An Introduction to Ecopoetics

As the course gets underway we will likely find ourselves talking about not only poems but also about genre, and distinctions between and among kinds of poems.

The 2002 collection of essays Ecopoetry: a Critical Introduction offers a useful critical introduction to some of the intersections between ecology and poetry as well as resources for further reading. (My own essay in the “Forerunners” section, “William Carlos Williams, Ecocriticism, and Contemporary American Nature Poetry,” appears in the volume.) In 2008 I published a reference entry on Ecopoetry that offers one definition and a cursory history of the emergence of a poetry and poetics that takes an ecological stance toward the world. The link will take you to the essay, a survey of the use of the terms in an emerging commentary, a bibliography, and a “Further Reading” section with a range of useful references. More recently, my colleagues Anne Fisher-Wirth and Laura-Gray Street organize this tradition of writing into the nature poem, the environmental poem, and the ecopoem in their anthology The Ecopoetry Anthology. They discuss the qualities–both in poetic terms as well as in how poems provide a “stance toward reality,” to use a phrase from the poet Charles Olsen. Anne and Laura talk about the boundaries and overlaps of these kinds of poems in practice. And they offer a few words about the potential pitfalls of poems in the taxonomy–sentimentalized anthropomorphism, agenda-driven propaganda, hyperintellectualism and emotional distance or detachment.

On the Poetry foundation web site you will find a short post on the Harriet Blog, Forrest Gander’s What is Eco-poetry in which he asks a question worth asking: can poetry be ecological?

Can it display or be invested with values that acknowledge the economy of interrelationship between human and non-human realms? Aside from issues of theme and reference, how might syntax, line break, or the shape of the poem on the page express an ecological ethics? If our perceptual experience is mostly palimpsestic or endlessly juxtaposed and fragmented; if events rarely have discreet beginnings or endings but only layers, duration, and transitions; if natural processes are already altered by and responsive to human observation, how does poetry register the complex interdependency that draws us into a dialogue with the world?

The Poetry foundation web site also has as an essay first published in the January 2016 issue of Poetry Magazine, John Shoptaw’s Why Ecopoetry? Because there is no plan B.

This brings us to David Hinton’s anthology The Wilds of Poetry: Adventures in Mind and Landscape (2017). Our thinking this summer session will be informed by Hinton’s elaboration of the work of fifteen twentieth-century poets whose poetic strategies and philosophical ideas shape the tradition of modern poetry. Here is one of Hinton’s summary statements of the innovative poetic strategies of the poets he chooses to include:

It begins with imagistic clarity, a poetics of contact that replaces the self-involved abstraction of a transcendental and immaterial soul with an immediacy to the material world we inhabit, a Ch’an attention to everyday experience. This poetic immediacy combines two formal approaches to organizing a poem, both rich in philosophical implications. First is organic poetic form: a language of the body and the natural rhythms of thought. In its wilder incarnations, this becomes an improvisational poetry of primal mind operating in spontaneous and selfless freedom. The second approach, often overlapping with the first, involves techniques of discontinuous fragmentation or collage that open the logical narrative of thought to non-logical insight and silence. In this, it opens identity beyond the constructive structures of thought and memory, thereby allowing consciousness its most primal and spacious expanse (311)

In the brief essay that opens his anthology, Hinton explains the two aspects of Ch’an practice. The first aspect is koan, wherein puzzles are posed to crack the individual habits, social norms, and cultural conventions that organize our relationship to mind and landscape and in turn open ourselves to wildness. The second aspect of Ch’an practice is meditation, and the insight that we are separate from our thoughts and our memories. “That is,” Hinton explains, we are not the center of identity we assume ourselves to be in our day-to-day lives” (9).

The insight here opens up an approach to modern poetry that is at once provocative and timely. “Between 3000 and 2500 years ago, ancient China underwent a cultural transformation very similar to that of the modern West: the transformation from a spiritualist to an empiricist worldview, which entailed a rediscovery of consciousness in its original nature as woven into the tissue of existence” (6). While the sources of the reformulation of this rediscovery will preoccupy less of our attention in our work together this summer, the reformulation in the poetic projects of selected modern poets will.

 

Further Resources for Students of Ecopoetics: Projects, Statements, Manifestos

My colleague Jonathan Skinner, who teaches at the University of Warwick, compiled a list of statements that maps some coordinates onto the conceptual field of ecopoetics:

Juliana Spahr, from things of each possible relation hashing against one another)

“a poetics full of systemic analysis and critique that questions the divisions between nature and culture while also acknowledging that humans use up too much of the world.”

Jonathan Skinner, from editor’s introduction to ecopoetics 01

“ ‘Eco’ here signals—no more, no less—the house we share with several million other species, our planet Earth. ‘Poetics’ is used as poesis or making, not necessarily to emphasize the critical over the creative act (nor vice versa). Thus: ecopoetics, a house making.”

Jed Rasula, from This Compost

“I would describe poetry as ecology in the community of words.”

Leonard Scigaj from Sustainable Poetry

“Ecopoets ensure that nature retains its status as a separate and equal other through the understanding and respect they accord the operations of nature’s ecosystems in the poems. Ecopoems are not restricted to the laws of human logic and language, for these are regularly shown to be subordinate to the laws of nature’s ecosystems . . . Once completed, an ecopoem becomes a tool for altering the reader’s perceptions from the anthropocentric to the biocentric, and many ecopoems model biocentric behavior. Ecopoems help us to live our lives by encouraging us to understand, respect, and cooperate with the laws of nature that sustain us. Today we very much need sustainable poetry.”

Scott Bryson, from Ecopoetry, “A Critical Introduction”

“Ecopoetry is a subset of nature poetry that, while adhering to certain conventions of romanticism, also advances beyond that tradition and takes on distinctly contemporary problems and issues, thus resulting in a version of nature poetry generally marked by three primary characteristics. The first is an emphasis on maintaining an ecocentric perspective that recognizes the interdependent nature of the world; such a perspective leads to a devotion to specific places and to the land itself, along with those creatures that share it with humankind . . . This awareness of the world as a community tends to produce the second attribute of ecopoetry: an imperative toward humility in relationships with both human and nonhuman nature . . . Related to this humility is the third attribute of ecopoetry: an intense skepticism concerning hyperrationality, a skepticism that usually leads to an indictment of an overtechnologized modern world and a warning concerning the very real potential for ecological catastrophe.”

Terry Gifford, from the essay “Gary Snyder and the Post-Pastoral”

“how can we best address the issue that ecofeminists in particular have helped us understand better—that our exploitation of our environment has emerged from the same mind-set as our exploitation of each other?”

Greg Garrard, from Ecocriticism

“The challenge for ecocritics is to keep one eye on the ways in which ‘nature’ is always in some ways culturally constructed, and the other on the fact that nature really exists, both the object and, albeit distantly, the origin of our discourse.”

David Gilcrest, from Greening the Lyre

“the ecological poem allies itself with ecological science’s complaint against atomistic and mechanistic Newtonian science. In making this appeal, the ecological poem may make use of the precise grammar of ecological science; more often than not, however, the ecological poem reflects a more general sense of ecology . . . Indeed, one of the more interesting characteristics of ecological poetics is the ease with which the ecologized text migrates beyond the boundaries maintained, perhaps heroically, perhaps jealously, by most ecological scientists.”

Donna Dreese, from Ecocriticism: Creating Self and Place in Environmental and American Indian Literatures 

“Ecocriticism, as an activist philosophy, has as one of its primary agendas the reduction of dualistic thinking that has separated the human being from the natural world in Western discourse and practice.”

Forrest Gander, from “What is Eco-Poetry” in Harriet: a blog from the poetry foundation

“Can it display or be invested with values that acknowledge the economy of interrelationship between human and non-human realms? Aside from issues of theme and reference, how might syntax, line break, or the shape of the poem on the page express an ecological ethics? If our perceptual experience is mostly palimpsestic or endlessly juxtaposed and fragmented; if events rarely have discreet beginnings or endings but only layers, duration, and transitions; if natural processes are already altered by and responsive to human observation, how does poetry register the complex interdependency that draws us into a dialogue with the world?

There are, of course, long traditions of the pastoral, poetry centered on nature or landscape, in both Eastern and Western language literature. I, myself, am less interested in “nature poetry”—where nature features as theme—than in poetry, sometimes called eco-poetry, which investigates—both thematically and formally—the relationship between nature and culture, language and perception.”

Jack Collom, from “An Ecosystem of Writing Ideas” in Jack Magazine

“In truth (yes, it still exists), nature is, importantly, everything. It gains flavor from its subsidiary meanings: beauty, wildness, basis-of-life and all their specifics. It gains poignancy through its contradictions. It’s the big matrix; we’re a few dots not only in it but of it. The ‘of’ is what we forget. ‘Of’ is identity of processes. Recognizing ‘of’ is the springboard of love, without which there’s only destruction of ourselves and others. It’s time, and past time, for us to transcend our species’ solipsism, to roll out affect as far as we roll effect. The Jackson Pollock remark, ‘I am nature,’ still has the ring of an outrageous cry. But it’s just an overdue recognition.”

Christopher Arigo, from “Notes Toward an Ecopoetics: Revising the Postmodern Sublime and Juliana Spahr’s This Connection of Everyone with Lungs” in How2

“Thus innovative practices and ecological thinking/being/feeling combine to produce a site of resistance, of politics, of political resistance. Perhaps, given the postmodern world in which we live, a world in which we are fully aware of the interdependence of the body upon its world for its health, a world that is now inextricable from the body, an ecopoetics is an inevitable outcome or byproduct: perhaps poetry as a practice is the best means of directly addressing an environment in crisis. And perhaps this is why it is so difficult to pin down what makes a poem or poet ‘eco’—because the concern insinuates itself into so many elements of the writing, between the lines, in the white spaces, questioning even the paper upon which the poem is printed (if indeed it is actually printed): the paper industry is one of the country’s largest polluters after all. Or maybe it is because the poem itself is an ecology: a microcosmic ecosystem in which itself dwells.”

Marcella Durand, from “The Ecology of Poetry” in ecopoetics 02

“Experimental ecological poets are concerned with the links between words and sentences, stanzas, paragraphs, and how these systems link with energy and matter—that is, the exterior world. And to return to the idea of equality of value, such equalization of subject/object-object/subject frees up the poet’s specialized abilities to associate. Association, juxtaposition, metaphor are how the poet can go further than the scientist in addressing systems. The poet can legitimately juxtapose kelp beds with junkyards. Or to get really technical, reflect the water reservoir system for a large city in the linguistic structure of repetitive water-associated words in a poem. And poets right now are the only scientist-artists who can do these sorts of associations and get away with them—all other disciplines, such as biology, oceanography, or mathematics carry an obligation to separate their ideas into discrete topics. You’re not really allowed to associate your findings about sea-birds nesting on a remote Arctic island with the drought in the West. But as a poet, you certainly can. And you can do it in a way that journalists can’t—you can do it in a way that is concentrated, that alters perception, that permanently alters language or a linguistic structure. Because you as poets are lucky enough to work in a medium that not only is in itself an art, but an art that interacts essentially with the exterior world, with things, events, systems. Through this multi-dimensional aspect of poetry, poets are an essential catalyst for increased perception, and increased change.”

James Engelhardt. The Language Habitat: an Ecopoetry Manifesto

Permapoesis Permapoesis is the portmanteau for permanent making, a term I’ve developed, incorporating permaculture principles and indigenous thinking, to define a practice of art that participates in what it represents; that is of its environment; that generates no waste.

Journals

Ecopoetics (Ed. Jonathan Skinner) ecopoetics is a (more or less) annual journal dedicated to exploring creative-critical edges between making (with an emphasis on writing) and ecology (the theory and praxis of deliberate earthlings).  ecopoetics operates in print time, or even slower.  The “blog” is mostly for information, the occasional announcement, and to facilitate free access to back issues of the magazine (via pdf).

How2 Feature on Ecopoetics

Courses

Jonathan Skinner EN355 Ecopoetics course at Warwick University 

Conferences

Ecopoetics February 22-24 2013 The term ecopoetics has become increasingly important to scholars and poets alike. It is certainly a critical moment for the field and practice. Please join us in February for a three-day conference that will focus specifically on exploring ecopoetics, taking up such questions as: What is ecopoetics? What representational strategies and sociopolitical commitments might characterize this practice? How might we periodize ecopoetics and situate its modes of cultural production? It is our hope that the conference will bring scholars, poets, and creative artists into sustained dialogue on the historical and contemporary practices of ecopoetics.

International Conference on Ecopoetics:“Dwellings of Enchantment: Writing and Reenchanting the Earth” Under the aegis of the research center (CRESEM) and the University of Perpignan Via Domitia, this ecopoetics conference (France June 22nd-25th 2016) aims to cast light on the rhizomatic convergences between literatures that tend to be bunched into the separate categories of ecofeminist, postcolonial or environmental studies. The purpose is to show how the fiction and non-fiction of these writers with a specific interest in place as well as in the non-human realm overlap, intersect, and engage in a fruitful, multicultural dialogue, opening imaginative and insightful perspectives onto the world. For, does not much nature writing present us with an ecological picture of organic interrelatedness similar to the motif of the sacred hoop expressing the interconnected web of all life forms in Native American tradition (Paula Gunn Allen)? And does not most nature writing consist in a movement to reenchant the world, or in other words/worlds, to re-sing the world?

Papers will be welcome that will address some of the following issues:

▪   Are certain genres–the lyric essay, the short story, the novel, drama, film or poetry–better suited to the writing of nature?

▪   What place might dystopic fiction occupy in ecocritical studies?

▪   Can these writers be said to contribute to a literature of hope?

▪   Might the reenchantment of the quotidian and the natural be particularly inclined toward magical realism as a liminal mode dealing with, in Wendy Faris’s terms, “ordinary enchantments?”

▪   What are the roles of myth and/or science when fiction and non-fiction draw from these other forms of discourse about the world?

▪   What is the contribution of phenomenology and ecopsychology to the field of ecopoetics?

▪   What impact has ecopoetics had on politics?

▪   Do ecopoetic texts reveal, as Linda Hogan claims, something which “dwells beneath the surface of things”?

▪   Can it be said that all nature writers are mystics? What kind of “mystical experiences,” “numinous encounters,” “inexplicable revelations” do nature writers tell about (Mark Tredinnick)?

▪   What is the place of oneirism in the writing of nature?

▪   What is the importance of liminal experiences of nature? What can we learn from moments in literature when human apprehension suddenly opens to forms of “terrestrial intelligence” (Linda Hogan), or sentience, pertaining to animal, mineral, vegetal, or elemental realms?

▪   What are the different ways in which one’s sensitivity to the other-than-human world shapes one’s writing, and eventually articulates with nature?

▪   Is there such a thing as “the land’s wild music” (Mark Tredinnick)? How may we learn to listen for it? What kind of musicality arises then, within the very writing of/with nature?

▪   How might “thinking like a mountain” (Aldo Leopold) or hearing like a bat (Linda Hogan) ripple into and through the writing of nature?

Events during this ecopoetics conference will be held in English and French. Abstracts (300-400 words) with a brief biographical note should be sent by September 1st, 2015 to benemeillon@gmail.com. Acceptance will be notified by October 15th.

Reference Sources on Ecology and Poetry

Dictionary of Literary Biography: Twentieth-Century Nature Writers: Poetry. Vol. 342. New York: Gale, 2003, (KSC Reference)

The Princeton Encyclopedia of Poetry and Poetics (Mason library PN1021 .N39 1993).

Dictionary of Literary Biography The multi-volume reference source is available in the Reference section of the Mason Library. I include below the relevant volumes in the series. The call number is REF PN451.D5.

American Poets Since World War II, A–K. Vol. 5.1. Ed. Donald Greiner. Detroit: Bruccoli Clark, 1980.

American Poets Since World War II, L–Z. Vol. 5.2. Ed. Donald Greiner. Detroit: Bruccoli Clark, 1980.

The Beats: Literary Bohemianism in Postwar America, A–L. Vol. 16.1. Ed. Ann Charters. Detroit: Bruccoli Clark, 1983.

The Beats: Literary Bohemianism in Postwar America, M–Z. Vol. 16.2. Ed. Ann Charters. Detroit: Bruccoli Clark, 1983.

Afro-American Poets Since 1955. Vol. 41. Eds. Trudier Harris and Thadious M. Davis. Detroit: Bruccoli Clark, 1985.

American Poets, 1800–1945. First Series. Vol. 45. Ed. Peter Quartermain. Detroit: Bruccoli Clark, 1985.

American Poets, 1800–1945. Second Series. Vol. 48. Ed. Peter Quartermain. Detroit: Bruccoli Clark, 1985.

American Poets, 1800–1945. Third Series. Vol. 54.1 Ed. Peter Quartermain. Detroit: Bruccoli Clark, 1986.

American Poets, 1800–1945. Third Series. Vol. 54.2 Ed. Peter Quartermain. Detroit: Bruccoli Clark, 1986.

American Poets Since World War II. Second Series. Vol. 105. Ed. R.S. Gwynn. Detroit: Bruccoli Clark, 1991.

American Poets Since World War II. Third Series. Vol. 120. Ed. R.S. Gwynn. Detroit: Bruccoli Clark, 1992.

American Poets Since World War II. Fourth Series. Vol. 165. Ed. Joseph Conte. Detroit: Bruccoli Clark, 1996.

American Poets Since World War II. Fifth Series. Vol. 169. Ed. R.S. Gwynn. Detroit: Bruccoli Clark, 1996.

American Poets Since World War II. Sixth Series. Vol. 193. Ed. R.S. Gwynn. Detroit: Bruccoli Clark, 1996.

Walt Whitman: A Documentary Volume. Vol. 224. Ed. Joel Myerson. Detroit: Bruccoli Clark, 2000.

The Beats: A Documentary Volume. Vol. 237. Ed. Matt Theado. Detroit: Bruccoli Clark, 2001.

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