Nan Grass Lecture: Articulating Wonder in Life and Poetry

As the key speaker for the annual Nan Osmond Grass Lecture, award-winning poet Maurice Manning shared personal experiences and poetic expertise with BYU students and faculty.

(November 1, 2019) — Maurice Manning, a Kentucky-born-and-raised poet, is the author of seven books of poetry including The Common Man, a 2011 Pulitzer Prize finalist, and Lawrence Booth’s Book of Visions, winner of the 2000 Yale Younger Poetry Series Award. Manning visited BYU as a guest speaker for the annual Nan Osmond Grass Lecture and shared how his experiences wondering at nature have shaped his life and influenced his poetry. Manning offered the audience valuable insights into his poetic process and philosophy, which draw mainly from his experiences growing up in Kentucky and the wonder-filled relationship he has developed from observing “nature, with a capital ‘N’.”

Throughout the lecture, Manning repeatedly referenced the continuous and generative aspects of Nature, life, and poetry. He illustrated the importance of “understand[ing] the world as a continuity and understand[ing] our place in the world is partaking of a continuity” as he related stories and metaphors from his life. Manning asked the audience to “imagine that a human, one human being, can know previous humans going back 100 years and can imagine subsequent humans going forward 100 years, so that in many ways the branches of our lifetime can span 200 years.”

While that view of human existence may seem to be too broad for some, Manning insists that this philosophy can aid us in “finding wonder in the every day and finding everyday language to articulate it.” This concept of wonder is inherent in Manning’s collection Bucolics, which is composed of devotional-esque poetry. When asked how his religious beliefs influenced the poems in this collection, Manning responded, “In a world that is increasingly complicated and secular, to say the least, we are asking our secular institutions to provide answers to sacred problems. And that, to me, says something about our current dilemma.”

In his poetry, Manning tries to combat this secularization by “imagin[ing] the speaker of the poems in [Bucolics] as someone who is intimately familiar with the creative world—the trees and pastures and fields, streams, the weather, birds, and animals; someone who implicitly recognizes that the world is made by a divine hand and yet that the world is a sort of go-between linking the speaker and the divine.” By imbuing his speaker with this sense of wonder for the natural world, Manning effectively communicates the deeper purpose of his poems.

Manning left his listeners with a lot to think about as he finished his time by examining the relationship between Nature and poetry. He explained that both are generative—each tree has hundreds of years of history behind it and each will generate hundreds of trees to come. In that same way, he stated, “Everything about the poetic process is generative. So, if you’re writing blank verse as your basic form, it is going to generate not just one line, but the next line, and then the next one and then the next one. And if you want to employ an image, then that image is going to generate the subsequent image. And for me, the paradigm for that sense of artistic process is given to us in the natural world.”

—Heather Bergeson (English, ‘21)