What is Ecopoetry?


Revenge of the Blue Fin                                                                                        Dave Cooper

 

How can today’s poets respond to the natural world without referencing the devastation that the industrial growth economy and war have inflicted on it?  What insights into new ways of relating with our planet and other species can be gained from non-Western cultures, or indeed from our own fragmented animistic tradition?  And how do today’s ecologically-minded thinkers – from fields such as ecopsychology, radical feminism and eco-anarchism – influence the way we view the natural world and the complex web of relationships that shape it?

Ecopoetry raises and explores these and other ethical questions, and encompasses both spiritual practice and political activism.  In this essay I explore four major themes that I identify in my own work and that of other ecopoets; these are (RE)CONNECTION, WITNESSING, RESISTANCE and VISIONING.  Although I’ve numbered each section, there is no intended hierarchy – and in many ways the strands merge and shape each other.  Each is a portal through which ecopoetry can be approached and developed as a practice.

I should add that this survey is by no means definitive.  Although ecopoetry finds its lineage through the Romantic tradition back to the earliest human cultures on Earth, it is a mode of expression which emerges most fully in the twentieth century.  Ecopoetry has secured its deepest roots in the U.S., probably because of the Beat movement, which has had such a powerful influence on the American cultural scene.  In the U.K. ecopoetry has been slower to emerge – not because there was none being written, but perhaps because of a wariness/rejection within the mainstream literary scene of writing that had overtly political and/or spiritual dimensions.

In recent years anthologies such as Earth Shattering edited by Neil Astley, Earth Songs, edited by Peter Abbs, and Soul of the Earth, edited by Jay Ramsay, have done much to introduce a range of ecopoetry to new readers.  Thankfully at last, with the broader political and cultural shifts at work in the second decade of the twenty-first century, ecopoetry is beginning to be recognised as an essential mode of expression both within the Green Movement and in literary circles.

1. (RE)CONNECTION

Ecopoetry arises out of the extended self, a sense of belonging to the widest community that we can imagine and experience, that of our 4.5 billion year-old home, planet Earth, and beyond, into the mysteries of our Universe.  The connected or ecological self is, as Australian rainforest activist John Seed writes, able to “think like a mountain”.  His/her consciousness arises from a place of deep communion, a Zen Buddhist awareness of the one breath that all beings share.

Thus the ecopoet understands more than the linguistic link between Mother Nature and human nature – a connection largely forgotten in Western culture, although thankfully since the 1960s, an extraordinary counter-cultural awakening to our radical interdependence with the natural world has been occurring in many minds around the world.  However, ecopoets in the modern Western tradition (in contrast to many non-Western ethnopoetic traditions) have generally been shaped by the dominant secular, materialist culture – one which treats the Earth as an inanimate resource to be endlessly exploited.  Therefore a practice of continual awareness is required to examine our prejudices and assumptions, and to prevent the kind of reductionism we have all largely grown up with, which reduces the natural world to a merely decorative aspect of our lives – an idea which I explore in my poem ‘Wallpaper’:

And there are moments that it all fades
into a background of flourishes and waves

not just the repeated patterns of branches,
the prints on water when the wind dances,

flowers whose heads function for vases,
or ornamental birds set behind bars….

Unfortunately, as we grow in our awareness of our interconnection with all beings, so too does our painful realisation of the exponential levels of destruction currently being experienced by all the planet’s ecosystems.  This information can be so overwhelming that it tends to make us want to shut down again, to numb the pain we experience.

In When the Earth Hurts, Who Responds?  Sarah A. Conn writes: “Because we experience the self as separate from the Earth, we feel either overwhelmed by or removed from what we learn about environmental deterioration; we become helpless or indifferent in the face of it, and unable to respond except with numbness and denial.”

Thus an ecopoet is required to practise relating to the suffering of all beings.  An enlarged capacity to do so is not new to poets, and has often extended beyond the human in its focus.  In her essay ‘Science and Imagination in William Blake’, Kathleen Raine examines Blake’s vision of how humans once encountered earth and all her creatures as living persons, not as lifeless objects, and laments the passing of that state.  Blake writes:

A Rock, a Cloud, a Mountain,
Were now not Vocal as in Climes of happy Eternity
Where the lamb replies to the infant voice, & the lion to the man of years
Giving them sweet instructions; where the Cloud, the River & the Field
Talk with the husbandman and Shepherd.

The contemporary American ecopoet Gary Snyder acknowledges the ancient Palaeolithic roots of poetry and song, which were indivisible, and common to earliest forms of human expression.  As a poet he sees himself as holding “the most archaic values on earth… the fertility of the soil, the magic of animals, the power-vision in solitude, the terrifying initiation and rebirth, the love and ecstasy of dance, the common work of the tribe.”

Our disconnection from the Earth he sees as “a problem of love; not the humanistic love of the West – but a love that extends to animals, rocks, dirt, all of it.  Without this love, we can end, even without war, with an uninhabitable place.”

Ecopoetry is thus in part a spiritual practice.  It emerges out of direct experience and knowledge of the natural world, as is amply evident in the poetry of Alice Oswald, who has worked for many years as a gardener.  In ‘Prayer’, her writing takes on a religious dimension, and has reverberations of Franciscan or Benedictine orders tending their gardens:

Here I work in the hollow of God’s hand
with Time bent round into my reach. I touch
the circle of the earth, I throw and catch
the sun and moon by turns into my mind.

However, ecopoetry does not simply require solitary time spent in rural places or in whatever ‘wilderness’ remains.  Nature is everywhere.  And despite our behaviour to the contrary, we are Nature too.  In ‘Fast Food’ William Heyen makes these poignant connections:

I sit at MacDonalds eating my fragment of forest.
The snail and slug taste good, the leaves,
the hint of termite and bat, the butterfly trans-
substantiated by steer karma, and mine.

As a rule, Gary Snyder will not write about an animal unless he has observed it, or it has featured in a dream.  The latter mode indicates that the unconscious mind plays a powerful role in our reconnection with our wild selves and the Earth.  The founder of ecopsychology, the late Theodore Roszak, wrote: “the planet’s umbilical cord links to us at the root of the unconscious mind”.  And in many aboriginal cultures dreams are regarded as important vehicles for understanding individual and collective processes.

Rose Flint, based near me in Somerset, writes powerfully out of our own fragmented animistic tradition as well as other pagan traditions, including the classical, which honour the sacred feminine, the life-giving (and destroying) principle that has been so feared and oppressed by millennia of patriarchal control.  In ‘The Source’, she gives us a vision of this oppression:

They have taken the soft birds from under her breasts,
cut the blue roots out of her veins.
They stood inconsequentially talking of meat and money
while they peeled away the skin of her arms…

Putting aside the conscious mind, the ecopoet offers him/herself as a channel through which the Earth’s voice and those of other species can be expressed.  This is an act of service, of making oneself available by temporarily forgetting the preoccupations of the supposedly separate self in order to allow something bigger to come through.

This might be what Australia’s Les Murray refers to as ‘Translations from the Natural World’ (the title of one of his collections).  In ‘Pigs’, the factory-farmed creatures communicate in a style that expresses their situation: “Us all on sore cement was we./Not warmed then with glares.  Not glutting mush/under that pole the lightning’s tied to.”  In another poem a mother Sea Lion’s voice ‘translates’ as: “My pup has become myself/yet I’m still present./My breasts have vanished./My pup has grown them on herself.”

Murray’s adroitness at conveying these non-human voices indicates something else at work besides his being a channel – that is the imagination, which has been the tool of poets throughout the ages and in all cultures; and, as the great English novelist, Lindsay Clarke argues in his extended essay Imagining Otherwise, it has its roots in the animistic vision of traditional societies.  For Clarke, “Compassion is an act of imagination”, a meditation amplified in his novel, The Water Theatre, in which the central character is a war reporter struggling to come to terms with his experiences in postcolonial Africa.

Similarly there is a strand within ecopoetry which develops Blake’s capacity for ‘mental travelling’, sometimes to unvisited foreign places (to which our globalised world nevertheless connects us), but also imagining the thoughts and feelings of future generations.  In the early 1950s, Jonathan Griffin was already registering his responses to the Earth’s devastation from his home in London.  In his poem ‘Room’ there is an interplay between an ‘individual in the choking future’ and the poem’s narrator.  The future being addresses him as: “Prodigal ancestor of us”, and sends him the curse that he should “Be now like us…. Observe my fate/I live too late.”

The injunction to observe another’s fate leads to another major theme in the work of ecopoets – that of witnessing.  In many ways this is related to the theme of (re)connection – if we cannot feel our connection with another being, how can we truly witness his/her plight?

2. WITNESSING

Living during a period which scientists are now describing as ‘The Sixth Mass Extinction’, with human activity disturbing the natural world to such an extent that the perceived normal ‘background’ rate of extinction is being vastly exceeded, it’s perhaps inevitable that we look for parallel phenomena in order to conceive of the scale on which this is occurring.  To my mind the scale of this ‘ecocide’ can only be paralleled in modern times by the eradication of Jews and other human beings by the Nazis.

Some readers may find this comparison with human genocide troubling; however, it is axiomatic that whatever we do to Mother Nature, we do to ourselves.  And there are already many poor and indigenous people, such as Africa’s Baka tribe, losing their lives and ability to survive – in the Baka’s case as their rainforest ecosystem is destroyed by logging and poaching, and with their traditional livelihood gone, as they fall prey to alcoholism.

Furthermore, a real case is currently being made by the visionary British barrister Polly Higgins, who is spearheading a campaign to have ecocide enshrined in law as a fifth international crime against peace, which would make the environmental damage caused by corporations and governments a potentially imprisonable offence.   Having attended a mock ecocide trial atLondon’s Supreme Court in September 2011, when the CEOs of two oil companies (played by actors) were convicted on two of three counts of ecocide, I’m heartened at the prospect of there being a legal mechanism by which the pursuit of profit at any cost can become consigned to history.

Meantime, in spite of the most valiant efforts of activists, it’s neoliberal capitalism as usual, often entailing a hugely destructive pursuit of natural resources, such as the Athabasca tar sands extraction in Alberta, Canada.  There thousands of hectares of virgin Boreal forest are being destroyed, with vast toxic lakes created as a by-product of this scramble for the planet’s last vestiges of oil; these so-called ‘tailing ponds’ then kill thousands of migrant Waterbirds who land on them every Summer.

In my poem ‘Climbing Out of a Dog Eat Dog World’, I refer to Holocaust survivor Viktor Frankl’s sense that in spite of even the worst horror and suffering, there is always a meaning in one’s life.  As such I express my own sense of being alive at this time:

…. Why else would I be here
as the Planet’s heating up, if not to speak of the Holocaust
we’ve launched on this universal jewel….

In trying to come to terms with what had happened in the ghettoes and concentration camps of Europe, the Jewish-American poet Charles Reznikoff spent many hours reading the testimonies given during the Nuremberg trials to compose a distilled version which he entitled simply Holocaust.  In doing this he espoused an ‘objectivist’ stance, which sought to leave out the writer’s feelings except indirectly through the choice of subject matter; according to Reznikoff, the writer is instead “restricted almost to the testimony of a witness in court of law”, writing simply about what he sees and hears.

Whether such detachment is desirable or attainable for contemporary ecopoets is debatable; nevertheless, the practice of this poet-lawyer, who had already chronicled the human suffering and injustice of America at the turn of the century in his sequence poem, Testimony, The United States 1885-1915, points analogously to the functions of ecopoetry as a means of framing and drawing attention to issues, and of truth-telling.

Being surrounded by a vast ocean of (dis)information, with the Internet and 24/7 TV news, an important act of witnessing occurs when the ecopoet fishes out the stories that touch him/her, perhaps because they represent some aspect of the grand narratives of our age.

Generally our interest and emotion is most provoked by human stories, while our capacity for compassion may struggle to extend to animals, plants and ecosystems.  And so in framing a story through the act of writing about it, the ecopoet preserves it for others – possibly future generations, although no one can be assured of any posterity in these times of radical uncertainty.  Despite this, there is an assumption of responsibility on the part of the ecopoet, a sense that even if the story is generally lost to the great mass of undifferentiated news (or subsumed by those stories seen as more important), at least one human being has registered its significance.

‘Awake to the Kittiwakes during London Fashion Week’ is a collage poem that I created out of two newspaper stories – one about North Sea birds adversely affected by climate change, the other about super skinny fashion models – which featured side-by-side in The Guardian in September 2006.

gaunt forms,
breast-bones protruding,
they strut and posture against a fabulous cliff-edge location –

In documenting patterns of climate change, there may be a jaded quality to the poet’s act of witnessing, in that global warming trends seem largely unnoticed or disbelieved by the general public (despite the near consensus amongst the scientific community).  In ‘Another Drought Year…’, Australian ecopoet John Kinsella expresses weariness at the recurrence: “The front disdains and the white-faced heron/wears a pained expression…/There is no original thought or unique/observation, just repetition….”

Ezra Pound famously spoke of poets being “the antennae of the race”, and where ecopoets are concerned, we may function as some kind of planetary radar – even, as the American ecotheologian Thomas Berry would say, the Universe reflecting back on itself.
For Grace Paley, there is both the sense of responsibility, but also the need to attempt to transcend the limitations of gender, epitomised by the impotent warnings uttered by Cassandra:  “It is the responsibility of the poet to be a woman to keep an eye on/this world and cry out like Cassandra, but be/listened to this time.”
However, this kind of transcendence of the forces which seek to limit us (whether gender, race, class etc) is not always possible.  In the nineteenth century, John Clare responded powerfully to the process of enclosure, which was fragmenting and taking into private ownership the common land to which he and his community had had access.  However, his inability to effect any real change, given his status as a ‘peasant poet’, was perhaps at least one factor that led to his mental breakdown.  Here he vividly testifies to his experience post-enclosure of the familiar fields and surrounds of his youth:

Inclosure like a Bonaparte let not a thing remain,
It levelled every bush and tree and levelled every hill
And hung the moles for traitors – though the brook is running still,
It runs a naked brook, cold and chill.

Throughout her recent collection ‘Where the Air is Rarefied’, the Cardiff-based ecopoet Susan Richardson draws on a range of sources, including Inuit folktales, Icelandic sagas, and polar explorers’ narratives, as well as her own experiences, to document the changes occurring in the Arctic.  In the following extract, she compares the disappearance of ice to the Inuit language:

Ice
is a minority language kaniq qirihuq hiku
qirititat nilak we all speak land so who
needs hikuaqtuaq iluliaq manirak who
cares when polysyllables drip when verbs
calve when the whole pack of paragraphs
fractures and cracks nilaktaqtuq manillat

In documenting these dislocations – and creating what has elsewhere been termed ‘wounded pastoral’, a contrast with unproblematic or idyllic visions of Nature – an act of paying extreme attention is required.  The ecopoet must have the courage to follow through, to face the bleakness of the situation, and his/her own grief or despair.  As Jonathan Griffin writes in ‘Truthtime’: “I dread yet hunt truth/to the edge of dread’s lying.”

Of course any poet needs to maintain a watchful alertness for memories, sensations, emotions, ideas and dreams, which might emerge at any time of day or night, demanding to be listened to.  Nevertheless, in making the decision to write about a particular subject, there is often a choice-point at which a poet may impose a kind of self-censorship – perhaps because they feel that a particular subject would be too emotionally challenging to explore, or too controversial for an imagined readership?

The ecopoet, however, will where possible resist this kind of self-censorship.  Furthermore, in deliberately exploring the complex web of relationships between ecological destruction and the social, economic and political institutions perpetuating it, an ecopoet can open up a space for dissent, and even resistance, through his/her creation and sharing of what John Kinsella has termed ‘radicalised pastoral’.

3. RESISTANCE

In ‘Beautiful Transgressions: A Radical Feminism for Our Times’ (published in Ceasefire Magazine), Sara Motta highlights the way in which our industrial growth economy colonises all aspects of our lives: “the violence of (neoliberal) capitalism is intensely subjective, affective, embodied, intellectual, physical and spiritual.”

Just as a people living under an enemy occupation or an oppressive regime, we feel circumscribed in our ability to express ourselves.  Motta continues: “The collective wounds caused by these processes in our psyche, history, bodies and minds have resulted in a silenced subject filled with fears and a sense of limitation.”

Everyday social relationships have also become enmeshed within this all pervasiveness – not just through the break-down of communities, but also as capitalism encroaches on and commodifies our desires, we can become atomised and lonely, unable to collectivize and form new ways of living and being, or to voice any kind of serious dissent.  Nevertheless, Motta sees that any attempt to open up the ‘cracks in capitalism’ and to reclaim aspects of our wounded selves, can become a mode of political resistance.

In this way I see my own practice of ecopoetry as a means to address and reassemble fragmented aspects of myself – for example, my ability as a non-scientist to observe and trust my observations of change in weather patterns, or phenological phenomena, such as flowering and fruiting times, or leaf fall – what Jonathan Griffin calls ‘Common Sense of the Senses’, unmediated by ‘experts’ or government.

Interestingly, my own awareness and excitement at the possibilities of ecopoetry as a mode of radical response to the world did not emerge within any formal educational institution, but came in my early twenties after I‘d left university.  It was in a bookshop in Edinburgh that I discovered the extraordinary Beat poet Allen Ginsberg.  The cover photograph of him on the Penguin edition of his collected poems was already striking; wearing a cheap cardboard hat with the American stars and stripes and his distinctive beard and glasses, this portrait was taken whilst Ginsberg was attending an anti-Vietnam war rally in 1966.

Randomly opening the large tome, I encountered the poem ‘Under the world there’s a lot of ass, a lot of cunt’, written in 1973, which offers a litany of the destruction that war has visited on people and planet: “Under the world there’s pain, fractured thighs, napalm burning in black hair, phosphorus eating elbows to bone/insecticides contaminating oceantide, plastic dolls floating across Atlantic….”  That Ginsberg must put all this suffering and destruction ‘under the world’ would indicate that it is not featured in everyday corporate media; instead it’s swept aside, unreported, ignored, and thus writing about it becomes an act of witnessing and resistance.

Various Beat poets, and those influenced by them, such as Anne Waldman, have used poetry as a means for protest.  In the preface to her early collection, Fast Speaking Woman, Waldman writes about the influence on her work of the Mazatec Indian healer/poet/shaman, Maria Sabina, and how her growing awareness of ethnopoetic literature, particularly through Technicians of the Sacred, Jerome Rothenberg’s collection of translated texts from cultures around the world, she and her students had come to use chanting “to create a force-field of energy for protest demonstrations at Rocky Flats plutonium plant in Boulder.”  One anti-nuclear work emerged as a group piece.

She continues: “I also began chanting “Mega mega mega mega mega mega mega death bomb – ENLIGHTEN!” the summer of 1978, later working the lines into lyrics for a ‘new-wave’ recording of ‘Uh Oh Plutonium!’”  Waldman then goes on to describe how the presence of poets, artists and other concerned individuals led to media reports and exposés, and a bust by the FBI.

Clearly therefore poets do have the capacity to effect change – to be Shelley’s ‘unacknowledged legislators’.  Waldman’s description of how she worked with a group, also shows the power of transcending any limiting sense of individuality.  In this regard, the eco-anarchist Paul Cudenec’s vision of the collective resisting the cancerous depredations of the military-industrial complex as being akin to the antibodies that form our immune system’s response to illness or disease is powerful.

In his pamphlet @ntibodies: Life death and resistance in the psyche of the superorganism, he writes: “Some human beings and their activities are acting as antigens, threatening the health of our species and our planetary superorganism.  Other humans, in whom a sense of individual freedom is combined with a responsibility for the whole, must therefore take on the role of antibodies.”

For Gary Snyder, his own sense of his political position comes in relation to the whole; he sees himself as “… a spokesman for wild nature.  I take that as a primary constituency.  And for the people who live in dependence on that….”  He also emphasises the importance of community and reading poetry (as opposed to publishing), and sees the poet articulating “the semi-known for the tribe”.

Additionally he regards the poet’s work as not being limited to cultural activities, such as reading or writing.  For him the ‘real work’ is also practical, working the land etc.  This kind of attitude sees the poet removed from his/her ‘ivory tower’, and actively engaged in producing food or in any other modes of activity required to meet a community’s needs.  It also endows the poet with a role in helping to shape the transition from an oil-dependent society to a low carbon, sustainable one – and these ideas form part of my final theme, which to date has been the least explored by ecopoets.

4. VISIONING

In A Defense of Poetry, Shelley offers a further elaboration of the poet as an essential visionary. “The poet not only beholds intensely the present as it is, and discovers those laws according to which present things ought to be ordered, but he beholds the future in the present, and his thoughts are the germs of the flower and the fruit of latest time.”

In reading Shelley, we must inevitably ask ourselves, what flowers and fruits do we want to grow for ourselves and future generations?  Will it be an ecologically sustainable future, with social justice and the freedom for all beings to live peacefully as cornerstones of our society?  Or are we too caught up in our daily struggles to step back and ask ourselves “What are we working for?”  “What is our dream?”  As Black Elk said: “Without a vision, the people will perish.”

Scientists have now officially termed the modern geological era the Anthropocene, the one in which humankind adversely affects the planetary systems.  However, Thomas Berry offers an alternative vision, that of the Ecozoic era, which sees everything having its own place and role in the functioning of the planet.  But how can we make the switch from one to the other, especially when so much damage has already been done?

Clearly we must be simultaneously realistic and wildly creative in our dreaming.  In my poem ‘Aluna’, I imagine a future London, where climate change has had a significant impact; however in spite of the apocalyptic elements, another rhythm of life is possible here:

And there’s no choice
but to be in what’s left of Europe– Mother
Earth has moored humanity together at her table,
and she’s at the centre of all our decisions.
From our boat, I watch the river swimming
with the gibbous Moon; we use her light to sow
our seeds, and harvest every month when she dies.
We live by lunulations – have become silvery,
left-handed humans, who see their shadows;
and feminine in ways that men and women
had forgotten how to be.

http://internationaltimes.it/aluna/

Encouragingly Berry elaborates: “the foundations of a new historical period, the Ecozoic Era, have been established in every realm of human affairs.”  And if we look carefully, this is undoubtedly true.  In his book The Blessed Unrest, How the Largest Movement in the World Came into Being and Why No One Saw It Coming, Paul Hawken documents hundreds of thousands of organisations around the world that comprise the Green Movement.  Like Cudenec, he sees it as the planet’s immune system.

Evidence of it is never far away – in various towns and cities across the UK, and in parts of the US and Europe, the Transition Movement is already helping people to take steps locally to make the shift towards a sustainable, resilient economy that does not depend on oil to truck or fly in food from far away, and often employs a local currency, such as the Totnes or Brixton pounds, which serve to keep the community’s wealth circulating within it.  As we watch (and help?) capitalism implode, it is essential that we all contribute to seeing what could replace it.  This might be some kind of green socialism, or eco-anarchism – perhaps a system, such as PARECON (an acronym for participatory economics), which Michael Albert has been developing.

The American Buddhist scholar and activist Joanna Macy describes the current movement in Western society towards a life-sustaining culture as The Great Turning, in which she discerns three simultaneous phases – a) direct action, on the front lines of ecological destruction, attempting to hold it back; b) creating alternative economic and social structures, for example in education and healthcare; and c) in providing the stories and visions that will help to create the new life-sustaining paradigm.  Ecopoets and artists, as well as ecocentric thinkers, are likely to be part of this third wave of the Great Turning, although as I have already indicated, hopefully we will be active in the other phases too!  But it must be acknowledged that we do have a vital role in showing others that where ‘The Wasteland Ends’ (to quote Roszak), the Ecozoic era begins.

I’d like to conclude with an extract from Rose Flint’s award-winning poem ‘The Field’, in which she offers us a glimpse of how the post-industrial field is repopulated by communities of wild creatures and humans.  Here the relationships are interdependent, based on the kind of mutuality which can exist within a harmonious family relationship, and perhaps recreating the lost state that Blake had lamented.  The refrain “I want the field…” is repeated many times throughout the poem, and I love how in doing this, Rose seems to will her vision into being….

I want the field not to have to prove anything
by statistics of wheatweight.
I want the field to have its own quota
of roe deer, walkers, horses, flies, vetch…
I want the field to be cherished, loved as family.
I want the field to be good for nothing except itself.

Helen Moore


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