Why Ecopoetry?

There's no Planet B.
By John Shoptaw

Before getting to why, I need to ask what: What is ecopoetry? What must an ecopoem be to do justice to its name? My answer is twofold: an ecopoem needs to be environmental and it needs to be environmentalist. By environmental, I mean first that an ecopoem needs to be about the nonhuman natural world -- wholly or partly, in some way or other, but really and not just figuratively. In other words, an ecopoem is a kind of nature poem. But an ecopoem needs more than the vocabulary of nature. Consider John Ashbery's "River of the Canoefish":

These wilds came naturally by their monicker.
In 1825 the first canoefish was seen hanging offshore.
A few years later another one was spotted.
Today they are abundant as mackerel, as far as the eye can see,
tumbled, tumescent, tinted all the colors of the rainbow
though not in the same order,
a swelling, scumbled mass, rife with incident
and generally immune to sorrow.

Shall we gather at the river? On second thought, let's not.

The first tipoff that this amusing poem is not about nature is the "canoefish," which doesn't exist; another is the "river" of "Shall we gather at the river?" which is from the familiar hymn. Ashbery is a poet of manner, less of nature than of "naturally." A parody of natural history, the poem riffs on gay culture ("rainbow," "tumescent," "immune"). Ashbery's culture poem is still fine and fun. But in my terms it can't count as an ecopoem.

This is not to say that ecopoetry is merely nature served uncooked on the literal page. In Redstart: An Ecological Poetics, Forrest Gander declares himself "less interested in 'nature poetry' -- where nature features as theme -- than in poetry that investigates -- both thematically and formally -- the relationship between nature and culture, language and perception." I share Gander's preferences, and I think he makes an important point: ecopoets cannot be naive about matters of perception and poetic representation, which are biologically and culturally specific (a bee's world is not a human's). Yet I'm sure Gander would agree that nature exists not only in the sensorium of the beholder; it's really "out there." There are, for instance, environmental facts -- such as the unnerving one that the level of atmospheric carbon dioxide has now reached an unsustainable 400 parts per million -- that we know objectively and can render independently of our personal or cultural perceptions, in an essay or a poem. However self-aware and self-reflexive it may be, an ecopoem must be tethered to the natural world.

Read the full article on the Poetry Foundation website.