By Jenny Morse (USA).
Published in Issue 23.
Although nature poetry has a tradition almost as long as human history, ecopoetry has developed more recently as a sub-genre that focuses on the interrelation of humans and nature in the face of perceived environmental crisis (Bryson 5). Ecopoetry asks questions about environmental responsibility and the relationship between humans and nature. In seeking a definition of ecopoetry, Leonard Scigaj in his book Sustainable Poetry discusses Robert Finch’s and John Elder’s position that “the purpose of nature writing is to connect humans to planetary biological processes” and Lawrence Buell’s four characteristics of environmental literature: first, that the nonhuman environment must be present as more than just a background for human contemplation; second, that human interests are not primarily or singularly considered; third, that humans are accountable to nature; and fourth, that the environment is in process and not static (10). Scigaj himself offers: “One might define ecopoetry as poetry that persistently stresses human cooperation with nature conceived as a dynamic, interrelated series of cyclic feedback systems” (37). Essentially, these definition indicate that ecopoetry is meant to demonstrate the interconnectedness of human and nature and to encourage engagement with nature as an equal rather than a force to be dominated.
If the intention of ecopoetry is to manifest the interrelation of human and nature, to show that human and nature are not binary opposites but entangled, then the problem of the ecopoet is to use a human system to express an ecological one. Language is something that we have created, and so it is impossibly human. We cannot give voice to nature because to do so would be to speak for it, to remove its independence and agency. Alternatively, we cannot avoid nature because we are also part of nature. The challenge is to recognize that humans are part of nature and to find ways to illustrate that in our language.
For many ecopoets, such as W.S. Merwin and Gary Snyder, nature is other, wilderness, somewhere one has to go. Arguments have been made that ecopoets should recognize nature as a distinct environment so that its boundaries can be marked, cordoned off, and protected from ourselves. But we cannot separate ourselves from ourselves. Instead, I would argue that ecopoetry needs to work to unite human and nature, to present a perspective in which human and nature are interrelated. Only when we can use language to express the nature in humans or the human in nature can the ecopoetic project succeed. The work of Jorie Graham, Lorine Niedecker, and Amy Clampitt reveals some strategies for creating this feedback system by calling attention to the problem, creating slippage between human and nature, and eliminating the boundaries that isolate these categories in order to show the entanglement of human and nature.
Two poems of Jorie Graham’s present two versions of calling attention to this human/nature problem. In “Reading Plato” from Erosion (1983), Graham uses Plato’s noble lie as a means of pointing toward the imagined divide between human and nature. The poem begins:
This is the story
of a beautiful
lie, what slips
through my fingers,
The combination of the poem’s title and these opening lines grounds the poem in Plato’s noble lie, a story which was to be told to the people of the Republic in order to make them care for each other, their country, and the land:
“They are to be told that…they were being formed and fed in the womb of the earth...when they were completed, the earth, their mother, sent them up; and so, their country being their mother and also their nurse, they are bound to advise for her good, and to defend her against attacks, and her citizens they are to regard as children of the earth and their own brothers.” (Plato 74)
The noble lie transforms people from part of nature into nature’s caregivers. Plato’s lie is supposed to strengthen civilization, the city and the bonds among citizens, but in the creation of this lie, Plato has separated people from their origins, from “their mother” who created them and sent them to the city. Graham’s poem begins with this lie because her poem is about recognizing the fallacy of this separation of human from nature.
Having established this base in Plato, the poem moves on to talk about a man making fishing lures:
he works with tweezers and
a magnifying glass.
They must be
…He makes them
out of hair,
deer hair, because it’s hollow
The lures are also part of this “beautiful lie” in that they are made of natural products, deer hair, but are transformed into a representation of something else in the natural world, “flies.” In creating these lures, the man is using nature to imitate nature. The fiction of the lure, of what it represents, has to be true in order for it to be effective, just like Plato’s noble lie must become true for the citizens in order for the government to be effective. This fiction of the lures mimes the fiction of the human. The lure is made of nature, but is not natural, just as the man who will use the lure is made of nature, but imagines himself apart from it.
At the end of the poem, this metaphor of the lures becomes entangled with what it represents about the fishermen:
upriver, downriver, imagine, quick
in the air,
in flesh, in a blue
flies, our knowledge of
deer skips easily across
they were all once
a part of,
these men along the lush
trying to slip in
for the natural world. (7)
The narrator sees the flies of the fisherman, their lures, and that image becomes complicated by the knowledge that the flies are not flies, but deer hair, so that it is the deer “skip[ping] easily across the surface” rather than the flies. The poem focuses on the way in which nature has been used to imitate nature, and moves from this image of the deer hair that flies to the men themselves. Returning to the idea of the noble lie, the poem focuses on the body from which the men came, the body of the earth. They have been separated from that body and now try to rejoin it in this strange mimesis, “trying to slip in and pass for the natural world.” Graham’s poem emphasizes the way in which these natural things, deer hair and men, have been separated from nature and then returned to it in these baffling and bizarre ways, how something that once belonged to the natural world becomes something only representative of that natural world. This is the problem with which ecopoetry struggles: how the human can return to its place of belonging in nature.
In the poem “Positive Feedback Loop” from Sea Change (2008), Graham once again points at these unusual divisions of human and nature. The title itself refers to systems which, by reinforcing themselves, lead to destruction and instability through excessive growth (“Feedback Loops”). There seem to be two positive feedback loops in the poem. The first is global warming and its impact on sea levels, with which the poem begins:
I am listening in the silence that precedes. Forget
everything, start listening. Tipping point, flash
convective chimneys in the seas bounded by Greenland. Once there was thunder and also
salvos at the four corners of the horizon, that was
In Hell they empty your hands of sand, they tell you to refill them with dust and try
to hold in mind the North Atlantic Deep Water
which also contains
contributions from the Labrador Sea and entrainment of other water masses, try to hold a
complete collapse, in the North Atlantic Drift, in the
thermohaline circulation, this
fish are starving to death in the Great Barrier Reef, the new Age of Extinction is
The poem opens with silence and impending disaster, the moment when the positive feedback loop cannot be stopped and must result in extinction. The images here of natural objects, “convective chimneys,” “thunder,” “horizon,” “water masses,” “and fish,” are mixed with human concepts, “four corners,” “Hell,” “Age of Extinction,” and human-named natural places, “Greenland,” “North Atlantic Deep Water,” “Labrador Sea,” “North Atlantic Drift,” “Great Barrier Reef.” In this way, Graham’s language evokes the entanglement of human and nature by calling upon both in the description of this problem. Instead of a call to action, the poem asks the reader “to hold in mind” these concepts of natural processes, natural places, and their human entanglements.
The intermingling of human and nature in the poem becomes the second positive feedback loop, one that ends with the destruction of those distinct categories. Graham writes, “I will learn everything there is of this my spouse the future, here in my / earth my parents’ house…” (42). The line “earth my parents’ house” conflates the concept of home in that familiar encompassing of both an actual building and the planet on which we reside. In another line, the poem explodes from a lengthy and winding sentence into a list that interweaves human with nature again: “skins, the flesh, the heat, the soil, the grain, the sound of each birdcall heard over the / millennia” (43). Skin, flesh, and the act of hearing appear in the same list as the natural objects of soil, grain, and birdcalls, showing how they intersect, appear on the same plain, and in the same line.
The end of the poem presents the collapse of human and nature as distinct categories:
out onto the porch and the evening shall come on around us, unconcealed,
blinking, abundant, as if catching sight of us,
everything in and out under the eaves, even the grass seeming to push up into this our
world as if out of
homesickness for it,
The problem the poem begins with is a natural one, melting ice caps and rising sea levels, that has been exacerbated by human actions. The poem has accounted for the separation between human and nature through its description of the problem in all its scientific language, its human names. The poem has explored the interrelation of human and nature, the way in which these categories are entangled. However, at the end, it claims “our world” for the human “we” who walks outside almost amazed and “blinking” to find a world beyond the civilization of the constructed home. The grass is growing into the human world “out of homesickness for it,” suggesting that even the grass has been isolated from that human space. The growth of the grass into the human space implies a forthcoming union of the claimed human world and the natural one.
Where Graham’s work seems to invoke and call attention to these divisions of human and nature, this alienation of the human from the natural world, Lorine Niedecker’s work reveals how slippage from human to nature, or the reverse, can weld the two together. In a section from North Central (1968), Niedecker writes:
bends to inspect
The poem begins with a man collecting shells on a beach. The only action in the poem is the man bending to pick up a shell. That small action yields the connection that the man is part of the beach that Niedecker comments on. The interweaving of man and nature is created on three levels. First, the connection is made through the distinct phrases of the poem. The third phrase, which begins with the capital letter “H” reads “Himself part coral and mud clam.” This statement clearly presents the idea that the man is made of these oceanic living things. Second, the connection is reinforced by the formal breaks of the poem. “Far reach of sand” doesn’t end with a period but leans into the upcoming sentence “A man bends to inspect a shell.” The break in the strophe forces the reader to connect the image “Far reach of sand” to the man, suggesting that the man is equivalent to the beach upon which he walks. The second strophe provides a similar break, forcing “a shell” to reverberate against “Himself” because of the lack of punctuation separating the phrases. Furthermore, the indented lines suggest a continuity of the line, an extension of the idea, so that “a man” is somehow an elongation of the sand and “Himself” is another word for shell. Finally, the intersection of human and nature is stressed through the sound patterns. “Sand” and “man” share the short “a” and “n” sound, while “shell” and “Himself” share the short “e” and “l” sounds. The words echo each other. So, Niedecker is able to create an ecological feedback system that engages human and nature by stating outright that man is part of nature, and then by using line breaks and sound to suggest their metonymic relation.
In another poem from North Central, Niedecker employs similar strategies. She writes:
and that hard
On the mossed
on which spruce
I met him
We were thick
We said good-bye
on The Passing Years
In this poem, the opening strophe links “stone” to “human.” “Stone,” a natural object, begins the poem. The phrase “and that hard contact” seems to describe the touch of the stone, but the “and” indicates that it refers to an additional object, while the m-dash and its line break allow “that hard contact” to be read as a description of “the human” rather than “Stone.” The idea that the stone has met with the hard contact of a human is further developed through the prepositional phrase “on the mossed / massed quartz” which suggests that “the human” is sitting on the stone, creating this point of contact. As a result of that contact, the third strophe yields a kind of human-to-nature relationship: “I met him.” This encounter between human and nature becomes transformative in that the “I” and the “him” become “We” in the second and third lines. The relationship moves from separate objects to a unified “we” that can be described as “thick” and that results in speech, “we said good-bye.” Finally, “The Passing Years River” further entangles the human concept of time with a natural entity that moves unidirectionally, like time. So, this poem points to a moment of intersection between two objects: “stone” and “human.” It uses line breaks and grammatical structures to realign the relationship of those two objects into a unified “we” that then has an encounter as a result of that wholeness.
Niedecker’s presentation of the relationship between nature and human relies on slippage between the categories through line breaks, syntax, and sound, but Amy Clampitt’s poetry, like Graham’s, insists on direct connections. And, while most ecopoets focus on natural places, Clampitt draws on the overlap between civilized and natural environments. In Clampitt’s work, the city becomes a naturescape, a place where nature can continue to be experienced. The boundaries between nature and civilization are removed as nature is made present and integral to the city. In the poem, “Times Square Water Music” from The Kingfisher (1983), the event of the poem is a water pipe leak in the subway, which leads the speaker to consider the water, a natural element, as present in the city and escaping its piped boundaries to impose itself, its nature, on the city which has tried to escape it, control it. Someone does try to fix the leak or at least stop it:
had tried, with
barricade or tether
to cordon off
as though anyone
could tie up seepage
into a package—
down which the
water, a dripping
escapee, was surrep-
with the intent,
in time, at an
to make a lake. (27)
The dripping water, which has escaped one boundary, is forced into another, unsuccessful, one, which tries to reassert the separation between the human and nature in the form of the dripping water. Here, the water is given motivation; it’s called an “escapee” that is working to gather itself into a larger, more substantive form. Despite the attempts to separate this element of nature from civilization, it encroaches, like the grass in Graham’s “Positive Feedback Loop;” it cannot be contained. The last two stanzas of the poem imagine what this disruptive force is capable of, bringing nature into the city and bringing down civilization:
Think of spleen-
wort, of moss
think of water
pipits, of ouzels
the course of it
as the music
of it oozes
from the walls!
Think of it
cheep, the time
inching of it
Think of it, think of
water running, running,
running till it
The borders between the human and nature categories are breaking down here. The water is slipping between the cracks, infiltrating the carefully constructed walls with its “spleenwort” and “moss and maindenhair fernwork.” It threatens technology, electronics, even our regulation of time. The small water leak is dangerous because it reveals the fallacy of the carefully constructed categories: nature and civilization, nature and human. But the speaker is enthralled with the possibility of that collapse, as shown by the exclamation points and the obsessive anaphora of the “think of it” refrain. The speaker seems to want this collapse, this re-union of human and nature without the boundaries of the city between them.
Clampitt further interlaces the human and natural world, eliminating the divisions between them, through listing and excessive accumulation of images, In “Marine Surface, Low Overcast,” Clampitt describes the surface of the sea through an excess of metaphor, giving representations of the sea only to assert that it cannot be represented or recreated because it has no equivalents:
…this buttermilk, this
herringbone of albatross,
floss of mercury,
déshabille of spun
aluminum, furred with a velouté
a stuff so single
it might almost be lifted,
folded over, crawled underneath
or slid between, as nakedness-
caressing sheets, or donned
and worn, the train-borne
trapping of unrepeatable
rumpling as of oatfields,
a suede of meadow…(13)
The list of descriptors moves between natural objects, “buttermilk,” “herringbone of albatross,” “mercury,” “oatfields,” “meadow,” and human ones, “floss,” “aluminum,” “looking-glass,” “sheets,” “train.” The descriptions are an accumulation of objects taken from the whole of possibility, and they move easily between natural and human objects. The collection is an overwhelming collation of images without boundaries between their origins. The commas between each idea create a sort of grammatical equality, that each image is just one part of the list.
The poem exists as one long sentence, the predicate of which is the final line of the poem, “can invent the equal.” The subject is this list of descriptions, this exhaustive search for adequate language. The poem ends:
…no loom, no spinneret, no forge, no factor,
no process whatsoever, patent
applied or not applied for,
no five-year formula, no fabric
for which pure imagining,
except thus prompted,
can invent the equal. (14)
These lines indicate that the sea cannot be made through any human means except the mind, “thus prompted,” referring to the poem itself. The sea exists beyond the control of humans, but it is also participating in this human system, language, as the human poet creates its image, its representation, and moves toward the idea of it like an asymptote, without ever reaching it. The poem has used language to prove that nature cannot be represented because it has its own agency, its own impossible being. The image the human can make of it does not match the object itself. In this poem, the reader sees how human language fails to represent nature, and so allows it to have its own agency, it’s own kind of subjectivity that puts it on a equivalent plane to the human.
For all three poets, the lines between human and nature are not as clear as those categories would suggest. Nature is present and entangled with civilization. By acknowledging the problems of these categories, looking for ways to integrate them or to show their failures, Jorie Graham, Lorine Niedecker, and Amy Clampitt all work toward an ecopoetic language, a language that reveals the entanglement of human and nature, that shows that relationship as complicated and essential. For these poets, nature is not a place that can be circumscribed and located; it is always present, always revealing itself.
Bryson, J. Scott. Ecopoetry: A Critical Introduction. Salt Lake City: University of Utah Press, 2002.
Clampitt, Amy. The Collected Poems of Amy Clampitt. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1999.
“Feedback Loops.” Starting Point: Teaching Entry-level Geoscience. Science Education Resource Center at Carleton College. 26 Sept 2012. Web. 12 Oct 2012. << http://serc.carleton.edu/introgeo/models/loops.html>>.
Graham, Jorie. Erosion. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1983.
———. Sea Change. Manchester, England: Carcanet Press, 2008.
Niedecker, Lorine. The Collected Works. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2002.
Plato. The Republic. BompaCrazy.com 2011. Google eBook. Web. 12 Oct 2012. << http://books.google.com/books?id=-2Za_AyS0UwC&printsec=frontcover&source=
Scigaj, Leonard M. Sustainable Poetry: Four American Ecopoets. Lexington, KY: The University Press of Kentucky, 1999.
Jenny Morse is currently a PhD candidate at the University of Illinois—Chicago and an instructor at Colorado State
University. Her poetry has been published or is forthcoming in Notre Dame Review, Wilderness House, and Terrain. Her critical work has appeared in or is forthcoming from Seismopolite, The Montreal Review and the Journal of Contemporary Thought.