“Let them not say: it was not spoken, not written.
we witnessed with voices and hands.
Let them not say: they did nothing.”
The urge to describe the environment—its landscapes, wonders, and dangers—is a consistent topic throughout the history of poetry. From the Canaanite myth “Poem of Aqhat” (fifteenth century BCE), which ruminates on the idea that seasons reflect the rhythms and symbolic stages of life, to Shijing (tenth to fifth century BCE), the Chinese book of songs and seasonal poems, nature poetry speaks on how humans connect to the natural world around them.
Learn more about nature poetry and environmental justice with the poems and resources below.
The following activities have been adapted from Teach This Poem: “The Shapes of Leaves” by Arthur Sze. They can be done alone or with a guardian, sibling, friend, or partner.
Find a tree in your area that “speaks” to you. Describe, in writing, the details of that tree and why you feel a connection with it. Pay particular attention to the tree’s leaves, and draw a picture of a leaf you particularly like.
Look at this picture of an ancient forest. Write down the details of what you see. How does this image make you feel?
If you do not know, read about what clear-cutting is. Write down how you feel about clear-cutting after seeing the image, and if you have a partner, discuss your answers.
Read the poem by Arthur Sze. Write down any words or ideas that jump out at you in the poem. If you have a partner, ask them to read the poem aloud, while you add any new details you notice. Repeat this process so your partner can listen to you read the poem aloud.
Research the types of trees mentioned in the poem.
What do you think Arthur Sze might be saying about how different leaves and trees make him feel? What does it mean to “be on the edge of a new leaf”? Have you ever felt that way?
Born on August 4, 1913, Robert Hayden was raised in the Detroit neighborhood Paradise Valley. He had a tumultuous childhood, living at times with a foster family. In 1932, he graduated from high school and, with the help of a scholarship, attended Detroit City College (later Wayne State University).
Hayden published his first book of poems, Heart-Shape in the Dust, in 1940, at the age of twenty-seven. His poetry gained international recognition in the 1960s and he was awarded the grand prize for poetry at the First World Festival of Negro Arts in Dakar, Senegal, in 1966 for his book Ballad of Remembrance.
Hayden ultimately authored nine collections of poetry in his lifetime, as well as a collection of essays and some children’s literature.
In 1975, Hayden received the Academy of American Poets Fellowship, and in 1976, he became the first Black American to be appointed as consultant in poetry to the Library of Congress (later called the poet laureate). He died in Ann Arbor, Michigan, on February 25, 1980.
Celebrate Robert Hayden’s birthday on August 4th and read more of his work at Poets.org.
Nature poetry engages with, describes, or considers the natural world. Our concepts of nature are relative, historically determined. The nature poem is affected by ideology, by literary conventions as well as social and cultural ideas. Raymond Williams contends, “Nature is perhaps the most complex word in the language.” The term nature is itself contested now because it seems to assume an oversimplified relationship between the human and the environment.
Read more about nature poetry, then write your own poem about your relationship with nature.