the ecology of poetry

This talk was given at Small Press Traffic in San Francisco on Sept. 21, 2002 as part of SPT’s “New Experiments” series.

Thanks so much to Small Press Traffic and Elizabeth Treadwell in inviting me here.

It’s great to give this talk on ecological poetry in San Francisco, which, to New Yorkers like me, is sort of utopic. And the process that led me here has also lent a whole new dimension to my conception of the environment—that process being driving across the country, wild, empty, dry country, but mined, farmed, ranched country, too. I don’t think I ever fully understood space before driving across South Dakota and Wyoming, and I don’t think I really understood the starkness of the battle between the forces of exploitation and the forces of conservation before going through areas like the Redwood forests. And where I thought I had looked upon wilderness, I found out later I was looking upon altered ecosystems—the desert scrub comes in when cattle have overgrazed the land. Yellowstone’s vistas are artfully placed in the 18th century notion of framing and reflecting nature. Early tourists would hold up purple-tinted mirrors to the landscape, altering their direct perceptions.

This reflective fad foreshadows some of the tensions current between nature poetry, ecological poetry, and ecological issues. And these tensions are linked to the perceived problems of contemporary experimental American poetry itself —that is, that it is somehow out of touch, cloistered, urban, interior. As Jonathan Skinner says in the introduction to his new literary journal, Ecopoetics, “walks do not make it into the closed environments of today’s best poetry.” However, Juliana Spahr has pointed out in recent readings and essays that such poetry, the poetry of “walks,” smacks of old-fashioned Nature poetry, a poetry that, says Spahr, doesn’t include the “bulldozer” along with the “bird.” But then there’s the other extreme, a poetry that too obviously delineates the battles between bulldozer and bird, and expects deep yet instant change in human actions toward the environment, while making no deep and intrinsic change within its own poetical structure. Ecopoetics showcases a more experimental ecological poetry, one that begins to take into itself ecological processes, as well as ecological concerns. It is this incipient tendency that I wish to explore—this fusion of matter with perception, observation with process, concentration to transmission, that would most decisively turn what can seem nostalgic remnants of “nature” poetry into a more dynamic, affective and pertinent poetry. “Let’s say Nature, like femininity, is obsolete,” says Lisa Robertson. But, she adds, “A system is ecological when it consumes its own waste products … Therefore, I find it preferable to choose the dystopia of the obsolete.” Things have changed since the last burst of ecological poetry in the ‘60s and ‘70s, and I use the word things partly in the sense that Francis Ponge used it: exterior non-human objects neglected as subjects, that when concentrated upon intensely, can yield extraordinarily lucid writing. However, traditional nature poetry, a la the human-subject meditating upon a natural object-landscape-animal as a doorway into meaning of the human subject’s life, is no longer possible. “Appearing to serve a personally expressive function, the vocabulary of nature screens a symbolic appropriation of the Land. Her cut sublimity grafts to the Human,” says Robertson. Nature has changed from an perceptually exploitable Other—most easily compared to a book to be decoded by the (human) reader—to something intrisically affected by humans. We ourselves are the wilderness destroying the very systems of which we are a part, in some role we utterly do not understand. What we are finding now is that systems are being completely disrupted, and that at the same time science is making incredible discoveries about these systems. Rather than writing a poem about how you had some encounter with a bear in the woods, or hitting a deer with your car, a la William Stafford, how much more interesting is writing a poem that incorporates the insanely complex discoveries about, say, global warming, into the very fabric of the poem itself. Close concentration upon systems as systems can lead to the animation of poetic processes.A lucid yet wild fusion of structure of poem with structure of matter/energy—things. And things not limited to those traditionally marked as “natural”—i.e., bears, foxes, woods, mountains—but expanded to include all beings, objects, systems, and locales—water reservoirs, the insides of televisions, invasive purple loosestrife, africanized bee populations, subway tunnels—in a levelling of value between and of subject and object.

When I wrote the initial statement for this talk, I wrote: “Ecological poetry is much like ecological living—it recycles materials, functions with an intense awareness of space, seeks an equality of value between all living and unliving things, explores multiple perspectives as an attempt to subvert the dominant paradigms of mono-perception, consumption and hierarchy, and utilizes powers of concentration to increase lucidity and attain a more transparent, less anthropocentric mode of existence.” Rodrigo Toscano wrote me a lovely detailed letter, thoughtfully going through each category as I had set it forth. What he found most compelling was the idea of “equality of value between all living and unliving things.” This idea of equality of value is essential for moving from the exploitativeness and inertness of traditional Nature poetry, through Ponge’s revolutionary ideas of concentrating intensely upon things as things, into the incipient and dynamic idea of poetry as ecosystem itself, instigated and animated through a Pongeian, or also Thoreau-ian, concentration upon exterior systems. However, here we come to the problem of “concentration,” which Rodrigo felt was too vague and should be more specified as a concentration of multiple perspectives “splayed” (his word) onto “new (or rather wished for/striven for spaces.” In attemping to clarify—or justify—to Rodrigo what I had meant by concentration, which he felt could be mistaken as “mental acuity sense,” which I have to admit, was what I originally meant, I found that it was indeed a problem. However, since I think that problems and errors are most often windows into further discoveries, I countered Rodrigo with an idea from Baudelaire, called surnaturalism, “a state of perception which intensifies the existence of things, makes them hyperbolically themselves.” Upon further reflection, I also felt that “wished for/striven for” spaces was not as desirable as concentrating upon what actually there, as wishing certainly entails a certain act of escape from and control over reality—perhaps, like Lisa Robertson, I am more inclined toward the necessary chaos of dystopia than the purple tinted mirror of utopia.

However, Rodrigo quite correctly felt that surnaturalism also asserted the dominance of human as perceiving subject over things. After all, he wrote, “why would a worker’s (or poem’s) democracy social metabolic process (matter of matter) need to be made ‘larger than life?’ Answer: cause it’s dead already—has been since rent asunder.” Yet, while Rodrigo raises a most valid point, I’m still not ready to leave the original idea of concentrated mental acuity. First, such intense observation of things is one of the few doors humans have to escape our own overwhelming subject-being. How else, besides perceiving, can we begin to dissemble ourselves? It is an absence of concentration upon the space around us that leads to such things as housing developments. For myself the process is as such: concentration upon spaces and landscape leads to poetry; poetry leads to further concentration upon spaces and landscape. It is my poetic ecological system—self-sustaining, linguistically self-contained, recycling, and, if successful, animating both word and perception with the idea of action.

I’ve found that along with this idea of concentration—which truthfully I still haven’t fully explored as an intriguing fissure in the idea of ecological poetry—is the idea of intent. Poetry written with intent, especially moral or political intent, is very problematic, but I also realize that it’s inevitable that I write with intent. Here’s an example: Tina Darragh and I have been writing a collaborative series of ecological poems recycling words and ideas from Francis Ponge’s The Making of the Pre and Michael Zimmerman’s Contesting Earth’s Future , a book on the philosophies behind Deep Ecology. So, in this recycling, Tina and I intended to allow these texts, along with assorted articles on environmental issues found in Scientific American, New York Times, and other media, to enter our own poetic structures, to see if we could shift perceptions of textual spaces and subsequently environmental spaces. But, while writing with moral intent, we also deliberately opened ourselves and the texts to a catalyzing equalization of subject and language. Our poetry recycled in form and process the “topics” we were writing on. So perhaps the resolution to intent, is to only allow that intent to spark the poem into being—it’s the key to the ignition, but then you let the car go (to use a completely un-ecological metaphor there). Take Lytle Shaw’s Cable Factory 20 , a long poem written with a certain intent to explore art, space, industry, environment, but one that is also open to the unfolding process of language, a poem scientific in its allowance of process, one that allows “subject” to animate sentence structure, word, stanza. Another, more classic example is Clark Coolidge’s The Crystal Text , which contains remarkable transferences between spaces and words, poem and reality, while also retaining aesthetic integrity and innovation.

And this leads to the current and insistent complaint of poets about how to make poetry comment on issues of the day while also retaining aesthetic integrity. This complaint really finds its roots in the cultural and economic isolation of poets, but it can also stem from the atomizing tendency of experimental poetry. In order to fragment, you have to separate. I had a dream during my big road trip out here—I dreamt that I got in a taxi with John Ashbery to pick up Trevor Winkfield. So, during this cab ride, we chatted about poetry, naturally. So I said something about disjunctiveness in contemporary poetry and John said to me, “yes, but it’s not the separate elements, it’s how you stitch them together into a poem.” Now, I have long and fervently believed in the abstract composition of poetry, but I’ve been thinking lately, in the context of ecological poetry, about the third and fourth dimensions of poetry, as well—that poetry has the ability, perhaps even the obligation, to interact with events, objects, matter, reality, in a way that animates and alters its own medium—that is, language. Experimental ecological poets are concerned with the links between words and sentences, stanzas, paragraphs, and how these systems link with energy and matter—that is, the exterior world. And to return to the idea of equality of value, such equalization of subject/object-object/subject frees up the poet’s specialized abilities to associate. Association, juxtaposition, metaphor is how the poet can go further than the scientist in addressing systems. The poet can legitimately juxtapose kelp beds with junkyards. Or to get really technical, reflect the water reservoir system for a large city in the linguistic structure of repetitive water-associated words in a poem. And poets right now are the only scientist-artists who can do these sorts of associations and get away with them—all other disciplines, such as biology, oceanography, mathematics are obligated to seperate their ideas into discrete topics. You’re not really allowed to associate your findings about sea-birds nesting on a remote Arctic island with the drought in the West. But as a poet, you certainly can. And you can do it in a way that journalists can’t—you can do it in a way that is concentrated, that alters perception, that permanently alters language or a linguistic structure. Because you as poets are lucky enough to work in a medium that not only is in itself an art, but an art that interacts essentially with the exterior world, with things, events, systems, and through this multi-dimensional aspect of poetry, poets are an essential catalyst for increased perception, and increased change.

Author’s Note: There was a question-and-answer period following this talk, during which Laynie Browne, Albert Flynn de Silver, Kevin Killian and others raised many interesting points and problems, particularly regarding the particular problem of “concentration.” Following their useful contributions, along with further research I’ve done (such as reading Ronald Johnson’s long poem, ARK) and plan to do (such as reading Jed Rasula’s recently published book on ecology and poetry, This Compost), an expanded version of this talk will be published in a special ecologically-oriented issue of the literary journal 26.

Editor’s Note: Also look for an SPT anthology stemming from our New Experiments series sometime in 2004.

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