Thursday, November 14, 2013

Knowing and praising


Before I leave Margaret Atwood and her latest volume of poetry, let me take note of a poem called "Reindeer Moss On Granite." She is observing a cluster of lichen on an outcrop of rock, and writes:
They send up their little mouths
on stems, red-lipped and round,

each one pronouncing the same syllable,
o, o, o, like the dumbfounded
eyes of minnows.
A single sentence plucked from the poem. Even if one has no idea what she is talking about, the lilt of the sentence pleases, which is what poetry is supposed to do. Every word takes note of every other. The poet is praising, in lyrical language, and we are always grateful for praise.

But what is she praising? This is where knowing matters.

Many years ago as a young prof, I set myself the task of teaching myself each semester one aspect of the natural history of our 800-acre campus: birds, trees, wildflowers, fungi, geology, and so on. Perhaps my favorite semester was devoted to lichens, and among the lichens, none were more engaging than the ground lichens: British soldiers, pink earth lichen (I call it bubble-gum lichen), pixie cups, and reindeer lichen (sometimes called reindeer moss). Tiny, faerie-like, one might tramp right over them without noticing, but get down on one's knees and one enters a pixie kingdom. You can see a couple of nice photos here.

And now you know, if you didn't already, about those little mouths, red-lipped and round, and those bubbled syllables o, o, o.

Between knowing and praising there need be no seam. Between science and poetry there need be no seam. Knowing is always the best springboard for praise.