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Can “Experimental” Poetry Save the Earth?

By Travis Nichols

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In his essay “Vermin: a Notebook”, the Australian poet John Kinsella writes that without acts of resistance, “the environment has no chance.”

This seems obvious enough.

The way things are going, the earth (or at the very least, life on it) is in danger of being irreparably damaged by humanity’s heedless gobbling of resources. Resistance and change need to happen. Everyone from Barack Obama to T. Boone Pickens agrees on that.

What no one quite agrees on is what form these acts of resistance should take. Should we chain ourselves to trees and squeal at passersby, or should we just use Flexcar once a week? Should we turn the living room lights off during the day or develop a bedroom bucket sewage system? Firebomb the coal plant or compost the coffee grounds? Let the free market take care of the polar bears or demand cap and trade?

For Kinsella, there’s one act of resistance that encompasses the full range of these possibilities, yet no one has talked much about it: Poetry.

“Poems,” Kinsella writes, “can stop bulldozers.”

A vegan pacifist currently living so off the grid no one is quite sure where he is, Kinsella believes that poetry is one of the most effective tools for political and ethical change. Not because it is simply a quick way to convey information through words (I think we can all agree that saying “Destroying the environment is wrong!” does not make for much of a poem nor does it do much to help the environment), but for precisely the reason most people don’t spend much time with poetry. Because it’s difficult. Because it resists easy interpretation. Poetry stops bulldozers because, Kinsella says, “the intricacies of language challenge, distract, and entangle the bulldozer.”

Here’s more:

No poem really knows a truth, but it has knowledge and offers ways of approaching truth. The use of language is precise, even when it gives a semblance of the unconscious, even when it is automatic writing. In the Surrealist sense, the conducting of automatic writing exercises was experimental textually and scientifically, and was as much about the act of recording the data of process as it was about the subject connecting with the unconscious. It was, at least, quasi-scientific.

And the pseudo- and quasi- interest me. The games of dismantling and rearranging, of exquisite corpse and chance, are all part of the science of a poem for me: they are just different systems of knowledge. That’s why an activist poetics can include the radically linguistically innovative, as well as the straight declaration (“logging the Tuart Forest is wrong”). Parataxis, conventional end-stopped lines and enjambment, narrative description, metaphor and metonymies, are all part of a process towards confronting hierarchies and imposed structures. We work from inside to open a view of the outside, but not one that destroys in the process.

Working from the inside to produce change on the outside. It’s a pretty radical idea, one that takes the concept of the personal being political to a different level. Not only what happens at home but also what happens in the mind–it’s all part of the world. While poets like Wendell Berry, Lisa Jarnot, and Gary Snyder have used poetry as a part of their environmental activism, few have put it at so central a position.

Is he on to something besides a fool’s errand?

Comments (49)

  • On December 3, 2009 at 4:07 am Frances wrote:

    I think this is a very reasonable argument, but how does it stand against the mysteries of the god of our times, capitalism?

    These two stanzas are from Blake, who in the throes of an industrial England tried to bring the sense of a caring human mind,

    The weeping child could not be heard.
    And weeping parents wept in vain:
    They strip’d him of his little shirt.
    And bound him in an iron chain.

    And burn’d him in a holy place.
    Where many had been burned before:
    The weeping parents wept in vain.
    Are such things done on Albion’s shore?

    The ‘early warning system’ of poets seem to have been all to easily ignored. This destruction, and disconcern for human values, which appalled the poets and painters at the onset of the industrial ‘revolution’ has continued apace; yes, some protest and propaganda has brought control to the powerful interests who dictated the conditions of life in the interests of profit, but not we are brought to a point where there is hardly any ‘nature’ left for many people. It’s all cars and concrete, and it grows and grows.

    The media, tv, has very much taken over from the poets as voices of the people and these are the ones that are listened to; but these voices are so tied to the systems of bourgeoise capitalism with its insistence on liberty that the media would be in crisis if it opposed the interests of the owners of production. Poets are independent voices, largely, free from the pressures and constraints of the media, but who reads poetry rather than sit in front of the tv with its messages changing all the time. It’s yes to environmental issues but yes to new investment also; no radical change can take place because of the dependence of the media on advertising; if they offended the advertisers they’d go down the drain.

  • On December 3, 2009 at 10:36 am LH wrote:

    Poetry offers ways to imagine, and through imagining we can see possible futures, and in possible futures we can see present day actions…that we spend so much time in poetry and have so little faith in it astounds me.

  • On December 3, 2009 at 12:04 pm Joshua wrote:

    I don’t know. I think he might be writing worse poems and helping the environment less by confusing his activism and his poetry.

  • On December 3, 2009 at 12:10 pm Jill wrote:

    Ha! I just noticed this on the Facebook page for this post: “the World is a living breathing organism; it will destory us before we can destroy it. Not to say we aren’t responsible for our actions; but enough is enough……………………………………..”

    Which I guess is the other side of the coin–we’re actually in a battle to the death with the earth! Our acts of resistance should be AGAINST the earth trying to destroy us. We must get it under control . . . OR ELSE!

  • On December 3, 2009 at 1:04 pm sassjemleon wrote:

    poetry can only save poets. question then is, save them from what? for example, i could very well write–in all sincerity and good intentions–that reading bukowski saved me from a life of excessive drinking.

    but did he really? or is that just an illusion i am under, a funny but well-informed story that i seriously tell people familiar with bukowski’s work? aren’t there many other and much deeper reasons as to why i stopped getting stoned, smashed and drunk every night? perhaps, in the end, i just didn’t have the genetic make up for the grueling and dull lifestyle that results from constant intoxication.

    i think it’s very important to remember that most writers are illusionists by nature–liars and professional bullshitters at heart–especially those who are, at the very least, looking to be viewed as leaders in their community, or to get paid on a regular basis for their work. in truth, a writer’s job is less about truth and politics, and more about style, which is how many writers/artists come to be so revered.

    it’s always a matter of style over substance.

    however, successful writers/artists must adopt political
    poses–revealed generally in essays, interviews and other biographical tidbits–poses which are usually based upon their own well-intentioned, incontrovertible, and highly personalized belief systems. their audiences, whether larger or small, will generally consist of choir members, people susceptible to–or who already share–their political personalities.

  • On December 3, 2009 at 1:29 pm Henry Gould wrote:

    by Robert Frost :

    The Oven Bird

    There is a singer eveyone has heard,
    Loud, a mid-summer and a mid-wood bird,
    Who makes the solid tree trunks sound again.
    He says that leaves are old and that for flowers
    Mid-summer is to spring as one to ten.
    He says the early petal-fall is past,
    When pear and cherry bloom went down in showers
    On sunny days a moment overcast;
    And comes that other fall we name the fall.
    He says the highway dust is over all.
    The bird would cease and be as other birds
    But that he knows in singing not to sing.
    The question that he frames in all but words
    Is what to make of a diminished thing.

    *

    How does this poem strike you? For me one thing it says is that there is an unspoken dimension or “poetry” of experience or reality or nature, which we only begin to reach once we recognize certain limits of word-magic. For Kinsella (at least based on the quotes here) such limits don’t seem to be there – there’s no distinction between words & things, dreams & facts…

    For me poetry is all in the balancing or crossing-over between these areas of speech & silence, poetry & music, imagination & reality. It’s a mystery, rather than a moral campaign of imaginative conquest.

    Have been reading the Kalevala lately : interesting how the poet & singer is a kind of magician there – full of “singing battles” & word-magic fantasy.

  • On December 3, 2009 at 2:41 pm Glen wrote:

    Yes, Frances. That’s why it’s so disappointing to see literary and cultural “media outlets” all trying to sound the same. I didn’t love this piece by Kinsella, but I was very happy to hear a different kind of voice outside of the advertising/industrial capitalist cabal.

  • On December 3, 2009 at 3:20 pm Joshua wrote:

    “The blackbird whistling
    Or just after.”

  • On December 3, 2009 at 4:23 pm Teri G. wrote:

    So he’s saying that people will be so bewildered and confused by poetry that they won’t be able to destroy the earth? I don’t know if that’s much of an endorsement for poetry as an activist art.

  • On December 4, 2009 at 10:45 am Joshua wrote:

    I think the argument that poetry–reading it especially–can help with a general refinement of sensibility makes sense. But plenty of terrible people read poetry. It didn’t stop them from destroying anything.

  • On December 4, 2009 at 10:51 am Bill Deng wrote:

    Terrible people should not be allowed to read poetry.

  • On December 4, 2009 at 11:28 am LH wrote:

    Sometimes amazing things happen for all the wrong reasons…I don’t think anyone (let alone poetry) can pretend to assess truth, or what is good, or bad. As Lisa Robertson says, no one knows how anything will be read, or what it will move people to do or not. That is why poetry is so frightening for many people: what is this “thing” they are ingesting? This seemingly benign text that is making one feel and think things one doesn’t normally think and feel…

    It seems to me that what poetry does very well is pry open thinking a little and make room for new ideas.

  • On December 4, 2009 at 1:32 pm Kent Johnson wrote:

    >Terrible people should not be allowed to read poetry.

    Pourquoi?

    After all, very terrible people write it.

  • On December 4, 2009 at 1:33 pm Don Share wrote:

    Touché!

  • On December 4, 2009 at 1:45 pm Jill wrote:

    I think that’s what Kinsella means when he says the poem offers ways of approaching truth. In some ways it’s like believing prayer has real world results.

  • On December 4, 2009 at 5:43 pm Don Share wrote:

    “Earth’s most graphic transaction is placed within a syllable, nay, even a gaze.” .” — Emily Dickinson

  • On December 4, 2009 at 6:06 pm Jé Maverick wrote:

    Poetry cannot save the planet. Only people can.

  • On December 4, 2009 at 8:01 pm A sleepy lemur wrote:

    It strikes me as completely absurd that an essay beginning with the words “Driving down to the city this morning” can purport to earnestly advocate for acts of environmental resistance through poetry.

    Given that our most urgent environmental imperative, as stated by the most respected (and embattled) climatologists, is to reduce the concentrations of carbon and other greenhouse gases in our atmosphere, without changing our automobile habit (coupled with suburban-style development patterns where people “drive down to the city” and then “drive back to the suburb” every day), we will be hard pressed to get the earth’s carbon levels back down to the 350 parts per million the scientific community agrees we must achieve in order to stabilize the climate.

    Look: poetry is poetry and science is science. Poets have poetic license (I don’t care what your undergrad degree is in) and scientists have scientific license. Brilliant and progressive scientists have had their research, findings, projections and recommendations suppressed for decades — by our previous presidential administrations and corporations. Furthermore their good research has been beset and smeared with lies. The best way poets can engage in acts of environmental resistance is support our embattled scientists — who are armed with facts. Support the facts. And support legislation at the local, national, global level that supports those facts.

    And I can’t even begin right now to note how important it is to understand local ecological issues, though important, should not be confused or conflated with, as Kinsella says, ‘the environment’ – as in ‘the environment has no chance.’ And why the anti-science stance? Any time you find yourself ideologically aligned with the Bush administration, you’ve got to take a moment. Furthermore I would argue that many a ‘nature’ or ‘environmental’ or ‘activist’ poet has a confused and outdated vision of humankind’s place on (in!) this earth and ironically contributes to the same fog of confusion obscuring the facts we need to hold out to each other and to which we need to hold our ruling powers and corporations accountable.

    That said, poems, can abet justice, which sometimes is encoded into law. Often (not always) the law, when enforced, can stop things, such as bulldozers. Or racial segregation in schools. Another great thing about poems is that they emit zero carbon dioxide. Let’s write a lot of them! Experimental! Traditional verse! Inspirational! Whatever! Let’s not tell each other how to write them! Let’s write poems of resistance if we want to (as an Australian, Kinsella has a lot to resist — Australia’s per capita ghg emission is even higher than that of the United States)! Let’s write all kinds of poems.

    But meantime, let’s spare each other the noblesse oblige. A poem does not stop a bulldozer. Ask someone in New London, Conneticut, or right here in Brooklyn. Or Gaza. Ask them whether a poem could have saved their house or their son. Bulldozers aren’t really our enemy anyway. We are. Poet of the first world (and developing world): if you want to engage in an act of heroic environmental resistance, first take a look at your own habits. Stop driving so much. And stop buying so much crap. Put down that bottled water! Work to elect intelligent and true-hearted people to public office. If you want to write poetry, awesome. It might make a difference, but not a huge one (unless you calculate the amount of carbon poets avoid by not ‘driving down to the city’ while we’re writing our poetry…)

    Is anyone else tired of these sloppy declarations that poetry has to be our environmental savior? It’s simply not constructive for the art, nor for the fight to arrest human development and consumption patterns that contribute to catastrophic rapid climate change. Please no more.

  • On December 5, 2009 at 4:25 am Tracy wrote:

    John Kinsella does not drive into the city & back (or even one way) every day. (By the way, there is no public transport between the city and where he lives, so on those occasions when he does travel, he can’t take public transport. He is currently in the process of moving to another place that is close to a country train line, for those occasions when he needs to go into a city — he lives hours from one.) He doesn’t “buy so much crap” (if this is your assumption) and he completely gave up flying (any flying) in July 2008. He’s been a vegan 25 years. He tends to put his action where his mouth is, which is more than I can say for most people I have met.

    PS the Bush administration was not opposed to “science”, only to that science which didn’t suit it ideologically and politically. They were big on military science… John’s stance regarding science has no “alignment” with theirs. The sort of comparison you make here is sleight of hand and not accurate.

  • On December 5, 2009 at 11:32 am LH wrote:

    Very passionate sleepy lemur, and I concur with much of what you are saying, but no one is saying poetry “has” to do anything. To ask that poetry be more conscious does not strike me as particularly sloppy either. But I suppose it’s always easier to make a point against something.

  • On December 5, 2009 at 2:31 pm Wendy Babiak wrote:

    There are even plenty of terrible people who write it. One can hope, though, that the process of attempting to say something useful, of living in such a way that the tracks one leaves on paper won’t be too damning, might, on the whole, guide humanity in a positive direction in its relations with the rest of the biosphere.

  • On December 5, 2009 at 6:00 pm Terreson wrote:

    Thank you, Travis Nichols, for an intro to John Kinsell, a poet with whom I am not familiar.

    This is not to take away from either your blog or from Kinsell’s position(s) as you present them here. But your summing up paragraph rather sticks out at an odd angle. You write:

    “Working from the inside to produce change on the outside. It’s a pretty radical idea, one that takes the concept of the personal being political to a different level. Not only what happens at home but also what happens in the mind–it’s all part of the world. While poets like Wendell Berry, Lisa Jarnot, and Gary Snyder have used poetry as a part of their environmental activism, few have put it at so central a position.”

    Without having to think hard on it three poets of two (maybe three) generations ago immediately come to mind whose personal political positions vis a vis the environment were pronounced, were, as you put it, at “so central a position” poetically.

    Robinson Jeffers was so radical in his take on things as to still cause a measure of discomfort when the cocktail party’s conversation turns to what is doing the planet in. He called his philosophy Inhumanism, by which he looked to do away with what he called the incestuousness of humanistic solipsism, what still at this late date insists that man (and woman) are at the ego-center of things planetary. Perhaps you remember that famous poem of his when he averes that, but for the penalties, he would rather kill a man than shoot a red tail hawk. (I confess to a certain understanding of the sentiment.)

    Then there is the case of D.H. Lawrence whose “savage pilgrimage” for an alternative to civilization took him into a poetic field less populated by humans, crowded out by birds and beasts. His poem, “Snake” especially puts into perspective just what a sorry example (I almost said pathetic) of a higher order of animal life our species is.

    Finally there is the case of Robert Graves who as near completely as is possible for any man (by fact of civilization compromised) to turn his back on the Industrial-Commercial complex and to retreat into a traditional, agrarian-centric environment, and out of which he increasingly drew his theme of true poetry.

    My post is intended as a bit of historical perspective only. Chalk it up to that. In the long view, however, it seems to me that certain poets of a certain tradition have kept to a personal political railing against all machines, even bulldozers. Or at least since Shelley and company.

    Terreson

  • On December 5, 2009 at 6:16 pm Terreson wrote:

    Correction: John Kinsella. My aplogies to the poet.

    Terreson

  • On December 5, 2009 at 8:23 pm Rachel wrote:

    I just opened John Felstiner’s book “Can Poetry Save the Earth? A Field Guide to Nature Poems” to the chapter headed “that witnessing presence” Life Illumined Around Denise Levertov. Where Felstiner writes these two opening paragraphs.

    “So a poet, although often impelled…to write poems of pure celebration, is driven inevitably to lament, to anger, and to expression of dread.” Driven, says Denise Levertov (1923-1997), because “although we humans are a part of nature ourselves, we have become an increasingly destructive element within it, shaking and breaking the great web’–perhaps irremediably.”

    “Shortly before she died, Levertov gathered nature poems from her career in ‘The Life Around Us’. “I decided not to group them separately–praise poems in one clump, laments and and fears in another,” but to let poems in one vein or the other follow along with “those in which celebration and the fear of loss are necessarily conjoined. I believe this flux and reflux echo what readers also feel in their response to ‘the green world’.”

    Joanna Macy, a scholar, eco-philosopher, and spiritual activist, has worked most of her adult life to “stop the bulldozer.” Deena Metzger says that Macy’s book, “World as Lover, World as Self”, “is a lamentation, a praise song, and a map.” Macy’s poet friend, Rainer Maria Rilke, is a longtime companion for her work. She gathers strength, understanding, and joy from her words. She uses his work to illuminate the often grueling acts of resistance. At a recent book signing for her new book, “A Year With Rilke” I saw an 80-year-old woman filled with joy for the gifts of his words and the knowing of what it takes to keep resisting the forces within us and without which are destroying our world. Perhaps it is true that poetry can save the earth.

    I wonder too, if it us humans who need the saving, after all the earth has great resilience.

  • On December 6, 2009 at 3:25 pm a sleepy lemur wrote:

    Tracy, I’m sorry — in no way do I mean to diminish the admirable personal commitments and sacrifices John Kinsella has made to live more gently on this earth. You are right to defend him, and I understand, rereading what I wrote (kind of sloppy itself), why you would want to do so. I apologize for not being more clear — my critique is not of the poet himself, but his notion of poetics, and the notion of an “activist poet.”

    Kinsella writes: “For me, poetry has no point in existing if it’s not to be a prompt or aid to political and ethical change.” He then qualifies this by saying he’s really only trying to claim that poetry ought to try to be engaged with something. I can’t disagree with the second statement, but I don’t think it absolves him of the fact that he’s dictating what a poet’s INTENTIONS should be when they sit down to write. I take issue with his statement that a poet who is not consciously engaging with a larger political or ethical conversation shouldn’t write poetry. Anyone who wants to write poetry should write it, and they should write to whatever end they desire — the poet who leads a politically, socially engaged, and environmentally conscious life is as equally capable of writing absolutely terrible poems as the apolitical uneducated slob is capable of writing excellent poetry.

    Of course the work of a poet who lives according to a certain ethic is more likely to embody that ethic in his or her work. Reading the work of John Clare, I am continually struck by how simply and skillfully he re-constructs and re-establishes intimacies with the marshlands of his childhood, the creatures that lived there, his lost world — commonly held “wastelands” seized from the peasantry, drained, and distributed to wealthy landowners. The sensitivity with which he directs the reader to see his lost world is, in itself, a whole environmental education. Yet this was not his aspiration per se; he wasn’t writing from a place of didacticism. He wanted to write excellent poetry, and so did – from a place of joy, humility, and tremendous loss, from the heart.

    Again, Tracy, I’m truly sorry — I do not mean to suggest Kinsella is not living to a rigorous standard. And I do appreciate how he admits the ‘ironies’ of his own life. I do take issue, however, with anyone who takes it upon themselves to declare the “point” of poetry in any way that feels exclusive and severe. Also, even if a person truly were, as Kinsella seems to be, living and working to a political and ethical end (as many of us are), to self-declare as an “activist poet” seems, in some ways, redundant, and it’s still not wholly clear to me, after reading Kinsella’s essay, the usefulness of discussing our work as poets in the context of our own (self-)identities.

    As someone who, at work and at home, reads, thinks and writes on these matters, I am really excited to see Poetry Magazine, as well as this blog, giving space to discussion of to what end poetry can participate in resolving what many call the crisis of our time– rapid climate change caused by human activity. As in all things poetic, there is and should be room for as many perspectives as there are poets, and I don’t think the concept of writing from a place of environmental concern, consciousness, activism — whatever you want to call it– is either new or radical. I do think the threat of anthropogenic climate change, on the other hand, is entirely unprecedented, and I truly appreciate how Kinsella visibly struggles on the page to understand the terms of this threat, and questions his relation to it – as poet and private person.

    Framing the debate with the question ‘Can poetry save the earth?’ is misleading, reductionist, confusing, and frustrating. The only way I can imagine answering such a question is with that famous Ad Reinhardt piece:
    http://www.flickr.com/photos/wink/112176606/

    On the other hand, it caught my eye (and a lot of other people’s eyes). It’s good to be able to debate these issues. Thanks.

  • On December 6, 2009 at 4:56 pm lemur wrote:

    LH, you’re right about it being easier to make a point against something. Thanks for reminding me – of the endeavor to be more constructive.

  • On December 6, 2009 at 7:01 pm Terreson wrote:

    Travis Nichols, if there was another avenue for bringing up an unpleasant, and compromising, topic I would take it. As best as I can figure no such avenue is to be found in the grid of Harriet’s streets. Ya’ll have made yourselves pretty much unreachable. Your blog on the poetry and positions of one John Kinsella employs a rather pointed, and in the case of the blog unfortunate, phrase: the personal in the political you say. I figure the personal political always starts at home. When it doesn’t there tends to crop up what Hegel called the world historical irony. By this he meant to bring attention to certain contradictions between the ideal and the historical record. Christianity has its contradictions between the morality of Jesus Christ and the historical workings of the Church. So does Democracy. So did Communism.

    When I see a minus sign preceding my name I tend to get a negative view of myself. My inclination is to cancel out the vote with a plus vote of my own. It works as a neutralizing effect. Then sometimes to test the Harriet system, and after waiting some hours, I vote in the positive a second time. My immediately preceding post now has two “likes,” both of which are mine. To further test the system I gave the person, Rachel’s, post a “like” vote. Then a second. As of this writing two of the four positive votes are mine.

    Do with the information what you will. And not just you, but all of the Harriet staff. I don’t much care. This voting system to which the blog seems to be inordinately attached is a sham. It is a lie. It can be manipulated, which means it means nothing. I’ll say it again. The personal political starts at home, starts in the home.

    For Harriet’s to extoll the virtues of an environmentalist poet while, at the same time, setting up a system that falsifies the exchange between poets and poetry readers I call a contradiction between values and practice: a world historical irony on a small, immediate, scale.

    Terreson

  • On December 7, 2009 at 12:22 am Terreson wrote:

    Man, this stuff is the stuff of insanity. In the time it took for me to go through my Sunday routine of showering, shaving, gathering up dirty laundry, going to the Washeteria, washing, drying, folding my clothes, then returning home and ironing work clothes for tomorrow, in this space of time I can come back and give my initial upthread post a third positive vote and it gets registered. This means there are at least three voters who agree with me, right?

    Neither Orwell or Huxley could have imagined such a manufacturing of reality.

    No. Don’t bring up the environmental ethos when Harriet’s ethos has become so compromised.

    Terreson

  • On December 8, 2009 at 2:46 pm Wendy Babiak wrote:

    I love Jeffers (“Flight of Swans” is my all-time favorite poem), though I choose humanism over inhumanism. Not that I think that a human-centric perspective is valuable, but that an acknowledgement of our unity with each other and with creation is the only way forward. We are not separate from the world, not mere inhabitants. And to reject humanity, as Jeffers did, does no good to improve our relationship with the rest of the biosphere, of which were are undeniably a part. By improving our view of ourselves, by seeing ourselves as one species (among many) that flowered here naturally rather than as playthings of the gods, we should certainly be able to approach things in such a way as to learn to live sustainably with each other and with the rest of the wonders here.

    If you look at the etymology of “human” and “humility,” you’ll see that humanism hardly elevates us above creation, but puts us squarely within it.

  • On December 8, 2009 at 4:38 pm Bill Knott wrote:

    surely if poets want their poetry to have a social effect,

    they should try to make it as social (meaning: accessible) as possible?

    I can see how Mary Oliver’s verse for example might help bring wider attention to ecological causes, because it can reach a greater audience than most poets,

    but Kinsella’s own poetry? (at least the stuff I’ve seen): isn’t it so difficult and obscurely experimental that only an elite coterie readership will appreciate it—?

  • On December 8, 2009 at 5:36 pm Bill Deng wrote:

    Kinsella is published by Norton – hardly an imprint associated with some sort of “elite coterie readership!” Unless they’re branching out from “favorite poems” and “American Hybrids”…

  • On December 9, 2009 at 11:50 am Marcella Durand wrote:

    It’s not accurate or fair to imply that few other than John Kinsella talks or writes about how to put poetry at the center of environmental activism. A growing number of poets have been working hard (some for decades) toward exploring the potential intersections between poetry and ecology, from linguistically investigating the nature of a “bulldozer” in the hopes of re-placing the human into natural space(s) to exploring how natural systems can activate the form of a poem, or even redefining what is natural, through the freedom of juxtaposition, metaphor, metonymy–a freedom that segmented and regulated sciences are not always able to enjoy.

    Here is an incomplete and nonhierarchical list of a few of those “few others”:

    Jack Collom
    Tina Darragh
    Jonathan Skinner
    Kamau Brathwaite
    Brenda Iijima
    Tonya Foster
    Eleni Sikelianos
    Laura Elrick
    Camille Dungy
    Forrest Gander
    Ed Roberson
    James Sherry
    Evelyn Reilly
    Julie Patton
    Juliana Spahr
    Kaia Sand
    Patricia Spears Jones
    Jill Magi
    Jed Rasula
    Tyrone Williams
    a.rawlings
    Harriet Tarlo
    Mei-Mei Berssenbrugge
    Jane Sprague
    Erin Moure

    For more, check out Ecopoetics journal, How(2) http://www.asu.edu/pipercwcenter/how2journal/vol_3_no_2/ecopoetics/index.html, or just Google “ecology and poetry.” With a little research, you will see the breadth and depth of what these poets are doing now.

  • On December 9, 2009 at 12:55 pm Glen wrote:

    Lots a city kids on that list. I bet none of them live anywhere near off the grid. Not to say you can’t be an “eco-poet” and live a plugged in life, but it’s a whole different thing than what Gary Snyder or Kinsella do.

  • On December 9, 2009 at 1:26 pm Bill Knott wrote:

    all those poets put together probably don’t have as many readers as Mary Oliver—

    if poets want to influence public policies,

    they first have to REACH the public—

  • On December 9, 2009 at 1:34 pm Marcella Durand wrote:

    Well, I’ll admit to being a total city kid myself, but I will argue that

    1) living in a city doesn’t necessarily mean living “on the grid.” As I have argued, the city can be just as valid a manifestation of “wilderness” as anywhere else. Many inhabitants are working at living off the grid (as my next door neighbors do) w/o electricity, plumbing, or heat (which I have also done, thank you, if you need that honor badge). Many landlords, including my own, are unapplauded ecologists, as they routinely provide only the minimum of heat, hot water, renovations, potentially toxic pest control or space. The city is also a place where you can observe human interaction with nonhuman firsthand in disconcerting ways–i.e., bedbugs, rats, cockroaches, moths, mice, feral cats, stray dogs, pigeons, sparrows, etc., etc.,
    2) If I carry your argument further, should “city” poets not write or live ecologically? Are there exclusionary criteria? That might lead to a mightly small and undynamic movement!

  • On December 9, 2009 at 3:28 pm Jordan wrote:

    > If poets want to influence public policies

    Then they need to figure out which key individuals to win over.

    Coincidentally, this is the exact same skill you and I and everyone who ever commented on a blog keeps having trouble with, Bill.

  • On December 9, 2009 at 3:31 pm Jordan wrote:

    > keeps

    “Keep” would probably be better. (Another skill to work on…)

  • On December 9, 2009 at 4:21 pm Henry Gould wrote:

    I want to find a poetry that does my laundry when I ask it to.

  • On December 9, 2009 at 4:48 pm Jordan wrote:

    I’m looking for a place that will collect, clip, bath and return my dog.

  • On December 9, 2009 at 4:52 pm Joshua wrote:

    I’m looking for poetry that won’t make me laugh.

  • On December 9, 2009 at 4:54 pm Jordan wrote:

    Just look for the poetry that’s trying to be funny.

  • On December 9, 2009 at 4:57 pm Joshua wrote:

    Everyone’s serious but me.

  • On December 10, 2009 at 1:34 am Arthur Durkee wrote:

    You’ve misrepresented what Jeffers meant by Inhumanism. In fact, in some of your statements about humanity’s oneness with the world, you agree with Jeffers. Inhumanism was really a reaction against those who put humanity into a special category, “separate” from nature, and destined to “dominate” nature. Jeffers was basically saying, We need to remember our place in the grand scheme of things, as part OF nature, not as against it.

  • On December 10, 2009 at 1:17 pm A sleepy lemur wrote:

    Glen: In addition to Marcella’s good and true comments, please take a look at this older but still excellent New Yorker piece about the ecological and environmental responsibility of cities.

    http://www.newyorker.com/archive/2004/10/18/041018fa_fact_owen

    By many measures, the ultra-urban context is the most sustainable model for a community – in both the new and old terms with which we understand “sustainability” today.

    Also. Let’s face it, at the end of the day it takes means and a certain kind of privilege to retreat into the wilderness. If you’re retreating in your car, you might be doing more harm than good.

  • On December 11, 2009 at 11:18 am Mark Granier wrote:

    Bill Knot said:

    “surely if poets want their poetry to have a social effect,

    they should try to make it as social (meaning: accessible) as possible?

    I can see how Mary Oliver’s verse for example might help bring wider attention to ecological causes, because it can reach a greater audience than most poets,

    but Kinsella’s own poetry? (at least the stuff I’ve seen): isn’t it so difficult and obscurely experimental that only an elite coterie readership will appreciate it—?”

    I don’t think anyone has properly acknowledged that Bill Knott has made a reasonable point. I respect anyone who lives rigorously, as Kinsella appears to, according to his principles, especially when I am sympathetic to those principles. But to expect the wider public to

    (1) take time to read poetry (never mind ‘experimental’ poetry)
    (2) extract from some post-post-modernist cryptic crossword puzzle a politically and/or ecologically nourishing morsel and
    (3) to regard that morsel as a viable call to arms

    seems, to my mind, fervently wishful thinking. And to claim that “poems can stop bulldozers” is an insult to those who have stopped bulldozers or comparable vehicles. The man who stopped a tank (and effectively an army) in Tiananmen Square did so with his body, not a poem. Similarly, when Kinsella himself went out and shouted at the guys who were shooting foxes on his property I presume he was not shouting experimental poetics (though I am open to correction here).

  • On December 11, 2009 at 11:47 am Don Share wrote:

    On our podcast, we interview Kinsella and ask him about the bulldozer statement; he gives an example.

    Listen here:

    http://www.poetryfoundation.org/journal/audioitem.html?id=1880

  • On December 12, 2009 at 5:10 am Mark Granier wrote:

    Thanks for pointing me to that podcast Don, but it doesn’t provide an example. As Kinsella makes clear, his poem/s did not actually stop any bulldozers. When he read (shouted?) his poetry, some drivers came over to talk with him, presumably curious to see what he was up to. Kinsella claims that he ‘altered’ their way of thinking, and this may well be true (though it isn’t clear whether the poems or the subsequent conversation engendered this alteration). The drivers then went back to work and the swamp was cleared. The bulldozers were NOT stopped. As I’ve said, I am sympathetic to Kinsella’s principles; I share his concerns, if not his aesthetic. But I still think that that phrase (even as metaphor) is completely misleading, a euphemistic sound bite.

  • On December 13, 2009 at 9:53 pm Wendy Babiak wrote:

    Considering that humanism was around long before he coined the phrase Inhumanism, it’s his own misrepresentation by choosing the term. I’ve also read a fair bit of his work, and I can’t say really that I’ve misunderstood him. Yes, he saw and embraced the unity of things, but I think he felt a lot of anger and frustration (understandable) that caused him to reject humanity. He built his tower and kept apart. He gave up hope, as he clearly owns up to in his later poem, “The Blood Guilt.”

  • On December 13, 2009 at 10:19 pm Wendy Babiak wrote:

    Alright, I’ve dug around and have to admit that his coining of the phrase coincided (more or less) with the organized development (and naming) of the humanist movement, though its roots go back much further. But it can’t be denied that he lost patience with humanity as a young man, and therefore I have to differ with him.

    Not that there isn’t good reason to (lose patience with humanity, that is). Just that it does no good.


Posted in Uncategorized on Wednesday, December 2nd, 2009 by Travis Nichols.