Poesis / poetics

Poesis: making, building, constructing 

In 2008 I published a reference entry on Ecopoetry that offers a definition and a cursory history of the emergence of a poetry and poetics that takes an ecological stance toward the world. The link will take you to the essay, a survey of the use of the terms in an emerging commentary, a bibliography, and a “Further Reading” section with a range of useful references. The Mason Library has as online text of the entry in Ken Womack, ed., Books and Beyond : The Greenwood Encyclopedia of New American Reading.

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

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

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

Jonathan Skinner, from editor’s introduction to ecopoetics 01

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

Jed Rasula, from This Compost

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

Leonard Scigaj from Sustainable Poetry

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

Scott Bryson, from Ecopoetry, “A Critical Introduction”

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

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

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

Greg Garrard, from Ecocriticism

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

David Gilcrest, from Greening the Lyre

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

In class on Monday we talked about the taxonomy in the prefatory material in The Ecopoetry Anthology. The editors make distinctions between the nature poem, the environmental poem, and the ecopoem. They discuss the qualities (both formal, and in “stance toward reality,” to use a phrase from the poet Charles Olsen) of all three kinds of poems. They talk about the boundaries and overlaps in practice. And they talk about the potential pitfalls of poems in the taxonomy–sentimentalized anthropomorphism, agenda-driven propaganda, hyperintellectualism and emotional distance or detachment.

We were left with questions, especially about the third grouping, ecological poetry. We are left with the question of ecopoetics. Wednesday we will read and talk about the poems in terms of ecology and poetics. Heather and Kyle, please post on your blogs your thinking about the key terms we are exploring here. The place you end up is important as it will be the place you move from in understanding this poetic field and also the place you begin building your concluding anthology and essay in this course.


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