Prose from Poetry Magazine

Why Ecopoetry?

There's no Planet B.

Before getting to why, I need to ask what: What is ecopoetry? What must an ecopoem be to do justice to its name? My answer is twofold: an ecopoem needs to be environmental and it needs to be environmentalist. By environmental, I mean first that an ecopoem needs to be about the nonhuman natural world — wholly or partly, in some way or other, but really and not just figuratively. In other words, an ecopoem is a kind of nature poem. But an ecopoem needs more than the vocabulary of nature. Consider John Ashbery’s “River of the Canoefish”:

These wilds came naturally by their monicker.
In 1825 the first canoefish was seen hanging offshore.
A few years later another one was spotted.
Today they are abundant as mackerel, as far as the eye can see,
tumbled, tumescent, tinted all the colors of the rainbow
though not in the same order,
a swelling, scumbled mass, rife with incident
and generally immune to sorrow.

Shall we gather at the river? On second thought, let’s not.

The first tipoff that this amusing poem is not about nature is the “canoefish,” which doesn’t exist; another is the “river” of “Shall we gather at the river?” which is from the familiar hymn. Ashbery is a poet of manner, less of nature than of “naturally.” A parody of natural history, the poem riffs on gay culture (“rainbow,” “tumescent,” 
“immune”). Ashbery’s culture poem is still fine and fun. But in my terms it can’t count as an ecopoem.

This is not to say that ecopoetry is merely nature served uncooked on the literal page. In Redstart: An Ecological Poetics, Forrest Gander declares himself “less interested in ‘nature poetry’ — where nature features as theme — than in poetry that investigates — both thematically and formally — the relationship between nature and 
culture, language and perception.” I share Gander’s preferences, and I think he makes an important point: ecopoets cannot be naive about 
matters of perception and poetic representation, which are biologically and culturally specific (a bee’s world is not a human’s). Yet I’m sure Gander would agree that nature exists not only in the sensorium of the beholder; it’s really “out there.” There are, for instance, environmental facts — such as the unnerving one that the level of 
atmospheric carbon dioxide has now reached an unsustainable 400 parts per million — that we know objectively and can render independently of our personal or cultural perceptions, in an essay or a poem. However self-aware and self-reflexive it may be, an ecopoem must be tethered to the natural world.

The second way in which an ecopoem is environmental is that it is ecocentric, not anthropocentric. Human interests cannot be the be-all and end-all of an ecopoem. A familiar example of an anthropocentric nature poem is Stevens’s “Anecdote of the Jar”:

I placed a jar in Tennessee,
And round it was, upon a hill.
It made the slovenly wilderness
Surround that hill.

How I’ve relished this impish poem, though for me, a son of the shallow South, “slovenly” always rankled. How ardently I lectured my classes that nature here mimics art, as in a sculpture garden; that this artifact, though non-generative, gives birth to “Tennessee,” itself an artificial domain bound on top and bottom by imaginary parallel lines, not unlike the poem’s “Tennessee” borderlines. Now, though I still love “Anecdote of the Jar,” I am sobered by the line “It took dominion everywhere.” So God blessed the humans in Eden: “Have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the fowl of the air, and over every living thing that moveth upon the earth” (Genesis 1:28), a blessing which created anthropocentrism. (It does no good, by the way, to claim that “Anecdote of the Jar” merely or ironically 
represents the domineering posture; you can say that about any problematic poem.)

Ecopoetry must be really environmental, and so cannot be distinguished from nature poetry by form or technique alone. Here I part ways with writers such as Timothy Morton, who offers as an example of an environmental poem a one-liner by Charles Bernstein:

this poem intentionally left blank 

I suspect Bernstein thinks of this as a conceptual poem, a found poem that by transposition becomes paradoxically self-referential. But for Morton, the poem is environmental because it is “recursive” and so “ambient,” like our surroundings. Morton gleefully concedes that Bernstein’s poem has no natural content or environmentalist message: “The poem is not about bunny rabbits, mountains, or pollution.” I agree that subject matter alone doesn’t make poetry 
significant, but I bristle at Morton’s mockingly sentimental rhetoric of “bunny rabbits,” a discourse used by anti-environmentalists to ridicule those defending wildlife. Morton argues that by waking us from an immersion in a “lifeworld,” ambient art such as Bernstein’s poem “compels us to assume responsibility for global warming, a direct cause of the ongoing Sixth Mass Extinction Event.” Really? As Morton knows, these imminent extinctions are of plants and animals, not of recursive algorithms. My second objection to this line of argument is more general: if Bernstein’s poem is environmental, what poem isn’t? Morton agrees: “All poems are environmental, because they include the spaces in which they are written and read.” OK, but why environmental and not, say, spatio-temporal? If all poems are environmental poems, environmental poetry means nothing and matters not at all.

A similarly formal approach to environmental poetry is made by Angus Fletcher. In A New Theory for American Poetry, Fletcher traces the US tradition of formally environmental poetry (culminating in Ashbery’s prosaic poems) back to Whitman’s “environment-poem,” with its cataloging phrasal lines. Like Morton, Fletcher foregrounds form by dismissing content: “His poems are not about the environment.... They are environments.” Though I understand how one may be immersed in a poem, my problem with this definition is that it turns every Whitman poem into an “environment-poem.” I am happy to apply this label to “Out of the Cradle Endlessly Rocking” because of the specificity of its descriptions — such as the unsnatched and unhatched “four light-green eggs spotted with brown” — and because of its story of the Long Island boy delivered into song by hearing a mockingbird grieving for its mate, and finally because of its translation of the mockingbird’s mournful song into an operatic aria:

High and clear I shoot my voice over the waves,
Surely you must know who is here, is here,
You must know who I am, my love.

But it isn’t the form that makes “Out of the Cradle Endlessly Rocking” environmental. Whitman mounted a similarly operatic poem in 1874, “The Song of the Redwood-Tree,” which he set in Northern California: “Just back from the rock-bound shore and the caves, / In the saline air from the sea in the Mendocino country.” The scene is a disturbing one of deforestation: “I heard the mighty tree its death-chant chanting. // The choppers heard not.” As he did earlier, Whitman verbalizes the redwood’s chant in operatic italics. But the redwood’s song is startlingly hospitable:

With Nature’s calm content, with tacit huge delight,
We welcome what we wrought for through the past,
And leave the field for them.

For them predicted long,
For a superber race.

The word “race” confirms Whitman’s unwritten pun on sequoia. The clearing of the redwoods in the 1850s meant the genocide of the red men — primarily the Yuki. Their land was occupied by the “superber” white-skins, their trees sold, their inhabitants killed, enslaved, or herded into reservations — all of which led to the so-called Mendocino War of 1859, nationally notorious for its brutality. I know Fletcher would find “The Song of the Redwood Tree” objectionable, but I don’t see how he could deny its being an “environment-poem” by his strictly stylistic criteria.

I turn next to another pair of stylistically similar poems, both from The Arcadia Project: North American Postmodern Pastoral. In his introduction to the anthology, Joshua Corey imagines the right balance between Arcadian simulacra and their underlying reality: “To write the postmodern pastoral poem is ... to be a digital native with dirt between one’s toes.” Yet the opening selection, from Brent Cunningham’s “Bird & Forest,” soars above vulgar reality into postmodern pastiche:

An empty background for the bird’s traversal, set with obstacles to be navigated: isn’t this the principle?
The bird enters the forest; it is introduced. It doesn’t think, but uses the machine of instinct buried in its flesh, a device wrapped in an assembly.

Cunningham is an accomplished poet who has adapted Whitman’s prosaic measures to the stately abstractions of Stevens and the deadpan ruminations of Michael Palmer. But his notion that birds are machines for whom trees are not habitat but obstructions is mired in an intensely problematic argument advanced by Descartes. In his Meditations on First Philosophy, the philosopher famously described animals, as opposed to ensouled humans, as mere animated automatons, devoid of thought or emotion, incapable even of experiencing pain. Come now, aren’t birds bird-brained? Let’s consult one. Laying out a pair of green and blue rectangles on a tray, the animal psychologist Irene M. Pepperberg asked her African gray parrot, “Alex, what’s same?” “Shape,” Alex replied. “What’s different?” “Color.” When I read about that experiment in Alex and Me I had to get up and go for a walk. If Alex, with a brain the size of a walnut, was capable of abstracting color from shape and then shape from color, then Descartes’s claims about animals were based not on scientific observation but on arbitrary belief.

Later in the anthology we find another poem in the same stanzaic prose, Juliana Spahr’s “Gentle Now, Don’t Add to Heartache,” which I do not hesitate to call an ecopoem. This poem (recalling Whitman’s “There Was a Child Went Forth”) is an Edenic allegory of our fall from love for nature into love for each other, and our consequent entry into an environmentally ruinous economy. It is charged with natural specifics:

Our hearts took on the shape of well-defined riffles and pools, clean substrates, woody debris, meandering channels, floodplains, and mature streamside forests.

Here Spahr is drawing on Randall E. Sanders’s A Guide to Ohio Streams:

While everybody knows clean water is essential for a healthy stream, few realize they also need diverse physical features such as well-defined riffles and pools, clean substrates, woody debris, meandering channels, floodplains, and mature streamside forests.

To be sure, Spahr’s postmodern poem is choral and citational rather than personal and recollective. But her citational method doesn’t disqualify “Gentle Now, Don’t Add to Heartache” as an ecopoem. The detailed environmental language reverberates in the hollows of the fallen consumerist world:

I replaced what I knew of the stream with Lifestream Total Cholesterol Test Packets, with Snuggle Emerald Stream Fabric Softener Dryer Sheets, with Tisserand Aromatherapy Aroma-Stream Cartridges, with Filter Stream Dust Tamer, and Streamzap PC Remote Control, Acid Stream Launcher, and Viral Data Stream.

The language of this collage is postmodern but it’s also referential. It draws its energy and its pathos from the difference between the real stream and the metonymic “stream” of products.

Now for my second criterion. An ecopoem must be not only 
environmental but environmentalist. First, the environment of an ecopoem is, implicitly or explicitly, impacted by humans. As Ursula K. Heise puts it, ecopoetry is “related to the broader genre of nature poetry but can be distinguished from it by its portrayal of nature as threatened by human activities.” In Well Then There Now Spahr draws a similar distinction: “even when [the nature poem] got the birds and the plants and the animals right it tended to show the beautiful bird but not so often the bulldozer off to the side that was 
destroying the bird’s habitat.” While we should remember that Gary Snyder had already in 1959 written from bitter experience about the bulldozer in the ancient forest, I appreciate Spahr’s problem with nature poetry. If a contemporary nature poem leaves its reader in still contemplation of Mother Nature’s creatures, it risks being complacent, even what Spahr judges “immoral.” But when Spahr adds that nature poems “often show up in the New Yorker or various other establishment journals,” she is talking not environmental but poetry politics. An ecopoem may be innovative or it may be what I call “renovative” (where any poetic feature, past or present, is available for renewal), or it may even be resolutely traditionalist — and it may appear anywhere. We need all kinds of poems to find and stir up all sorts of poetry readers.

An ecopoem is environmentalist not only thematically, in that it represents environmental damage or risk, but rhetorically: it is urgent, 
it aims to unsettle. But doesn’t environmentalist poetry then risk complacency at least as much as nature poetry? Aren’t ecopoets 
deluding themselves into thinking that their poems can change anything? “For poetry,” as Auden declared in his elegy “In Memory of W.B. Yeats,” “makes nothing happen.” Auden’s proposition, though, is not a fact but a belief. A similar skepticism today informs discussions about efficacy and causality. Hurricane Sandy, arctic glacial melt, the California drought, and so on, can’t be specifically linked to global warming — so climate change makes nothing in particular happen. At least so far as we know. But Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring helped make legislation happen. Is poetry uniquely ineffectual? Who thinks now that sixties culture didn’t help make the sixties happen? Even if we can never specify its means or results, ecopoetry can also help make environmentalism happen.

The more immediate hazard for ecopoetry, then, is didacticism. If a contemporary nature poem risks being immoral, an ecopoem, whatever its effects, risks being moralistic. How can an ecopoem usher us into a new environmental imagination without teaching us a tiresome lesson? In light of the prevailing tendency to value poetic form over (natural) content, it may be instructive to summarize the history 
of aestheticism, from which this tendency derives. Kant’s non-
teleological, purely formal “purposiveness without purpose” passes into romanticism (“Beauty is truth, truth beauty”) and the aesthetic movement (“art for art’s sake”); then into New Criticism with its “autotelic” verbal icon and Wimsatt and Beardsley’s affective fallacy, which might have been called the effective fallacy (“a confusion between ... what [a poem] is and what it does”); from there into de Manian deconstruction and early non-representational Language poetry. Whatever the variety of formalist aestheticism, the antithesis to form is not so much content as it is message or moral, though as the aesthetic movement progresses into pure poetry, meaning itself becomes suspect by association (“A poem should not mean / But be.” — Archibald MacLeish). Poetics wasn’t always this way. For Horace, a poem both pleases and instructs. (Didaskein means to teach; a chorodidaskalos trained the chorus.) A familiar argument against didactic poetry is that it preaches to the choir. A poem should not preach, but it may teach the choir a new tune, the chorus a new step. Of course, there will always be self-indulgent didactic poetry; a poem won’t save the rhinos by telling us to. But I don’t believe poetry that changes us, moves, unsettles, motivates us, or awakens us to the pleasures and wonders of the natural world is by definition bad.

How might poetry be good and environmentalist? Here are a few instances from the twentieth and the twenty-first centuries. Frost wittily broached didacticism in “The Oven Bird.” The song of the bird (whose domelike ground nest is shaped like a dutch oven) is commonly translated preacher, preacher or teacher, teacher. Frost plants thoughts and words into his didactic bird’s beak and brain. Here is his sonnet’s discordant sestet:

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.

Wagon dust? Maybe, but I think he had the automobile in mind. The first triumph of fossil-fueled industry, Ford’s Model T, began raising dust throughout the U.S. in 1908; it wasn’t until 1913 that most highways were paved. Frost wrote “The Oven Bird” the following year in England. The poem is not overtly didactic. Frost doesn’t tell us what to think; but he knows better than to celebrate and sing the Model T.

Marianne Moore is variously unsettling in “He ‘Digesteth Harde Yron,’” perhaps the first poem in English to take up species extinction (“the aepyornis,” “the moa”; “the harmless solitaire // or great auk”). Her poem focuses on the ostrich, the last of the large flightless birds. In The Necessary Angel, Stevens took Moore’s poem as a test case, arguing that even a poem of “an extraordinarily factual appearance” (he quotes a horrifying passage beginning “Six hundred ostrich-brains served / at one banquet”) represents not an objectively “bare fact” but “an individual reality,” conveyed by means of Moore’s “finical phraseology,” “irony” (activating Moore’s titular pun), and “abstraction.” But Moore’s abstraction is not Fabergé’s. Her eggs do not appear jeweled and mounted but brooded, hatched, and guarded by a father ostrich “with / a maternal concentration, after / he has sat on the eggs / at night six weeks.” If we had the gift “To see oursels as ithers see us!” as Burns imagines in “To a Louse,” “What airs in dress an’ gait wad lea’e us.” In Moore’s case, the noble and cunning hunter is imagined ironically from the perspective of his “birdwitted” prey (I quote from Moore’s first version, which preserves her alternately unrhymed and rhymed couplets):

could he, prized for plumes and eggs and young, used
       even as a riding-
       beast, respect men hiding
actorlike in ostrich-skins, with
the right hand making the neck move
               as if alive and
               from a bag the left hand

strewing grain, that ostriches
might be decoyed and killed!

I know what you’re thinking, Darwinian reader. In disdaining their “actorlike” hunters, in preserving their species, ostriches guarding their eggs are behaving not courageously but instinctively. (Something they’ve so far been quite good at; their current conservation status is Least Concern.) However well-intentioned, Moore’s poem is moralistic, not to say anthropomorphic. Let’s take up these objections in turn. The outraged exclamation is not tacked on here, but flows from Moore’s bird’s-eye view. Imagine you are hunted by an alien, who, donning the skin of a relative’s corpse, nods at you with it, and with it crumbles up some bread for you, and you have something of the horror and disgust of Moore’s “individual reality.”

The rhetorical strategy of taking up an animal’s case by assuming its viewpoint is now pervasive. Anthropomorphism — the ascription of human attributes to something nonhuman (God, animals, plants, things) — assumes that nonhumans exist on an utterly alien order of being. Hence, we can only project human attributes, not recognize them, in other animals. But this presumption is not something we know; it’s only something we believe. The opposite belief is probably more familiar to us today: the reduction of the mind to the brain, which makes us all automatons. Not so fast, argued Thomas Nagel in his influential 1974 essay, “What Is It Like to Be a Bat?” Not what it’s like for us to be a bat — to wheel about, bat-winged, by echolocation — but what it’s like for a bat to be a bat. This, the subjectivity or consciousness of another animal, is something we’ll never really know — and this is why we can never confidently reduce humans or other animals to machines. What we do know is that it is like something 
to be a bat. And if a bat has experiences, it can think and feel. In my view, those who refuse to grant animals subjectivity are not cognitive skeptics but consciousness-deniers (with their heads buried in the sand, something not even ostriches do!). The bonobo and the human are woven from at least ninety-eight percent of the same DNA strands. How can we humans be sure we’re unique? While it may be fanciful to describe goats as sarcastic or clouds as weeping, the prohibition against anthropomorphism and its offshoot, John Ruskin’s pathetic fallacy, strikes me as arbitrary. To empathize beyond humankind, ecopoets must be ready to commit the pathetic fallacy and to be charged with anthropomorphism.

Let’s return for a moment to “Out of the Cradle Endlessly Rocking”: can birds really grieve? Isn’t such a belief an unscientific, sentimental projection? In Bird Sense, the ornithologist Tim Birkhead writes of being in the Canadian High Arctic:

I notice a pair of brent geese ... and am saddened to see that one of the geese has been shot. Beside its lifeless form stands the bird’s partner. A week later I pass the same pond again, and the two birds, one live and one dead, are still there.

Was the vigilant goose grieving? Darwin would have said so. But many contemporary ornithologists, wary of projecting, restrict their descriptions to external behavior. Is there any way beyond such behavioralism? Birkhead describes an experiment. Wild-caught great tits were shown, on separate occasions, an owl and a finch. Their behavioral responses were identical, but only the owl “elicited a surge of the stress hormone corticosterone, clear evidence that the great tits were more frightened by the owl.” If birds can be fearful, can’t we grant them the possibility of being mournful? But, the skeptic persists, how do we know that their fear is the same as our fear? Well, how do I know that your fear is the same as mine? Biology (hormone analysis, shared genomic evolution) and situation (a bird lingering with a dead mate) reveal the unreasoning denial behind an unfeeling skepticism. I act on the assumption that my experiences are not wholly unique, to me or to humans.

In this century, environmentalist poetry is suffused with the deniable but inescapable conditions of species extinction and global warming. Still, today’s green poets confront the familiar prejudice against didacticism. In an interview with Earthlines, Jorie Graham 
articulates what ecopoetry can do to persuade suspicious readers, who

feel anything remotely “political” to be polemical and thus didactic. They feel they “know this information already, so why do they need it in a poem.” That is precisely the point. They “know” it. They are not “feeling it.” That is what activists in the environmental movement are asking of us: help it be felt, help it be imagined.

In her two primarily ecological poetry books, Sea Change and Place, Graham helps readers see feelingly into “the ‘deep future’ — seven to ten generations hence.” How? By imagining the far in terms of the near. “Dialogue (Of the Imagination’s Fear)” (from Place) opens the morning after the bursting of the housing bubble, with its bleak economic environment of mass expulsions “All around in / houses near us.” Meanwhile, it’s the exclamatory “Spring!” of E.E. Cummings and William Carlos Williams. But if our future on an earth laid waste is also foreclosed, Eliot’s season of resurrection seems cruel. Harking back to George Herbert’s “The Flower,” Graham’s buried bulbs think twice about coming up:

I cannot say it but the
smell is hope meeting terrifying regret, I would say do not open again, do not go up,
                  stay under here there is
                  no epoch, we are
                  in something but it is not “the world,” why try to make
                  us feel at
                  home down
                  here, take away the poem, take away this desire that
has you entering this waste dark space, there are not even pockets of time here,
there are no mysteries, there is no laughter and nothing ever dies, the foreclosure
                  you are standing beside look to it, there is a
woman crying on the second floor as she does not understand what it will be like to
not have a home now, and how to explain to the children at 3:35 when the bus drops
                  them off — 

For her two ecobooks, Graham invented a chimerical form of 
immeasurably long and vertiginously short lines, a form that is environmentalist not in imitating an environment, but in eliciting an 
unsettling feeling. Most of us can’t experience or feel global warming, but we can imagine what it’s like to be dispossessed, to be at a loss to explain to one’s children why they must leave home. But when it comes to a foreclosed Mother Earth, as the placard says, there’s no Planet B.

Whereas Graham imagines the apocalyptic future, Ed Roberson witnesses it in his own lifetime. Like Moore, Roberson studied biology in college, and like Snyder he works in nature. As he relates in “We Must Be Careful,” his essay on ecopoetics in Black Nature, “I was an undergraduate research assistant in limnology, freshwater chemistry, collecting samples in the field,” in particular, the frozen streams of Alaska, as recorded in his 1970 poem, “be careful”:

i must be careful about such things as these.
the thin-grained oak.        the quiet grizzlies scared
into the hills by the constant tracks squeezing
in behind them closer in the snow.

Care taken by the limnologist is care modeled for the poem’s readers. Returning to the scene in the title poem of his recent volume, To See the Earth Before the End of the World (2010), Roberson testifies to the acceleration of glacial into human time: “watched ice was speed made invisible, / now —           it’s days, and a few feet further away.” Roberson refracts his personal experience through a journalistic headline — “Media note       people chasing glaciers” — an occurrence of what we now call ecotourism. At the end, the poem teeters on the tipping point of mutual extinction:

                   All that once chased us and we
chased to a balance chasing back, tooth for spear,
knife for claw,
                          locks us in this grip
             we just now see
                                       our own lives taken by
taking them out.         Hunting the bear,
we hunt the glacier with the changes come
                of that choice.

Graham in “Dialogue” imagined the deep future through the imperiled present; Roberson here imagines the endangered present through the deep past. According to one theory, the paleo-American Clovis people, known for their fluted spear points, hunted the megafauna (including the short-faced bear) through North America, driving them, and themselves, into extinction. And do we choose to 
follow them? The “we” in Roberson’s cautionary tale includes not only curious ecotourists (and greedy petroleum deposit hunters) but the rest of us who choose (or not) to do what we can to preserve the environmental balance.

Graham crosses economics (eco-, oikos: home) with nature, Roberson crosses ecology with anthropology — both increasingly common hybrids in ecopoetry. Robert Hass proceeds similarly in “Ezra Pound’s Proposition,” but his crossings are causal. The “proposition” is Hass’s rendering of Pound’s multi-disciplinary poetics, gleaned from “Mauberly” and the Cantos:

Beauty is sexual, and sexuality
Is the fertility of the earth and the fertility
Of the earth is economics.

As Hass explained in a 2007 interview, the poem draws on his experience with International Rivers, “which has been concerned 
particularly with where environmental issues meet human-rights issues around big-dam projects, many of which have proved destructive, displacing millions of people around the world.” The International Rivers website reproduces “Ezra Pound’s Proposition” and directs readers to the building of the Pak Mun Dam in Thailand. International Rivers itself resists dam construction by “provid[ing] unbiased hydrological and financial analyses of these dam projects to the dam-affected people in the Third World.” Its pedagogical method bears interesting comparison with Hass’s own. The poet might have recorded the history of the dam, along with the local occupations and chaotic displacements; instead, he begins downstream, in Bangkok, with a child prostitute’s own disarming “proposition”: “How about a party, big guy?” In the poem’s second and final stanza, the poet explains how she got there:

Here is more or less how it works:
The World Bank arranges the credit and the dam
Floods three hundred villages, and the villagers find their way
To the city where their daughters melt into the teeming streets,
And the dam’s great turbines, beautifully tooled
In Lund or Dresden or Detroit, financed
By Lazard Frères in Paris or the Morgan Bank in New York,
Enabled by judicious gifts from Bechtel of San Francisco
Or Halliburton of Houston to the local political elite,
Spun by the force of rushing water,
Have become hives of shimmering silver
And, down river, they throw that bluish throb of light
Across her cheekbones and her lovely skin.

“Ezra Pound’s Proposition” is not polemical or didactic in the usual sense. Hass does not tell us what to do or how to feel. But he does tell us what happened, and he teaches us that the economic injustice flows from a damnable environmental injustice. In a single “unbiased,” just perceptibly ironic, meandering sentence, Hass traces the inhumane misdeed to its source. Beauty of wealth and expertise at the beginning sheds light on the beauty of displaced youth at the end. Having laid out the chain of events, Hass leaves us to ponder the links.

Ecopoetry is nature poetry that has designs on us, that imagines changing the ways we think, feel about, and live and act in the world. If an ecopoem is only a postmodern or a contemporary nature poem, why ecopoetry? The essential difference between nature poetry and ecopoetry cannot be stylistic. But as Frost, Moore, Spahr, Graham, Roberson, Hass, and many other poets have shown us, the ways of being ecopoetic are increasingly diverse. Let me add what my last decade of reading and teaching confirms: nature poetry, even without broaching ruination or restoration, can also be environmentalist. If Hopkins can get me excited about species acting out their names (“As kingfishers catch fire, dragonflies draw flame”); if John Clare or Emily Dickinson or Snyder or Kay Ryan can encourage me to see myself in an animal; or if Wendell Berry or W.S. Merwin or Brenda Hillman can place me in and beyond the poem, then they have motivated me to want these creatures and environments to stay. By showing us also that some things must go (dams, oil rigs, plastic bags, animal concentration camps, virtual disconnectedness), ecopoetry doesn’t supplant nature poetry but enlarges it.

Originally Published: January 4th, 2016

John Shoptaw teaches poetry at UC Berkeley. He is the author of Times Beach (University of Notre Dame Press, 2015) and is currently at work on a book of environmental poems, Near-Earth Object.

Appeared in Poetry Magazine This Appears In
  1. January 6, 2016
     Allison Cummings

    This was wonderful! Thank you for the pellucid distinctions between
    uses of nature in poetry, and thank you for introducing me to Ed
    Roberson and for presenting elegant readings of Spahr, Graham, and
    Hass, not to mention Frost, Stevens, and Moore.

  2. January 7, 2016
     Katu Mondal

    I like to have artical from

    I am interested to know all about poetry
    what dominant thoughts in present time.

    I am very poor in English....I can't express

  3. January 10, 2016
     Peter Christensen

    It’s too bad that Shoptaw loses track of what it is that he postulates, that ecopoetry is a kind of nature poetry, and slips from an interesting discussion of examples that support his thesis into a ‘true believer’ type polemic in what ends up looking like an effort to redeem himself from the actions of an irredeemably spoiled society.

    He does this by suggesting that ecopoets help “activists in the environmental movement” to teach the us to “empathize beyond humankind”. He goes on to say, “ ecopoets must be ready to commit the pathetic fallacy and to be charged with anthropomorphism.” Presumably so that we irredeemably spoiled can feel rather than reason our way through the many difficult dilemmas facing modern societies.

    Ecopoetry’s job then, according to Shoptaw, is to “show… that some things must go (dams, oil rigs, plastic bags, animal concentration camps, virtual disconnectedness), ecopoetry doesn’t supplant nature poetry but enlarges it.”

    Ecopoetry as Shoptaw defines it turns out to be just another activist tool to achieve a cause and to endorse Shoptaw's personal agenda. This demagoguery is a far too dishonest approach for arguing that ecopoetry is a kind of Nature Poetry and to suggest that ecopoetry as presented enlarges the definition of Nature Poetry is a fallacy.

  4. January 13, 2016
     John Shoptaw

    Thanks, Peter, for your thoughtful response to “Why Ecopoetry?”. Let me try to explain the essay’s progression. Its end is implicit in its title. If ecopoetry means only contemporary or postmodern or avant-garde nature poetry, then I believe it has no point, or at least has lost an opportunity for imaginative change. In my view, ecopoetry should be not only environmental but environmentalist (not preachy but unsettling). Which is where anthropomorphism comes in. If we admit that we share experiences, thoughts and feelings, with other species, admit at the minimum that animals can suffer, then we must rethink our belief in anthropomorphism—that we cannot recognize but only project our feelings (fear, anger, etc.) onto animals. To be sure, there are lazily anthropomorphic poems. But to reduce animals in poems to objects is not in my view the only answer. So, yes, my argument with anthropomorphism is personal, but I think it is also necessary for an ecopoetics that extends beyond our species. Among several compelling examples of environmentalist ecopoems in this issue of Poetry Magaine (January 2016), see David Baker’s “Peril Sonnet” and Stephen Derwent Partington’s “Satao.”

  5. March 3, 2016
     Bob Schildgen

    A very good definition of ecopoetry, in that it goes beyond the usual daffodil-gazing where 1) Poet observes natural whatever; 2) Poet tells us how he feels about whatever; 3) Poet celebrates his remarkable ability to feel about whatever, and 4) exhorts us to share his remarkable ability to feel whatever. So we get the ancient problem of separation of subject and object, with its attendant narcissism, as in “You, daffodil, really, really pleasure ME.” Although to be fair, Wordsworth’s heart does dance with the lively blossoms, and he resurrects a dormant appreciation of their existence. But such musing 200 years later is less ecopoetry than ecoporn, and a very dull porn at that.

    I have only one quibble, where Shoptaw attributes anthropomorphism to Genesis, which is merely a stale repetition of Lynn White's breast-beating about Occidental depredation of Earth. Anthropomorphism is quite natural, in that ALL species mostly care only about themselves, except when they get hungry enough to eat an entirely different species. Anthropomorphic disregard for nature is the result of hunger or greed not bibles, and it has happened from New Zealand to Meso-America to the Roman Empire by people never exposed to Genesis. It wasn’t Bible-pounding preachers of Manifest Destiny who drove the elephants out of China, extinguished the moa in the South Pacific, deforested the Maya landscape, and sucked the Aral Sea down to a glorified cesspool! Moreover, if Genesis is really so influential, how is it that the end of the Book of Job, with its roaring rebuke of ecological hubris, or the stewardship of Noah have had comparatively little impact on our behavior? Probably because, as Brecht famously put it, “first comes eating, then morals,” which means that the morality of eating gets confirmed by Genesis rather late in the meal or after dinner!

    I also like Shoptaw's tweaking Auden for asserting that poetry makes nothing happen, although Auden probably just said that for poetic effect anyhow. I’m of Shelley’s “unacknowledged legislators of the world” persuasion, or at least with Pound’s “antennae of the human race” claim. Of course poetry might not necessarily make something happen in the day after it's published, but in the long term you can’t deny that it does. You could even make the case that suburbia is partly the result of the cult of solitude in nature that runs from the romantics through John Muir right up to Cliven Bundy, Robinson Jeffers, and Friends of the Earth. At least you’d have a more plausible argument for the power of poetic texts than Lynn White’s.

    Finally, one factual correction. In discussing dust from Robert Frost’s poem, Shoptaw says that roads were paved by 1913. Not! No no no! Most of them were not paved when I was a kid. They’re still not all paved where I grew up, and the goddam dust is as suffocating as it was half a century ago!

  6. March 13, 2016

    Bob, can Wordsworth's reflections on nature's role in the
    growth of his mind and poetic faculties really be so
    easily mocked as narcissistic? Is there an extent in
    which the anxiety of influence has provoked a wilful
    misreading of this key Romantic poet? Yes, he lacked the
    benefit of our science, but can his sympathetic powers be
    dismissed, even if they are occasionally tainted by

  7. March 15, 2016
     John Shoptaw

    Thanks for your comments, Bob. I appreciate a response from
    somebody versed in the poetics of eco-criticism. I remember
    Lynn White's "The Historical Roots of our Ecological Crisis" (and
    Wendell Berry's response), and I agree with you that his essay
    overstates the case for anthropocentrism (not
    anthropomorphism?) in Genesis. Still, it's where Stevens got
    "dominion," and he's not alone among American and English
    poets (e.g., Emerson, "The eye is the first circle. The horizon
    which it forms is the second."). I also agree with you that all
    species are self-centered. Yet only humans have the special
    capacity to destroy a great number of other species, and to save
    some from destruction (as E.O. Wilson recently proposed). So
    we are obliged to rethink about our place in the community of
    living beings. A plain member of the land-community, as Aldo
    Leopold says? I don't really think so. But with our extra
    capacities come extra responsibilities. The poet's responsibility,
    really any writer's, is to help us imagine conditions outside our

    When I wrote "Why Ecopoetry?" I thought most people would
    object to my discussion of rhetorical poetry (many probably do),
    so I'm glad you too believe in cultural agency, unmeasurable as
    it necessarily is.

    Oh those dusty roads! When will they finally all be paved, and
    with what? Let's go to "The Oven Bird." "The highway dust is
    over all." is all Frost gives us from the in-dust-rial world. It may
    interest you that no Frost critic I know of has traced this dust to
    the model T, which was kicking up lots of it back then. I don't
    think Frost commentators recognize the environmental poetry
    latent in his nature poems.

    I'd like to add a belated thank you to Allison Cummings for her
    appreciations. I love reading poetry, and I can tell you do too.