Poetry Sunday: ‘Anti-Pastoral,’ by Vievee Francis


How often have I spoken of the thistle,
the honeysuckle, the blistering bee?
How often have I asked how? I’ve grown tired
of my questions. And you’ve grown tired
of the limits of my language. I hate this measure
of memory, the constant return to the creek, the field,
the sundering South. I want release from the pasture
of my youth, from its cows and cobs in the mouth.
Forgive me my tiresome nostalgia. Forget it.
Let me forge a fissure between what was and is.
I have no accent. You would not know where I was from
if I didn’t keep reminding you. Look at my city
shoes crunching through the new snow
on the sidewalk. Not a blade of grass anywhere.

Which is not to say, Praise the urban, privilege the shadow
of the alley over the shade beneath a tree, or the average sky-
scraper over a clearing.

Not in a surfeit of emotion, but in its thoughtful
consideration, later, when natural rage, through meditation,
may be pulled as milk through an udder, into a purer stream
—this is how Wordsworth would have it,
not red-eyed and trembling, but clearheaded,
the tempest assuaged. Can you believe that?
Easy to say from some green-lined walking trail,
but this is a city, and here is an old woman
on the curb, broken as easily as a wafer she might have
had with her iced tea later this evening. Here is a reason
to prefer whiskey over a cow’s poor offering. Whiskey,
essential as water, worthy of pain and erasure.
And she is one of many, so I drink to her and her and her—

Vivee Francis book cover_Forest Primeval_from NW website_3-28-16

From Horse in the Dark (Northwestern University Press 2012). Copyright 2012 by Vievee Francis. Published 2012 by Northwestern University Press. All Rights reserved. Ms. Francis’s most recent book, Forest Primeval (TriQuarterly Books/Northwestern University Press 2016) can be ordered here.


Vievee Francis_4-22-16_picVievee Francis is the author of Horse in the Dark (Northwestern University Press, 2012), which won the Cave Canem Northwestern University Press Poetry Prize for a second collection, and Blue-Tail Fly (Wayne State University, 2006). Her third book, Forest Primeval (Northwestern University Press, 2015) was short-listed for the Pen Open Prize. Her work has appeared in numerous print and online journals, textbooks, and anthologies including Poetry, Best American Poetry (2010, 2014), and Angles of Ascent: A Norton Anthology of Contemporary African American Poetry. She has received a Rona Jaffe Writers’ Award and a Kresge Fellowship. She is currently an Associate Editor for Callaloo and a Visiting Poet at North Carolina State University.



Notes on “Anti-Pastoral

Rebecca Foust, Poetry Editor

Rebecca Foust, Poetry Editor

Since today’s poem is titled “Anti-Pastoral,” let’s start by defining “pastoral” and giving it a cultural and historical context. Outside of poetry, the word means “having the simplicity, charm, serenity, or other characteristics generally attributed to rural areas (dictionary.com).” Given the word’s Latin and Middle English root meaning “pasture,” it is perhaps not surprising that in a secondary meaning of “pastoral,” sheep and shepherds gambol into view to portray country life “idyllically . . . [in] a work of literature, art, or music” (Id.) In poetry, the pastoral is a genre concerned with the natural world or, more precisely, with human beings and their interactions with that world. In its more philosophical manifestations, such poetry examines the difference between perception and projection: how much of the world actually exists, separate and apart from our apprehension of it? In contemporary political form, the pastoral poem often takes on environmental issues of the earth’s exploitation and spoliation by industry and technology, giving rise to a whole new branch of poetry (and its own conference held annually at UC Berkeley) called “eco-poetics.” 

Pastoral poetry is generally considered to have begun in Sicily with Theocritus’s Idylls in the 3rd century B.C. Theocritus wrote about the lives and loves of shepherds, but over time the genre came to include eclogues (sometimes called “bucolics” or “Georgics”), verse instruction about farming and husbandry; Virgil’s Eclogues and Hesiod’s Works and Days are famous examples. Over its 2000-year life span, the pastoral has been adapted by poets in ways that reflect how human beings have—through agriculture, industry, technology, migration, and war—evolved (some might say devolved) in their interaction with the natural environment. Devotional poets like Herbert, Donne, and Hopkins saw nature as a manifestation of God. Blake saw nature as visionary, a source of knowledge capable of expanding human seeing, but he also wrote poems about a nature defiled by civilization. The Romantic poets differed in their views and approaches, but nature was a wildly popular theme, often attributed with human qualities in what Ruskin called “pathetic fallacy” (discussed in a previous column here).

One Romantic poet, William Wordsworth, is well known for the long walks and walking tours—first in the English Lake District and later through France and the Alps and Wales—that inspired the poems he published in Lyrical Ballads. Some were traditional verse forms that idealized the lives (and “common man” idiom) of rural cottage dwellers and fishermen, and others used observed nature to trigger flights of feeling. In poems like “Tintern Abbey” and “The Prelude,” Wordsworth is credited with inventing (or accused of stealing from Coleridge) a “new” style of meditative poem in blank verse, of “emotion recollected in tranquility.” In such poems, an object seen in the present (during a walk on the moor, say) triggers a memory and renewal of feelings experienced by the poet in his youth. The result is a poem that holds two conscious-nesses: the poet in the present moment, and the younger person he once was.

The pastoral has always been defined, and sometimes narrowly, by the cultural experience of the poets writing it, and of those, the poets able to get their work published and noticed. You’ll perhaps have noticed that all the poets mentioned above are white men of European descent. Women and poets of other ethnicities also have, of course, written pastoral poems but it is understating it to say that their work is not a large part of the canon. For centuries, the pastoral was pretty much defined by a white male poet speaking in and about a rural landscape that very much resembled rural England.

In the introduction to an anthology called Black Nature: Four Centuries of African American Poetry (University of Georgia Press 2009) editor Camille Dungy notes that one reason for the anthology was to honor the call “for broader inclusiveness in conversations about ecocriticism and ecopoetics, one that acknowledges other voices and a broader range of cultural and ethnic concerns.” (For the Poetry Sunday column featuring Camille Dungy in June 2015, see here).

I make these points not just to set the context for and show the limits of what is traditionally meant by the term “pastoral poetry” but also to note that the term has, almost from its inception carried within it the seeds of its own resistance, or at least of its own sense of looming loss. Even in the ancient pastoral, one form was elegy—one shepherd mourning the death of another, an urban dweller longing for the lost joys of country life. The Industrial Revolution and rapid rise of technology in the 20th century led to an increasing sense of human alienation from nature, and in modern pastorals like T.S. Eliot’s “The Wasteland” and Hart Crane’s “The Bridge,” the natural and human worlds are shattered, ruined, and agonizingly at odds. Today’s “Nature Poem” is as apt to mourn or make political comment on the environment’s defilement as to celebrate what’s left of its beauty and transcendence.

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  • Sally Mills March 14, 2018 at 4:39 am

    Love “Anti-Pastoral”

  • Elena Karina Byrne May 22, 2016 at 3:09 pm

    Excellent…”this measure of memory” upon the mind’s pasture