Planting Roots: A Survey of Introductions to Ecopoetry and Ecocriticism

1 December 2013

In their individual introductions we see clearly how the role of language, specifically poetry, is envisioned in the anthology. Both Fisher-Wirth and Street issue a linguistic call to arms. They claim that neither poetry not language has an ability to affect direct change, but rather that it can create an awareness which leads to change. Fisher-Wirth states of the poems in the anthology that ‘Each of them, in their very different ways, has the power to move the world – to break through our dulled disregard, our carelessness, our despair, reawakening our sense of the vitality and beauty of nature. With that awareness, let us pledge to take actions that will preserve it’ (x). Here we see a compromise being reached, or at least attempted, between the belief in a poetry of utility and poetry of aesthetics, which was consciously troubling the Gifford introduction.

What is clear about all ecopoetry is that it is a poetics which does not presume to exist outside of the world, and this view of the world is one that has been the source of tension in views on language. Robert Hass emphasises this view in his extended introductory essay, which seeks to examine the conditions and contexts which make American ecopoetry possible. Hass traces the history of America alongside the history of science and the history of poetry, beginning in 1609 the year Galileo revolutionized scientific discourse and the year the first colonial Americans arrived. Interdisciplinarity is emphasised in ecopoetry, and Hass shows us what this might look like. It’s a reframing of the canon of American poetry in terms of scientific innovation. The events he identifies as important include: the publication of the Principles of Geology in 1830, the coining of the term ecology in 1866, the conservation movement of 1890s, the publication of Plant Succession in 1916, Leopold’s publication of Sand Country in 1949, the publication of Silent Spring in 1962, Apollo 17 in space in 1972 and so on through the contemporary times. Hass uses a broad brush-stroke, painting a very comprehensive picture of the events and ideas that have altered how the natural, or ecological, is viewed in America.

It is not surprising that Hass also suggested to the editors that they include a historical selection of American poetry. In this way the anthology echoes Bryson’s in tracing the originating experiences of ecopoetry beyond the contemporary moment. There is a broad selection of poets included in the historical section; beginning with Whitman, work of all the common canonical figures is present. One of the major benefits of this historical section is that it allows us to reinterpret these poets from within the framework of ecocriticism; as Hass notes, The Wasteland reads very differently when examined for its foliage content. There is also a pleasure in the decentering of the poetics of these poems. Ecocriticsm, it seems to me, when applied to literature of the past asks us to consider not only what these pieces have to contribute to the now, but also what they were missing, what they were oblivious to in the ecological world around them?

Arranged in chronological order of the birth of the poet, the anthology offers a chance to observe the changing knowledge of the world in these poems; the beauty of the Hass introduction makes these poems secondary to the events that surround them. The chronological approach also allows the reader to perceive changes in poetic styles, and perhaps more importantly, upon reaching the contemporary section with all its noted divisions and clashes in ecopoetics, it is possible to see how two very divergent poetries can be traced back to the same root. The breadth of the contemporary section stands in opposition to the scarcity of the historical, and in this there is an ecological lesson. Much like the events listed by Hass are those that have survived in modern memory or importance: the poems of the historical section are those that have been refined or maintained from the wider body of poetry – those that have propagated through generations. The contemporary poetry, while offering us a snapshot of the current ecosystem, does not have the refined quality of the historical. It will be interesting to see, once the boundaries of ecopoetry become more entrenched, which of these survive.

Toward an Australian Ecopoetics

Reading through the introductions and the Hass essay, two things become immediately clear when considering the intersection of American and Australian ecopoetics. The first is the very different environments (even different ecologies) of Australia and America. The second is that the foundation of Australia as nation state occurred in 1901, many years after the originating nature writing and historical events of America. Federated Australia (as distinct from the series of colonies occurring from 1788 onwards) was founded on enlightenment principles and the early life of the country occurred after the acceptance of Darwinism. As such there are no clear equivalents to the American Romantics and Transcendentalists in Australian letters, and as Cranston puts it, the ‘genre of the belletristic nature essay did not develop in Australia as it did in North America’ (17).

Studying the sole anthology of Australia ecocriticism, The Littoral Zone, these points of divergence offer different ways of seeing American, and global, ecopoetics. In their introduction CA Cranston and Robert Zeller outline five different reasons why ecocriticism is important to Australian literature (13), and also three reasons why the study of Australian ecocriticism can inform the larger global field of ecocriticism. The importance to Australian literary studies is less interesting than what this body of work has to offer broader scholarship; however the fifth reason relating to literary studies, that ‘an ecologically informed literary criticism can supplement and expand the study of Australian literature by engaging with work done in other disciplines’ necessarily informs any broader discussion of ecopoetics (13). Specifically, the proposal by Cranston and Zeller that approaching texts ecocritically makes ‘contexts . . . thus become contested spaces, and our readings can be both complicated and enriched as we study place as something other than mere setting’ (14), resonated with the decentering of the poetics in Hass’s essay.

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About Caitlin Maling

Caitlin Maling is a WA poet with five collections published, the most recent of which is Spore or Seed out 2023 with Fremantle Press.

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