By Laura-Gray Street and Ann Fisher-Wirth

there are times we need silence
as much as we need news

or a poem that creates a silence
in us where we can feel again                 

              —Sheryl St. Germain, “Midnight Oil”

Penelope S. (not her real name) majors in geological engineering at one of the best programs in the country. “In my engineering classes,” she says, “we never talk about environmental issues. We study dams, for instance. We aren’t allowed to write about the human cost of dams, the loss of villages and farms, how many people are displaced. We’re only allowed to focus on how the dams are built. We study oil, extensively, and we keep hearing about how much more there is, how deep it goes, how we’ve barely begun to get it all out. But we don’t talk about whether we should, about hydrofracking, global warming, the consequences of oil spills.”

The frustrations of this engineering student point out the enormously important role the humanities—and in particular for our purposes here, poetry—can and must play in the current environmental crisis. During the past few years, as we have been coediting our forthcoming Ecopoetry: A Contemporary American Anthology, we’ve become ever more convinced that this crisis is enabled by a profound failure of the imagination. What we humans disregard, what we fail to know and grasp, is all too easy to destroy: a mountaintop, a coral reef, a forest, a human community. 

Some lines from William Carlos Williams’s beautiful late poem “Asphodel, That Greeny Flower” have become practically a mantra for those who would affirm the centrality, the urgency, of poetry to contemporary life:

                                                            Look at
                                    what passes for the new.
            You will not find it there but in
                        despised poems.
                                    It is difficult
            to get the news from poems
                        yet men die miserably every day
                                    for lack
            of what is found there.

Attentiveness, precision, tenderness toward existence—these are some of the “news from poems,” and Williams’s lines grow ever more prescient as the world hurtles toward environmental disaster. For poetry returns us in countless ways to the world of our senses. It can act, in Franz Kafka’s phrase, as “an ice-axe to break the frozen sea inside us,” awakening our dulled perceptions out of habit-ridden disregard to a sense of the vitality and beauty of nature, and therefore sharpening our determination to take actions that will preserve it.

This is the power of all poetry. It is particularly the power of ecopoetry.

Despite this power, however, and the clear relevance of ecopoetry to the state of our planetary environment, ecopoetry itself remains an elusive concept. In June 2011, the Oxford English Dictionary added autosave, brain sucker, the potentially critically useful green weenie, and network neutrality to its authoritative list of words; but to date the OED has no entries for either ecopoetics or ecopoetry. In its “Glossary of Poetic Terms,” the Poetry Foundation website describes ecopoetics as “Similar to ethnopoetics in its emphasis on drawing connections between human activity—specifically the making of poems—and the environment that produces it,” and defines it as “A multidisciplinary approach that includes thinking and writing on poetics, science, and theory as well as emphasizing innovative approaches common to conceptual poetry.” However, it too has no entry for ecopoetry. As Joan Qionglin Tan remarks in Han Shan, Chan Buddhism, and Gary Snyder’s Ecopoetic Way, “so far, the precise definition of ecopoetry has not been established.”

This lack of clear definition has its advantages, even if it is frustrating at the practical level. The more open and flexible the concept of ecopoetry is, the less probable it is that the term will be refined into obscurity. In the same way that the ideal environmental studies program would be one in which every academic discipline and department viewed its subject matter through an ecological lens, so the ideal for ecopoetry would be for all poets to view their subject matter with awareness of the facts and consequences of human and beyond-human interaction. But these ideals are not current reality, so we continue to clarify definitions and categories, hoping that they will be rigorous and yet porous in their boundaries.

The term ecopoetry has its origins, arguably, in the work of Gary Snyder and in Jonathan Bate’s landmark study of the ecological nuances of the British Romantic tradition, The Song of the Earth (2000), which establishes ecopoiesis as “a description of dwelling with the earth, not a disengaged thinking about it, but an experiencing of it.” Important thinking about the term has come from many writers. Among those whose work has been central are Lawrence Buell, Marcella Durand, John Elder, John Felstiner, Terry Gifford, Christopher Merrill, Bernard Quetchenbach, Jared Rasul, Kate Rigby, Leonard Scigaj, Jonathan Skinner, Scott Slovic, Juliana Spahr, and Harriet Tarlo.  Perhaps most cited, however, are J. Scott Bryson’s descriptive definitions in Ecopoetry: A Critical Introduction and The West Side of Any Mountain: Place, Space, and Ecopoetry. According to Bryson, ecopoetry is a “subset of nature poetry that . . . takes on distinctly contemporary problems and issues” in ways that are ecocentric, humble with respect to the other-than-human world, and skeptical of hyperrationality. Moreover,

[e]copoets offer a vision of the world that values the interaction between two interdependent and seemingly paradoxical desires, both of which are attempts to respond to the modern divorce between humanity and the rest of nature: (1) to create place, making a conscious and concerted effort to know the more-than-human world around [us]; and (2) to value space, recognizing the extent to which that very world is ultimately unknowable.

As working definitions go, Bryson’s is a strong one. We propose, however, to reverse Bryson’s hierarchical structure, particularly in terms of poetry written since the rise of environmentalism in the 1960’s, and to set ecopoetry as the overarching category rather than the subset. Thus, we see contemporary ecopoetry as containing three main categories: 1) nature poetry, 2) environmental poetry, and 3) ecologic poetry. The first, nature poetry, is most familiar to students of literature and to the general public. In Wendell Berry’s words, it is simply poetry that “considers nature as subject matter and inspiration.” It comes out of the Romantic and American Transcendentalist traditions, and, as Marcella Durand describes it in her essay “The Ecology of Poetry,” it presents the Wordsworthian “human-subject meditating upon a natural object-landscape-animal that is supposed to function as a kind of doorway into [the] meaning of the human subject’s life.”

Environmental poetry, the second category, emerges historically and philosophically out of the first. Jonathan Bate writes in The Song of the Earth, “If the natural world is first and foremost the source of inspiration and epiphany in nature poetry, it is also the prod to and reason for action in environmental poetry.” This is poetry that is propelled by and engages directly with active and politicized environmentalism. Important activists whose work has inspired environmental poetry include John Muir, Rachel Carson, Aldo Leopold, Edward Abbey, and others. As Juliana Spahr elaborates in “Things of Each Possible Relation,” nature poetry “tend[s] to show the beautiful bird but not so often the bulldozer off to the side that [is] about to destroy the bird’s habitat.” Environmental poetry is also greatly influenced by social and environmental justice movements; it is committed to questions of human injustice as well as to issues of damage and degradation to the other-than-human world. 

The third category—ecologic poetry—is more elusive than the first two because it engages questions of form most directly, not only poetic form but also a form historically taken for granted: that of the singular, coherent self. (The term “ecopoetry” is often used to refer to this kind of work, but we are arguing for a more inclusive sense of ecopoetry and so distinguish our categories by using the term ecologic poetry.) Ecologic poetry can look stranger and wilder—“experimental” (that problematic term)—on the page, and it tends to think in self-reflexive ways about how poems can be ecological or can somehow enact ecology. Ecologic poetry is the type of ecopoetry most willing to engage with, even play with, Postmodern and Poststructuralist theories associated with L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E poetry and the avant garde. It is the kind of ecopoetry that Forrest Gander argues “investigates—both thematically and formally—the relationship between nature and culture, language and perception”; it may manifest an awareness/knowledge of and a sense of responsibility/obligation to the science of ecology, evolution, thermodynamics, and quantum physics. It is poetry informed by a biocentric perspective and by ecological interrelatedness, intermingling, and entanglement; as Christopher Arigo writes, it is “founded on the tension between the cutting edge of innovation and ecological thinking.” This thinking, we would add, is necessarily always changing.

Each of the definitions within these three larger categories is helpful as a starting point—and within these three larger categories there may be other definitions as well. Taken together, they are some of the many planes that meet at various angles to create the larger whole that is ecopoetry. Certainly the thinking about ecopoetry has changed since the term entered the ecocritical conversation in the 1990s. For instance, the definition of nature poetry that we quote from Marcella Durand above is one she articulates in order to state that “[t]raditional nature poetry . . . is simply no longer possible.” She is not alone in believing this to be true, though, as we have found in selecting poems for our anthology, plenty of good poets do continue to write nature poetry. Just as powerful activist poems continue to be written even though the deconstruction of concepts such as “wilderness,” “nature,” and “environment” has distinctly complicated the straightforward activist urgency of much environmental poetry and as postcolonialism, queer theory, and environmental justice issues continue to blur (in a positive sense) the already muddied  boundaries between human and ecological perspectives and concerns.

While the thinking about and stance toward ecopoetry have changed through time, we prefer to see that change not as teleological, progressing toward an interpretation that will ultimately become fixed like some climax ecology, but as a shifting, intermingling landscape of poetry, in which all forms have bearing and legitimacy, their presences and purposes ebbing and flowing, thriving and dying back, at different times and in different communities and contexts. We acknowledge the validity of arguments and conflicts between the categories we describe; at the same time, we also see good reason for encouraging inclusion, retention, and interaction. For instance, to dismiss the historically and conceptually complex traditions of British Romanticism and American Transcendentalism, to dismiss traditional nature poetry, can be too easy. The concept of self that Romanticism espouses is both problematic and problematized—psychologically, culturally, scientifically—but the self is also a version of the cell, one of the most important transitions in the evolution of life on this planet. We understand more and more that we live in a quantum world, but we still necessarily operate day to day in a Newtonian world. This fact is not a flaw or a moral failing but something we can observe, meditate on, and ponder. Our vision and hearing and sense of smell are limited when compared to that of insects or bats or dogs, but our neocortex gives us—the animal that is Homo sapiens—a compound-eye-like capacity for simultaneous multiple perspectives. As poets and poetry readers, we can engage in and slide between contemplation, activism, and self-reflexivity. We believe any definition of ecopoetry should allow for this capacity. 

Moreover, while the definitions of ecopoetry are fairly easy to categorize, the poems themselves are emphatically less so. Like actual ecological entities—species, watersheds, habitats, and so on—the categorical characteristics and boundaries of ecopoems are blurry, overlapping, various, discontinuous, permeable. A single poem may participate in multiple definitions and categories. This indeterminacy aligns ecopoetry with our emerging understandings of quantum behaviors and the ways those behaviors are entangled with—not separate from—our day-to-day Newtonian experience of this world. This shift in understanding is as fundamental and mind-boggling as the Copernican revolution, Darwin’s theory of evolution, or Aldo Leopold’s land ethic, all of which move human beings from center stage and adjust our lens from an anthropocentric to an ecocentric view, a shift quietly but acutely depicted in the dual perspectives and grammatical displacements of e.e. cummings’ “Me up at does”:

Me up at does
out of the floor
quietly Stare
a poisoned mouse
still who alive
is asking What
have i done that
You wouldn't have

The poet Ed Roberson sums up ecopoetry beautifully: “[It] occurs when an individual’s sense of the larger Earth enters into the world of human knowledge. The main understanding that results from this encounter is the Ecopoetic: that the world’s desires do not run the Earth, but the Earth does run the world.” Ecopoetry investigates, interrogates, and inhabits the rhythms and structures of language, which is the filter of our self-conscious visions of what’s around and in us, what is us. In the end, ecopoetry is perhaps not the individual poems but the aggregate of them—all possible permutations of every “I” and “eye” and (like cummings’s mouse) “i”—enacting through language the manifold relationship between the human and the other-than-human world.