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What Is Eco-Poetry

By Forrest Gander

Owl_visits_Ashcraft.jpg
Owl Visitation recorded by visionary artist Thomas Ashcraft
(play the brief movie clip at the site below)
Thomas Ashcraft, Heliotown
As globalization draws us together and industrialization and human population pressures take their toll on natural habitats, as species of plants and animals flicker and are snuffed from the earth, it may be worthwhile to ask whether an ethnocentric view of human beings as a species independent from others underpins our exploitation of natural resources and sets into motion dire consequences. What we’ve perpetrated on our environment has certainly affected a poet’s means and material. But 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?
Sanditz%2C%20Lisa%204.jpg
Lisa Sanditz at CRG Gallery
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.
The United States and China are locked in a tug of war to determine which country can spew more carbon. For both, natural resources are plundered for short-sighted ends. Perhaps these facts place particular responsibilities on the poets of both countries. Maybe the development of environmental literacy, by which I mean a capacity for reading connections between the environment and its inhabitants, can be promoted by poetic literacy; maybe poetic literacy will be deepened through environmental literacy.
Poetry doesn’t simply supplement the rational intellect, but provides inherently and sometimes incommensurable forms of insight. Because its meanings are neither quantitative nor verifiable, poetry may offer different, subtler and more complex expressions than the language of information and commerce. An eco-poetry might even…
Photo%20by%20Denny%20Moers.jpg
Denny Moers Photographic Monoprints

Comments (15)

  • On November 29, 2008 at 9:28 pm Brian Salchert wrote:

    `
    W H O O O
    w h o o o

  • On November 30, 2008 at 10:05 am Dale Smith wrote:

    Forrest, thanks for this thoughtful post. Along these lines, I wanted to bring readers’ attention to a recent book by Timothy Morton–Ecology without Nature: Rethinking Environmental Aesthetics (Cambridge: Harvard, 2007). It touches on issues you bring up in insightful ways….

  • On November 30, 2008 at 3:58 pm LH wrote:

    Thanks for this post. I too wonder about issues of form and representation, particularly when it comes to this recent interest in eco-poetics. And I too wonder what people are thinking of when they say those words? What does it mean to really discuss “nature” and “ecology” in a poem? And as you say, “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?”
    I am hoping for an eco-poetic that might inspire new ways of thinking about “nature” as a system we can work within…I am not at all certain what will achieve this, but I am on the look out for work that is moving in a direction I would like to be heading in.

  • On November 30, 2008 at 4:48 pm Gary B. Fitzgerald wrote:

    Ask any fresh new family out here
    in their brand new country home,
    four bedrooms on an acre, custom
    built just for them. They are the
    modern and genteel, on the web,
    Ipods, cell phones, brand new cars.
    Ask them about all these wars, about
    these violent, bloodthirsty hordes
    who have crossed our history and lands
    with genocide and death,
    invaded and murdered and conquered,
    how almost every nation now was
    carved by a nation of invaders.
    Ask them about that.
    Not me, they’d say… we are civilized…
    middle class, good schools, big TV, SUV,
    politically correct and morals uncompromised.
    We are innocent of such crimes.
    And what shock would come to them
    in learning of the slaughter
    their invasion has produced,
    the families sundered,
    the infants crushed,
    the great communities reduced
    as the bulldozers blundered
    through tree and brush,
    the instant death and flight
    of the survivors into the diaspora
    of roadkill.
    copyright 2008 – SOFTWOOD-Seventy-eight Poems, Gary B. Fitzgerald

  • On November 30, 2008 at 9:47 pm Brian Salchert wrote:

    Dale Smith’s comment led me to do this search:
    Timothy Morton Ecology without Nature
    which in turn led me to the Harvard University Press site.
    The information there includes a 17-page pdf excerpt.
    Thank you, Mr. Gander and Mr. Smith,
    and the others who commented.

  • On November 30, 2008 at 9:58 pm Gary B. Fitzgerald wrote:

    Corner Lot
    (country living)
    Those trees growing wild
    on that wooded corner lot, thick
    with birds and beasts,
    always made my day.
    Every morning I admired them
    as I made my way to work.
    I made my left turn slowly to avoid
    those who lived among them,
    making their way home
    in the pre-dawn light.
    But one sad day I turned the corner
    to sorrow and regret.
    No longer wooded. A plowed up field
    of mud and broken sticks.
    All who lived there gone away.
    Unsated hunger and desire,
    encroaching need, eating land
    like locusts eat the grain,
    the population spreads.
    Each one wants what we have had:
    the privacy and solitude and peace,
    and so as surely guarantee
    that what they seek will by
    their finding it be gone, lost
    through the very effort to obtain
    Spreading upon us like a pox,
    the population smothers.
    I pass a corner lot now filled
    with an emptiness of life,
    replaced by an asphalt driveway,
    a cultivated lawn and a mailbox
    just like all the others..
    copyright 2008 – SOFTWOOD-Seventy-eight Poems, Gary B. Fitzgerald

  • On November 30, 2008 at 10:04 pm Gary B. Fitzgerald wrote:

    People
    People, people, people, people, people,
    birds, people, people, people, people,
    people, deer, people, people, people,
    people, people, trees, people, people,
    people, people, people, land, people,
    people, people, people, people, people
    people Earth,
    So many people. So many dead.
    Copyright 2008, SOFTWOOD-Seventy-eight Poems, Gary B. Fitzgerald

  • On November 30, 2008 at 10:10 pm Gary B. Fitzgerald wrote:

    Just having a little poetic fun. Sorry.
    Hey…you brought up the subject!

  • On December 3, 2008 at 6:45 pm Patrick Jones wrote:

    Permapoesis
    Permaculture bases its design principles on agro-ecology. A permaculturalist understands local ecology and applies this understanding to food production. This changes social, economic and cultural structures. If a poet’s food, which in part provides the material for poesis, is produced with her involvement, and within walking distance of her primary dwelling, her text is altered from one of capitalisation (reliance upon importation of resources) to one of ecology. The poet now participates actively within the environment that supports her, and the form and content of her life and work change accordingly.

  • On December 6, 2008 at 7:56 am Steve Tills wrote:

    “it may be worthwhile to ask whether an ethnocentric view of human beings as a species independent from others underpins our exploitation of natural resources and sets into motion dire consequences.”
    First thing that comes to my mind is almost always William Barrett’s _The Illusion of Technique_, which argued very persuasively that human’s zeal to “master” nature, an obviously grandiose, extra-arrogant perception presuming independence and the alienation of interdependence, could one day prove fatal to ALL species’ continued “evolution” on this little pebble in the seriously larger greater universe. Well, at least that is one of the main things I got from the book — haven’t reread it in 30 years, not that one has to reread such brilliant common sense twice when it’s pretty simple “to get” the first time. Yeah, so here we are, 2008, wondering if little old mom nature we’ve so thoroughly mastered will even permit us, ALL of us organic organisms, to even so much as “exist” 50-150 years from now; at the rate we are going, mom nature is likely to throw us some snowballs and tidal waves and tornadoes and subsequent virus soups (what did Jacque Cousteau predict if we kept putting a lid of pollution on the oceans…) that will easily wipe everything out. I emphasize the term “mom” nature, of course, because our arrogance is obviously quite patriarchal, also. (Well, I get some of that notion from Riane Eisler, whose _The Chalice and the Blade_ kind of follows the same logic of Barrett’s railings against the limits of Logic and Technology, to more contemporary conclusions, but it’s really the same story — either we “come together” and cooperate or we continue to live by a “dominator mode” that will at best keep us fighting, warring, and pillaging).
    Now then, if ya think about it, if we call for “technique, “form,” “line break,” “syntax,” or “the shape of the poem” to take on the/a cause of ecopoetics, might we be risking making the same mistake I believe Barrett alerts us to, namely, the mistake of letting “technology” control things?
    This is perhaps really, really simple-minded on my part, and thus genuinely stupid (so don’t let me be disingenuous here), but isn’t it really “content” and WHERE we focus our poetic energies, NOT the technique of Poetry, that might directly and sincerely affect our eco-survival? I say this because I am, not unlike many others the last 10-15 years, quite cynically suspect about the eternal clamor for new form, particularly when I believe that that clamor is born solely of ambition to “compete” for literary history and fame. Such competition, if not most Competition in general, usually goes against the whole grain of “cooperation” and thus that direction for Poetry always repulses me as arrogant, excessively ambitious (ambition born of underexplored character defects and underdevelopment of personality), and empty hearted. I.e., if all one is trying to do is “come up with the next great form or style or look,” and one really “doesn’t have anything to say,” then one doesn’t necessarily deserved to be trusted. (Again, though, my argument here may be profoundly naive, so I want to caution against taking it too seriously, and after all, just being here commenting, and pushing this line of thought, I’m as “competitive” and “ambitious” as “the next GUY,” so I certainly want to be equally suspect of my own “dark side.”

  • On December 8, 2008 at 3:24 pm Theodore Gravestian wrote:

    Let’s say we had a second earth to populate: how would we go about doing it? How many deer? How many lambs? How many lions? How many mosquitoes? How many trees? How many mountains? How many people? How many fish in the oceans? How many eaters and how many eaten?
    And even if we were able to say exactly how many of each kind of life should exist (even down to single cell organisms, viruses, etc) how would we then determine the spread of each?
    Let’s say, for this ‘second earth,’ we realize the logistical problem of counting and controlling all life would be too complex, and focus, therefore, on somehow controlling one aspect of life: humankind, ourselves. How would we do that? Would we pick some number and say, “No more humans after that?” And what, exactly, would that number be based on? Let there be X number of people, so there can be X number of deer? Let there be X number of people, living here and here and here, and based on this, allow X number of this or that creature which this or that person adores? And what sort of food-chain, ecological impact would our ‘second earth’ caretaking have, no matter how well-intentioned? Could we even dream such a thing, much less make it a reality? Who could we possibly put in charge of such a thing, and how could such a thing possibly be enacted, fairly, or at all?
    But here we are, living in division and ignorance and folly upon the ‘first earth,’ essentially dreaming of the same thing.
    Such ecological vanity is utter madness, the ultimate daydream of goody-good delusion, as pernicious a folly as any which has afflicted humankind.

  • On December 8, 2008 at 8:35 pm Gary B. Fitzgerald wrote:

    Two in response to my friend Mr. Gravestian:
    Rabbits and Mice
    Serrated, sharp with purpose,
    razor hook and pointed saw,
    deadly bite and slashing paw,
    dangerous, meaning business,
    designed for humorless need.
    Yet beautiful, these predators,
    how they touch our hearts.
    How we admire their majesty,
    their patterns and their power,
    forgetting how they, too, with
    savage jaw must feed,
    forgetting who must bleed,
    who, lying in the mud
    will die today.
    So magnificent and regal they,
    such grace and speed,
    such colorful spots and stripes.
    We overlook the function
    of hissing fang and strike,
    the result of tooth and claw,
    overlook the severing of parts,
    the pain and slice and blood
    of helpless prey.
    You can not love life without
    acknowledging its wages, or beauty
    without knowing its price.
    .
    Pinnacle
    Such disdain have we for Nature
    for it destroys with such abandon;
    the striking snake and dead-eyed shark,
    marauding wolf and mountain lion,
    those who kill without decision.
    So good that we, the pinnacle,
    the apex chosen, divinely made and special,
    are so much better than are they
    since we can murder without purpose
    and they but for some good reason.
    .
    Copyright 2008 – HARDWOOD-77 Poems, Gary B. Fitzgerald

  • On December 9, 2008 at 1:56 pm Theodore Gravestian wrote:

    I love sharks and mice from the bottom of my heart.
    But didactic poetry is my abhorrence!

  • On December 9, 2008 at 3:58 pm Gary B. Fitzgerald wrote:

    http://www.cosmoetica.com/S4-EC1.htm

  • On December 10, 2008 at 8:37 am theodore gravestian wrote:

    Why isn’t that essay in verse?
    I think the author of that essay is really arguing for ‘the sane’ in light of the Modernists’ insanity. But he strays from his thesis, partly because his theme is hopelessly divided from the very beginning.
    The question is always, ” What is good?”
    Not, what is prose, what is poetry, what is verse, what is modern, what is eco-poetry?
    One never begins with ‘a problem.’
    One always begins with “the good.”


Posted in Uncategorized on Saturday, November 29th, 2008 by Forrest Gander.