The poet saw, the wood-cutter chopped, the tree (1)

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The poet saw, the wood-cutter chopped, the tree (1)

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1. The poet saw, the wood-cutter chopped, the tree

“There is a property in the horizon,” Ralph Waldo Emerson notes, “which no man has but he whose eye can integrate all the parts, that is, the poet” (9). This ability to see what the wood-cutter cannot see, that is, the stick of timber in the forest that is a tree, requires the poet to carefully concentrate on details.

The details of language—words, how they are syntactically arranged, and how those words are read and spoken only to collide to create and renew meanings—are of critical importance. Emerson’s pragmatic approach to inhabit language, that is, to enter it as one enters nature, invites us to approach literary criticism through reflection. I want to test a theory that grace is present, even latent, in words.

This grace turns over and refreshes meaning when we experience a shock of new sensation. At such moments, grace is perceived as a spontaneous awareness that awakens sensations of deep feeling and transcendent presence.

Because the location for most of our reading is still on the printed page (fallen trees cut by the wood-cutter, reconstituted by the printer and reimagined by the poet and philosopher), the forest I propose that we enter is the written words of Annie Dillard and bpNichol who bring us into nature through their literature and help us enact an Emersonian reading that enables us to access the surprising spontaneity in language that ushers us into a kind of grace.

The oneness and immediacy of grace is a concept Emerson expressed both as something true and as an unmediated experience in time and space, a real event:

In the woods too, a man casts off his years, as the snake his slough, and at what period soever of life, is always a child.  In the woods, is perpetual youth.  Within these plantations of God, a decorum and sanctity reign, a perennial festival is dressed, and the guest sees not how he should tire of them in a thousand years.  In the woods, we return to reason and faith (10).

This type of real event is defined by others in the Pragmatist lineage, including James, as “pure experience” (Pragmatism 329). If nature is a location of acute perception where grace is present for encounter, it is so because of what Annie Dillard calls intricacy, a concept she develops through an elaborate metaphor, employing the practice of the sculptor who utilizes negative space when casting a plaster so that the “clay man completely surrounds the holes in him, which are galaxies and solar systems:”

The holes in him part, expand, shrink, veer, circle, spin.  He gives like water, he spreads and fills unseeing.  Here is a ragged hole, our earth, a hole that makes torn and frayed edges in his side, mountains and pines (132).

The narrator’s observation made in nature is about the very nature of reality: the “I” is like a whole universe of meaning and depth. Like Emerson, Dillard steps into nature and turns the eye toward its intricate details to encounter and experience fresh meaning. She tinkers with words by the creek, a journey into nature that is a journey into syntax and meaning. 

Similarly, “standing on the bare ground,” Emerson vanishes to become “a transparent eye-ball” (10) and turns his perception to the natural world. In both writers we read grace as an experience that elevates perception in the natural world, a transcendent moment both felt and expressed through language. If we read Emerson’s venture into “Nature” alongside Dillard’s pilgrimage by the Creek, we witness a sort of communion:

Quotes from Annie Dillard and Emerson


The passages flow down the page like concurrent streams. When examined side-by-side, the passages jolt us with parallel observations, made in different environments, by different writers at different times. The narrator at Dillard’s creek is open to the meanings of all the “shreds of creation” surrounding her.

The “fullest possible force” of their reality, how they impress or press against her consciousness, echoes the ministry that the forest and woods exert upon Emerson’s soul, as the “currents” of Being become present to his mind and sensation. Emerson’s “waving of the boughs” might be the very dry “chloroplasts streaming” before Dillard; the “higher thought” and “better emotion” coming over Emerson is the force of the universe upon Dillard’s narrator. 

Is it possible that Emerson and Dillard witness the same thing or experience the same pure moment?  The likelihood, according to William James is not alike at all: There is no proof that the same bodily sensation is ever got by us twice. What is got twice is the same OBJECT” (“Stream” 231).

For James both thought and sensation constantly turn over for the individual. Although we may conclude that we have the same sensations, we experience the same objects differently.  Like a stream that snakes through a landscape, constantly moving and refreshed, always turning over, so is our perception—our hearing, reasoning, recollecting, expecting, loving, hating— a “continuous stream” (237). While they cannot be identical observations, carbon-copies that share a word-for-word recounting of an experience in nature, we seem to have a crossing of streams in Emerson and Dillard, shared meanings worthy of exploration. 

As Emerson notes, “[e]very natural fact is a symbol of some spiritual fact” (20) and here both he and Dillard, their eyes open, experience the true shock of sensation in the natural world, a shock that connects them to something both natural and supernatural, something transcendent.  It is no coincidence that as they are aware of trees they are in a where of trees, two different places, both present and filled with presence. 

Full list of Works Cited



The series “Finding Grace with Ralph Waldo Emerson and Friends” is adapted from my work in Dr. Kate Stanley’s wonderful course on Pragmatism and the American Aesthetic at Western University and is an exercise in finding grace in life and language.

 Writer Andrew Kooman

About Andrew Kooman: Andrew is a Canadian writer and producer. His work has been published and viewed around the world and translated into more than 10 languages. Andrew strives to tell powerful stories that make real-world impact.  { Learn More }

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