
The longest poem in the collection, “Trace,” examines a landscape where things are tossed by man and nature alike:
ditch: the flows meet here and blown seeds from the road's eithersides and field margins, the undigestables birds passing drop and trash passersby flip out of their rushing side-windows.
In this poem, the ditch, like Wordsworth’s boat in The Prelude, becomes a totem of childhood for the speaker, infused with the murk of childhood as well as the retrospective sense of its loss. This recollection is not, however, without a sense of self-consciousness:
The cattails gave birth in you to the feeling of loss before loss happens. Gave you thus: the beginnings of a romantic imagination.
As Schiller pointed out: naïveté is childish perception, but not from a child. In “Trace,” Glazer succeeds through an opposite effect, giving keen poetic perception and self-consciousness to a childish observer, who sees how “the ditch in all its mergings and musings / presents itself— / an incongruous estuary.” And because she is a master observer of the way the world merges and muses, one only wishes that Glazer’s poems allowed more of these incongruities without calling attention to them.
About the Reviewer
Andrew Allport is the author of The Ice Ship & Other Vessels (Proem Press) and holds a PhD in Literature & Creative Writing from the University of Southern California. He lives in Los Angeles.