The Ecopoetry Anthology, ed. Ann Fisher-Wirth and Laura-Gray Street (San Antonio, TX: Trinity University Press, 2013), $24.95.
The term ‘ecopoetry’ has achieved currency among writers and readers only within the last ten years, but the kind of poetry to which that label refers has been around much longer. (It emerged at the end of the 1950s as part of the ‘beat’ counter-culture.)
This new anthology contributes grandly to an understanding of several phases in a historical development; it also documents, in fascinating detail, the awakening of conscience and imagination in our present moment.
The book’s contents are grouped in two sections, Historical (pp. 3-130) and Contemporary (pp. 133-576). In the Historical section, poets are arranged in order of their dates of birth, from Walt Whitman (b. 1819) to James Dickey, Denise Levertov, and James Schuyler (each born in 1923): this section forms a backdrop for developments that began around 1960 and are flourishing today.
The Contemporary section arranges its selections from the work of 177 poets in alphabetical order, from A. R. Ammons to Robert Wrigley. In “American Ecopoetry: An Introduction,” Robert Hass provides historical contexts and explains the principles that guided the anthology’s creation.
Paging through the book, opening it at random, or taking it in doses (a dozen or two dozen pages at a sitting), you are apt to encounter familiar poems. Yes, Frost’s “Stopping by Woods” is there, and Gary Snyder’s “For the Children,” and Wendell Berry’s “Peace of Wild Things.” There are also many eye-opening surprises: I wasn’t acquainted with Lorine Niedecker (to mention just one discovery), and I knew a little of Stanley Kunitz’s poetry but had never read “The Wellfleet Whale” – an astonishing poem. There are others just as good.
You may not know A. R. Ammons’ “Corsons Inlet,” which alphabetical ordering makes the first poem in the Contemporary section: its symphonic music provides a splendid overture to the many voices, and many kinds of poetry, that come after it. Some poems may strike you as riddles or empty words and leave you cold, but then there’s a brilliant gem on the next page, or the beginning of something that draws you in and takes your breath away.
So many fine poets, emerging or already established, have been caught in this book’s wide net – some whose names I knew, and many new to me!
One of my discoveries was Brenda Hillman’s “Practical Water.” The first line of the poem grabbed me: “What does it mean to live a moral life” The second line takes a step back: “It is nearly impossible to think about this” The poem proceeds by fits and starts; it’s a series of prompts and insights, single lines or short sequences left hanging, unpunctuated.
“An ethics occurs at the edge / of what we know // The creek goes underground about here” Hillman’s reference to ethics calls to mind Aldo Leopold’s “Land Ethic”; she suggests a corollary “water ethic.” And “the edge / of what we know” invokes the precautionary principle: “An action should not be undertaken if the consequences are uncertain and potentially dangerous.”
The precautionary principle is fundamental to any practice of sustainability, even to any moral life. It implies acute awareness, not disengagement. Hillman’s poem ends, “Uncomfortable & act like you mean it // Go to the world / Where is it / Go there”.
Ecopoetry is informed by science as well as ethical concerns, and some of the poets have scientists’ credentials and experience. They are sharply observant, skeptical, mockers of certainty and complacency. “No ideas but in things,” William Carlos Williams’ maxim, is implicit in their practice, and sometimes explicit. Their emphasis on observation usually entails a very scrupulous, economical use of language, creating poems that can be cryptic, low in affect, cool if not downright cold.
More than any other poet, Gary Snyder deserves recognition as the founding figure in development of an ecologically oriented poetry. The anthology offers a fair sampling from the beginning, at the end of the Fifties, of a career that hasn’t ended yet, and that remains true to the style in his first book, Riprap (published in 1959 and reprinted many times).
The title poem in Riprap begins, “Lay down these words / Before your mind like rocks.” The poem is a manifesto, making out of experience on a trail-building crew in Yosemite a way to see and represent the connections of consciousness with all manner of things.
In an Afterword to a reprinting of Riprap and Cold Mountain Poems in 1990, Snyder said, “The title Riprap celebrates the work of hands, the placing of rock, and my first glimpse of the image of the whole universe as interconnected, interpenetrating, mutually reflecting, and mutually embracing.”
That grand statement about “the whole universe” is not what we find in the imagery of Snyder’s poems, or elsewhere in The Ecopoetry Anthology: poetry offers first glimpses, parts of the whole, anecdotes, “a new walk” (Ammons at the end of “Corsons Inlet”), and (in Robert Hass’s “State of the Planet”), “What is to be done with our species?”
Both in their declarative statements, showing and telling, and in the questions they raise, the poets gathered in this book are concerned to overcome – and prompt their readers to overcome – the estrangements that afflict our culture and darken our future.
At the end of his Introduction, Robert Hass speaks of “the necessity of imagining a livable earth.” That the earth as we find it is, and will remain, livable is not a given: to think so is to participate in a mass delusion. So imagining a livable future is only the beginning of the real work, but necessary, and we need all the help we can get.