Planting Roots: A Survey of Introductions to Ecopoetry and Ecocriticism

1 December 2013

The journal differs from Ecopoetry: A Critical Introduction in political consciousness. Gifford begins his editor’s introduction without mentioning poetry; instead he addresses four years of climate change. The ecopoetics journal was published seven years after Bryson’s anthology and it is evident that by this time environmental costs of globalisation had saturated ecopoetry. Gifford again proposes ecopoetry as an unknown and that ‘we would hope the term continues to be used with uncertainty and circumspection. That it ask and be asked the hard questions about language, representation, efficacy, ethics, community and identity that smart readers and makers ask of all poetics’ (xi), but there is a definite ideological environmentalism to his presentation of the work. He characterises ecopoetry by four concepts that arise from, and respond to, the current environmental politics: ‘complexity, interconnectedness, fragility and making time. When ecopoetics is not ‘front line,’ it offers vital reserve, the ‘margin of safety’ that allows one to go all out when circumstances dictate’ (xii). Some of these characteristics, especially complexity and interconnectedness, directly echo those identified earlier by Bryson, though Gifford’s rationale appears politically driven.

There is also acknowledgement of the double-bind between the need to have a ‘meaningful’ language and the post-structural perspective on the role that language plays in oppression:

Yes, naming (like a “species”) is a problematic, gendered, ethnocentric and anthropocentric, metaphysically-charged, gesture – but acknowledging all that doesn’t get us off the hook. We still hold the responsibility of language […] Let’s approach poetics as an instrument for remembering how little we know, not just affirming what we do. (xii)

This view of language, while more political, highlights one of the unarticulated tensions of Ecopoetry: A Critical Introduction. Language is necessary to effect change, but is suspect, both because of a disbelief in its representational capabilities, and because of the politically charged nature of English as a colonising force, something which is relevant to any discussion of American and Australian poetics.

The Ecopoetry Anthology

In the final chapter of Bryson’s anthology, Quentenbach bemoans the lack of a comprehensive anthology of ecopoetry, stating that ‘such a collection, instead of serving to reinforce stereotypes of environmental writers and their constituencies, would demonstrate both the underlying common ground shared by such writers and the complicated differences among them’ (258). In its breadth at least, approaching 600 pages of poetry, The Ecopoetry Anthology sets out to reach this (at least as it pertains to United States poetry). Because of this breadth, the poetry inevitably presents the same divisions noted in both ecopoetics journal and Bryson’s anthology. Yet what makes the disparities among the poems selected seem comprehensive instead of dissociative is largely the critical framework outlined by the editors Fisher-Wirth and Street.

The editors acknowledge the flexibility of the term ecopoetry and the different delimitations that have historically been applied to it, stating that ecopoetry is ‘poetry that is some way shaped by and responds specifically to that [environmental] crisis […] addresses contemporary problems and issues in ways that are ecocentric and that respect the integrity of the other-than-human world[…][,] challenges the belief that we are meant to have dominion over nature and is skeptical of a hyperrationality that would separate mind from body and people from earth’ (xxvii). But the model of ecopoetry they propose is one in which a poem does not have to possess all of these characteristics to be considered ecopoetry. There is a danger of being too broad in definition here, if ecological crisis is the defining crisis of the contemporary moment, and ecopoetry is simply poetry that is in ‘some way shaped by’ it, there could be a tendency to consider all contemporary poetry to be in some way ecopoetry. I felt a slight lean towards this in the contemporary ecopoetry section of the anthology, but if we are taking as our central model of ecopoetry that of the ecosystem, there can be no definitive boundaries.

Beyond the broad definition the editors identify three types of ecological poetry:

    Nature poetry: which ‘considers nature as subject matter and inspiration’ (xxviii)
    Environmental poetry: ‘propelled by and directly engaged with active and politicised environmentalism’ (xxix)
    Ecological poetry: which is elusive and ‘engages with questions of form most directly, not only poetic form but also a form historically taken for granted – that of the singular, coherent self’ (xxix).

Here we see the first critical articulation of the differences I noted above in Ecopoetics: A Critical Introduction and ecopoetics journal. Ecological poetry is the one most commonly previously taken, as in ecopoetics journal, as ecopoetry; the editors even cite Forest Gander from issue 6/7 as defining ecological/ecopoetry as that which ‘thematically and formally investigates the relationship between nature and culture, language and perception’ (2). But Fisher-Wirth and Street are convincing in their argument that it is necessary to consider other types of ecologically informed poetry beyond the obviously post-structural with its associated rejection of coherent selves. They propose that it is problematic to dismiss too easily the influence of the Romantics and Transcendentalists because, despite an awareness of the post-modern alterations to ideas of self and identity, ‘day to day we still have selves’. Yet the type of self permitted by Fisher-Wirth and Street is not an anthropocentric one; instead they inform their perspective using ecological science stating: ‘our neo-cortex gives us – the animal that is Homo sapiens sapiens – a compound eye – like capacity for simultaneous multiple perspectives […] We believe any definition of ecopoetry should allow for this capacity’. To this I would add one further thing: to limit ecopoetry to a particular type of poetry is akin to attempting to establish a dominion and participate in the type of human urge to claim and inscribe territory on maps, something that ecopoetry stands diametrically opposed to. Without dominion we have poems of complexly divergent taxonomies occupying the same space, as found in any natural system.

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Caitlin Maling

About Caitlin Maling


Caitlin Maling is a Western Australian poet whose first collection Conversations I've Never Had was released in 2015 and shortlisted in the Dame Mary Gilmore Award and the Western Australian Premier's Awards. A follow-up collection, Border Crossing is due out in February 2017.

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