Poetry aspires to reveal the world for what it is. Ecopoetics reaffirms the world in its complexity and proposes an engagement with—or attunement to—an original world: one dynamic and rich and devised of a continuum of interrelations, an overlooked/missed world rarely registered in our everyday, natural attitude. As a discipline poetry is vigorous, imaginative, and alternative; it opens up clearings in our mental conception of the world, providing us with new paths of investigation, and it makes available other possible worlds to those commonly offered to our understanding. Ecopoetics extends this art form (poetry) with the intention of foregrounding an investigation into ecology: a word derived from the Greek oikos (home) and logos (word, reason, thought). As a discipline ecopoetics investigates how the human is situated within its habitat; how “home” is defined and built; where (or whether) borders exist between body and world, human and other, space and place; and how sense activities, physical presences, memory, and moments of thinking locate and assist the human desire to navigate the self in the world.
Ecopoetics thus contributes to the dissident project of resistance to dominant cultural modes of thinking. What is often written as the legacy of the Enlightenment—science, rationalism, the dominion of humans over nature—is critiqued for its pernicious cultural legacy: a body of encyclopedic “knowledge” deeply rooted in formulations of the world in terms of “classes” and “species.” Moreover, ecopoetics holds this “epistemological fallacy” to account for its contribution to the current ecological crisis. To halt the unsustainable exploitation of natural resources, the reduction of the number of world species, and the destruction and pollution of vital components of the fabric of our life requires a shift in vision. According to Gregory Bateson, our ecological problems stem to a great extent from the current “mutating ideology that conceives of species against species,” a scientific premise deriving from the incorrect supposition that the “unit of survival in the bio-taxonomy” is “the individual, family line” (484).
The correct unit, “organism plus environment,” would readdress the epistemological error and offer a new series of units or differences: gene-in-organism, organism-in-environment, ecosystem, and so forth, and thus promote conceptions of the interaction and survival of ideas, programs, units, and the like, within circuits, or complexes of differences (Bateson 484).
Twentieth-century science pushed the focus of knowledge systems toward the level of the gene; late 20th-century and 21st-century thought is now arguing for the conception of a “unit of survival” with a larger complexity: the ecosystem unit. Ecopoetics embraces this new proposition. Moreover, the coupling of poetics to science (as suggested by the prefix eco-) rescues the redress from being seen as affiliated with playful theoretical discourses and nonrational modalities. In short, ecopoetics offers a way of viewing the world that embraces art and science, yet is radically new in its use of poetic devices and scientific underpinnings. Jonathan Bate clarifies this focal point: “Ecopoetics asks in what respects a poem may be a making . . . of the dwelling place . . . According to this definition, poetry will not necessarily be synonymous with verse: the poeming of the dwelling is not inherently dependent on metrical form. However, the rhythmic, syntactic and linguistic intensifications that are characteristic of verse-writing frequently give a peculiar force to the poiesis: it could be that poiesis in the sense of versemaking is language’s most direct path of return to the oikos, the place of dwelling, because metre itself—a quiet but persistent music, a recurring cycle, a heartbeat—is an answering to nature’s own rhythms, an echoing of the song of the earth itself” (75–76).
It would be a mistake to consider ecopoetics as merely an extension of romanticism; rather than advocating the “imaginative reunification of mind and nature” (Bate 245), ecopoetics attempts to locate the human in the world. It thus radicalizes “nature poetry” by offering far less utopian visions than the romantics did, often through the formulation of urban modalities, nonorganic metaphors, and an increased scientific inflection on the everyday objects that appear to mind. Kate Soper writes that an “uncritical ecological naturalism” is another form of “social conservatism” and that radical ecopoetics must, therefore, negotiate this obvious yet highly significant claim.
Romantic and aestheticizing approaches to nature have as readily lent themselves to the expression of reactionary sentiment as sustained the radical critique of industrialism, and this means that left-wing ecologists, however understandably eager they may be to reseize this tradition of romanticism for their own purposes, are dealing with a problematic legacy.
We have come to an understanding of ecopoetics as both a radicalized body of knowledge concerning how things appear to mind and how the human is located within this appearance; ecopoetics thus conceived can be written as a new form of phenomenology, as Alice Oswald does in her poem “River”:
put your ear to the river you hear trees
put your ear to the trees you hear the widening
numerical workings of the river
It is rare to find an image of a river coupled to mathematics. Rivers are one of the most remarkable features in our landscape; their continuous movement portrays the flux and instability of nature and identity. In this poem Oswald arrests the idea of the river as an organic, fl owing force by positing the argument that such an energy source can be understood in terms accessible to our reductive, pattern-seeking cognitive engines (our ears and brains) by conceiving of it as “numerical.” But this sort of scientific language, which resonates with ideas of a static and fixed resource, is undermined by the poem’s diction. The technological idiom hints that the river is an entity vulnerable to possible methods of analysis in isolation and therefore to exploitation; however, the “workings” of the river foreground a process, the endless change and dynamism of the natural world. The “numerical workings” of the river can be calculated to a degree. If one understands the interdependency of all things in the world as suggested by the investigation that the poem proposes (into the tree, which results in finding the river, and vice versa), one can read the “workings” of the river as an element in one of the most remarkable processes on Earth, the hydrologic cycle: the continual fl ow of water from sea to cloud to river and into life forms along the way, providing all living organisms with two essential resources—hydrogen and oxygen.
Oswald’s poem urges the addressee to enter into complicity with the environment, for her philosophy states that knowledge is embodied, not objective. This is one of the fundamental premises of ecopoetics. It derives from an ideological perspective that desires the conception of difference or alterity as nonoppositional; we are challenged to view things in relation. Such a perspective, according to Charlene Spretnak, is attuned to the “unitive dimensions of being,” an ecological unconscious that sometimes appears to consciousness as the “deep interconnection with others and with all of nature.”
The search for this ecological imperative within poetry is one method of discriminating the ecopoetic from the wealth of poetry that surrounds us during this 21st-century environmental renaissance. In his taxonomy of ecological imperatives Jonathan Skinner offers us further parameters for locating the ecopoetic within creative works. For Skinner the ecopoem may offer one (or more) of four models, or conceptual frameworks. These are the topological: a science of place and referential dimension to that which is “outside” the poem; the tropological: a fi gurative discourse that functions like ecosystems themselves; the entropological: where direct materials form a method of poetry; and the ethnological: where wild landscapes are investigated as societies “peopled” by their components, together with their distinctive characteristics and relations to one another. Skinner’s model offers the literary critic a method of bracketing the ecopoetic as an art form with unique qualities that can be appreciated methodically (and meticulously) for new modes of signification and poetic effects.
Skinner’s outline suggests that one might briefly consider here historic ideas relating to quests, investigations, and representation. Before the deployment of the term atlas for a collection of maps, the Dutch and Spanish colonialists used to speak of the “speculum.” The Latin word for mirror was replaced by the name of the mythical Greek Titan who supposedly supported the heavens on his shoulders. That shift was paralleled by the move from the medieval conception of a fixed, unchanging, and hierarchical vision of the planet and of a closed circle of civilization with a vertical sense of infinity to a new model offered by Renaissance thought. In 16th-century Europe, during the so-called Age of Discovery, the sea and the land dominated the European worldview as intellectuals began to abandon spiritual parameters and models of knowledge; in short, the round Earth, as an icon, became every bit as important as the Cross (as a symbol of salvation) or Heaven (as the seat of God). Since the 1960s the world’s peoples have become familiar with a new icon and worldview: the blue planet viewed from space. This object is often seen as beautiful and unique—but also as limited (in terms of resources), fragile, and endangered. Our new maps, methods of orientation, and types of “navigation” seek to investigate this newly reconceptualized Earth, envisioned nowadays as a planet that is the very mirror image of ourselves. Ecopoetics embodies the scientific quest as also a spiritual quest to find the most resonant images and icons to create those moments in poetry where the constructions of verse and the reflections on nature, combined, herald a secular and ecological revelation.
This radical form of poetics as quest can be seen to have precursors within the whole tradition of literature from antiquity and the pre-Socratic poets to traditional Japanese meditative verse, from classic Indian spiritual writings on into British and American postromantic poetry. Some canonical figures worth reinvestigating in this light include Henry David Thoreau (United States), William Wordsworth (Britain), William Carlos Williams (United States), and Ted Hughes (Britain); but one should also probably revisit the Kokinwakashu (Japan), Matsuo Basho (Japan), Johann Wolfgang von Goethe (Germany), Rabindranath Tagore (India), Czeslaw Milosz (Poland), Johannes Borbowski (Germany), Sakutaro Hagiwara (Japan), and Kokin Wakashu or Kokinshu (Japan). It is interesting to see roots to the poetics of our ecological situatedness in Sufi poetry, Hindu poetry, Buddhist poetry, and Christian mystical poetry; however, most relevant to our current ecological crisis are the poets writing specifically in response to the most recent environmental, ecological, and political texts of the late 20th century, including Seamus Heaney (Ireland), Alice Oswald (Britain), John Burnside (Britain), Mary Oliver (United States), Allison Funk (United States), Leslie Murray (Australia), Nicanor Parra (Chile), and James K. Baxter (New Zealand). These poets have tasked themselves with the poetry of experiences engendered by the renewal of the familiar, with making our conception and enjoyment of the world fuller and thus enabling us to see the world in all its complexity and vitality.
Bate, Jonathan. The Song of the Earth. London: Picador, 2000. Bateson, Gregory. Steps to an Ecology of Mind. New York: Ballantine, 1972. Burnside, John, and Maurice Riordan, eds. Wild Reckoning— An Anthology Provoked by Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring. London: Calouste Gulbenkian Foundation, 2004. Coupe, Laurence, ed. The Green Studies Reader: From Romanticism to Ecocriticism. London: Routledge, 2000. Dobson, Andrew. Green Political Thought. 3rd ed. London: Routledge, 2000. Oswald, Alice. Woods etc. New York: Faber and Faber, 2005. Skinner, Jonathan. “Boundary Work in Mei-mei Berssenbrugge’s ‘Pollen.’ ” Paper presented at the CUNY Conference on Contemporary Poetry, New York, N.Y.: November 5, 2005, and at the Association for the Study of Literature and the Environment Conference, Eugene, Oregon, June 24, 2005. Spretnak, Charlene. “Radical Nonduality in Ecofeminist Philosophy.” In Ecofeminism: Women, Culture, Nature, edited by Karen J. Warren, 425–436. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1997.