John Leonard, ‘Think of the World’: Collected Poems 1986-2016. ISBN: 978-0-9581938-3-2 (ebook edition)
Thriveni C. Mysore
‘Think of the World’ is a collection of poems by John Leonard written on various occasions, on variety of subjects, but with a purpose of acknowledging the natural world or ‘Nature’ in general and the ‘nature’ of human beings in particular. The poems are from 1986 through 2016, a period of thirty years. The readers become aware of the change that happens to Nature through these years. As could be expected, the poems do not have a uniform structure or strict continuity, but the signature of the poet – writing not to please others – is on every poem. The poems are thoughtfully arranged and presented. The arrangement serves two purposes; the poems do not force themselves on the reader and they show the evolutionary path of the poet himself.
The poet takes the reader through the beauty of Nature and human destruction of Nature to a point of no repair. There is no hope for the future of Nature, there is no hope for the future of creations other than humankind, and there is no divine future for humans. This is all due to human actions alone and it is the bitter truth. The poet laments on and about it. Each time the poet presents Nature in all its glory, he makes sure that the reader observes the looming shadow of destruction tailing it. The poet makes sure that the reader realises this truth.
There are poems on a high philosophical plateau in the collection. They are thought provoking. These poems touch the reader nervously goading to think more deeply. The poem ‘Thought with’ concludes:
And yet thought is not, but only
Thought with, thought with these things,
And the countless others of this world –
Rich, endless world,
Yet world now ending for us…
For thought has no being without.
The poem ‘How to Be?’, ends with the same philosophic question and an equally difficult answer, ‘Be.’ (104). The imagination of this short answer stops the readers to think for a longer time.
The poem ‘Errata’ is vigorous and sharp:
p.13 For ‘environment’, read ‘multi-sectoral
resource allocation and arbitrage’;
It drags forward the tattered way of the world at present. Another poem that needs to be read between the lines is, ‘Consumer Demands’:
Some see this future,
Some see that future,
Some see no future.
The poem ’97’ reads:
In place of truth, traditions,
in place of nature, uses.
and shows the way in which human society is giving fancy names and goals to each of its doings (mis-takes).
Apart from these philosophical poems, the poet has a way with the language and plays with the words. In the poem, ‘Which Demographic?’, he says;
These demographics are society,
All actions build a common fate –
Thas-and-thit, and grey, for all
Your pitch. Which demographic
Does this poem target?
The declining of species around us is powerfully said in ‘White-throated Needletails’:
They’re a part of our late summer,
Here from far away in their winter;
I’m keen to see them because
They are fewer each year.
This is very true not just for white-throated needletails but, for all birds, animals, plants, trees, everything that belongs to Nature.
A poem that exposes the human frailty – of finding the ways and means to turn around all things in Nature, around us to our advantage and naming them for pleasure – is put nicely in the poem ‘The Names of a Hare’,
And now, good day Sir Hare,
May God make it so
That you come to me dead,
Either with onion, or in bread.
The futility of ‘saving Nature now’ is expressed in ‘The Calendar Keeper’, repeating the same stanza for 2012, 2013, 2014. The beauty of the words is such that the reader can change the year for many generations and still retain the same wonderful words,
The year in which humanity
Wiped out so many creatures,
So many forests and wetlands,
So many grasslands and pastures,
And continued to think it had
A life apart from the world.
This is a fact till the end of the world. The poet continues,
I would not record these years
Of shame, and the people would not
Know where they stood
In the current of time, as indeed
They stand nowhere.
The poet writes satires on accountants, lawyers, law makers, reviewers, writers, publishers and yet they don’t read as satires. They are facts that writers (including poets) sometimes do not dare record in their writings. There are poems on human weaknesses; poems on the ways of the world, on society, and on living that draws attention to the nastiness surrounding our lives. In the poem, ‘The 1%’, the poet says:
They have crafted the world they wished,
And it sucks – instead of great comfort
(For themselves and their minions), all
Is talk of climate change, resources
Running out, geopolitical power shifts.
The poet captures the imperfection of human compassion in the poem, ‘On Death Row’:
Their laughter, singing, even
Their conversation … it is as though
Nothing has changed for them,
As though they never heard the sentence.
This human attitude is true not just in such occasions but occurs in all spheres of life situation and in all walks of life. The projected truth is that humankind never learns to live. It is human failure to understand the rare truth that living is a complex learning! Living itself is an honour!
Think of the World has a brilliant collection of Nature poems. The poet admires and awfully respects all things in Nature. Birds, Rain, Spring, Autumn, Woods, creation and the like. The way of approach is different, for, the poet is not heaping praises and glorifying the unseen but squeezing the truth out of it and making the reader realise the truth. In the poem, ‘Absent Friends’ the poet says:
This is the end of all our wisdom,
A world diminishing by the day,
Birds and animals nearing extinction.
Let the time be what it may,
If it has no room for these
Then it is accursed, …
The hopelessness of the present situation is mirrored in the poem, ‘The Symphony of the Future’:
… will not
Be written by a composer – none
Could be that relentless, lack heart –
But by order, business, growth.
The same is said in the poem, ‘The Dead Times’:
And you knew too how we were to live
… a world without thought or trees.
The changing climate is well expressed in the poem, ‘A Second Spring’:
But this spring will not last
The length of the first.
The poem ‘Past, Present, Future’ has same repetitive stanzas bringing out the unpromising state of Nature. (147)
‘In the Autumn of Our World’ shows ecology in its true light. The reader feels the darkness; the poem instills a sense of desperation; the poet saying with all conviction that the world around is beyond repair. The degradation of Nature from generation to generation is so much so that it is nearing its end:
Come the spring a new world
Will open, but it will be strange,
Nothing like ours, and we,
We will not be here to see it.
A carnival of Nature poetry by John Leonard progresses thus from one poem to another, each revealing the truth, the bitter truth of hopelessness. The ultimate essence of his poetry can be seen in the poem, ’17/11/15′:
Very close now: the gap between
Reality and our ideas is unbridgeable –
Nothing can save us, so I,
Sipping tea, fulfil my duties
As a poet by not writing poems
Such as ‘we can still do it’, or
‘Where we first went wrong’.
Nature poetry is the renewed literary movement of the present world. John Leonard has the sensibility, admirable clarity of vision about Nature, conviction in the bitter truth, and he is capable of distilling complex emotions yet infusing the truth all at once.
His journey has culminated in discovering his own poetic mode and creating a comfortable space in Nature poetry. Think of the World can do away with all the satires, grotesques like ‘Traitor’ (486), ‘Fragment of an Epigram’ (451) and still be complete.
From the perspective of ecopoetry, John Leonard’s contribution to English literature through his Nature poems is immense, because his expressive poems are thought provoking, rational, relevant and significant. He writes in his poem, ‘The Unsuccessful Writer’:
It was not that his writing was unskilled,
Or lacking in interest, or unclear;
If anything it was too matter-of-fact –
Cold water, in an age of ginger-beer.
Leonard’s Nature poems are so honest, so matter-of-fact, and so bitter that it is like giving hot-boiling water, at noon, in summer, in a desert to a lone traveller who has walked days without any food! It is maddening but has to be accepted because it is true.
The reader closes the book to see the bird standing on one leg with its head buried in its back like his own thoughts.
Thriveni C Mysore is a science teacher from Karnataka, India. She is locally acknowledged for her critical essays and articles on Philosophy and Education. Her books in Kannada on Philosophy and Science have won State awards. Being actively involved in Environmental Awareness Program, she holds lectures and presentations for students. Amidst life’s complexities, she finds divine-solace in reading Nature poems.