Andrew C. Gottlieb reviews The Ecopoetry Anthology, edited by Anne Fisher-Wirth and Laura-Gray Street
In the past, when asked about which “nature” poets or writers are good to teach in an English class, I’ve made suggestions based on age or accessibility or class focus. 6th grade? 8th grade? Some Mary Oliver here, William Stafford there. Richard Hugo, Jane Hirshfield. That kind of thing. Suggestions—random, perhaps, not bad, but certainly tip of the tongue—as names or ideas come to mind. With the release of the new anthology, The Ecopoetry Anthology, the editors have, in a way, provided an answer to so many conversations like that. Which writer(s) to teach? One would be hard pressed not to advocate for this anthology in almost any poetry classroom, for any age range, for anyone interested in nature poetry, ecopoetry, ecological poetry, poetry of the natural world, however one might classify it.
One might also make the argument that any poetry class could use this anthology and, really, that’s a valid argument. Anne Fisher-Wirth says in her preface, “Maybe someday we won’t need a term like ecopoetry, because all poetry will be inherently ecological.” Perhaps I’m getting ahead of myself, but when considering anthologies, the most important questions are about what’s included, what’s not included, and what might be the goal of the compilation. What’s the collection trying to do? The raison d’être? What’s this particular accumulation of content achieving? Part of the premise of this anthology is to bring together and define the term Ecopoetry. Obviously, that might deter readers not interested in ecopoetry or ecopoetic-sounding nature writing. Of that sort. So, perhaps the first and most important bottom line is that what’s in this anthology is an immense amount of really, really good poetry. Good poets, good writers, good thinkers. Regardless of subject matter or theoretical components and definitions. There are 600-plus pages here of both historical and contemporary poets, with diversity across styles, subjects, backgrounds, ethnicities, ages, and genders, all linked in some way to a recognition of the world, of nature, of the natural world as an essential piece of what it means to be human.
The object itself is hefty, a couple of inches thick, a brick of poetry, with a handsome, contemporary-looking cover, a taupe and grey photo of a foggy sea landscape, a horizon. It’s crisp, it’s inviting. For any ecopoet, landscape poet, naturalist, or even regular old poets, there are familiar author names listed on the back, in the table of contents. And the sheer number of poets included is something quickly apparent and impressive. The fonts are well chosen, the layout is attractive and readable, the formatting and design impeccable. It’s an anthology that feels as good to hold and thumb through as it does to sit with and read carefully. In the preface, the editors tell us this book was five years in the making, and it shows. High praise is due these editors.
You should lie down now and remember the forest,
for it is disappearing—
Susan Stewart’s opening lines to her poem “The Forest” are perhaps as good a fulcrum as any upon which to balance the contents of the anthology. In the editor’s preface, in an attempt to define the term ecopoetry, they establish three categories: nature poetry, environmental poetry, and ecological poetry. Nature poetry (Wendell Berry is quoted) is verse that “considers nature as subject matter and inspiration.” Environmental poetry is “propelled by and directly engaged with active and politicized environmentalism.” Finally, ecological poetry is one that more directly involves variations of form; the editors quote Forrest Gander in explaining that ecological poetry investigates “the relationship between nature and culture, language and perception.”
Let the arguments begin. Or perhaps let them settle. The editors go on to say that these categories, “taken together . . . are some of the many planes that meet at various angles to create the larger whole that is ecopoetry.” In essence, this is what’s so fantastic about this anthology: it’s doing its best to be inclusive, to find a way to bring all these poets together, to examine the history as well as the current state of poetry focused on the natural world, on a human being’s place in the world, and on our impact on the same world. Rather than pit in the octagon L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E poets against Mary Oliver in some faux-MMA scuffle over terms, let’s acknowledge the commonality of what’s going on.
Robert Hass writes a long introduction, a piece historical in nature helping define the focus of the book. Hass’s understanding is deep, and it’s a useful piece, identifying some seminal turns and moments in recent history that have helped create ecopoetry as we know it today, from Whitman to present day. Gary Snyder and Darwin, NASA and the Beats. While he acknowledges how difficult it is to “construct a narrative of all the voices and traditions,” what we’re aiming at is “the necessity of imagining a livable earth.”
Back to Stewart’s lines. The imperative that the forest is disappearing and the action needed should happen now, tells us: don’t wait or you won’t be able to remember the forest. All forests. Lie down now people. And the poem doesn’t specify where we lie down. It doesn’t matter, though when I first read those lines, I imagined lying down in a forest. It’s clear, though, that the remembering occurs in a place away from the forest. It doesn’t tell us to “see,” it tells us to “remember” implying a vision ahead of when the act of disappearing has already finished. This is a poetry beyond contemplation of the forest, beyond illustration or interpretation of the forest, beyond an interaction with the forest, and beyond simply using language or form to illustrate or engage with the forest. Forest as an object that is forever—deep, dark, a concrete place and a metaphor, allusion, and allegory for some of our best poetry, the way it was perceived for centuries—is now offered as something that must be interpreted, remembered, created in each reader’s head, and now, do it now, for the object is not forever. It’s dying. This is ecopoetry. A post-industrial poetics aware of the loss of nature, the imperative of avoiding that loss, and far beyond the simple “man in nature.”
There are about 130 pages of “historical poets,” a section suggested to the editors by Hass, a section that includes some of the forerunners and seed planters of the modern ecopoetry on which the rest of the anthology focuses. The historical section begins with Whitman, and treks through Frost, Dickinson, Jeffers, Roethke, all the way to Stafford and James Schuyler rounding it out. Langston Hughes is here as is Jean Toomer, Marianne Moore and H.D. The editors have worked to include a range of poets, to identify ecopoetry and the natural world’s place in a range of historical work one might not always associate with nature poetry, per se. What follows in the anthology is 450 pages of contemporary poets, 176 in total, a compilation where any poet, writer, or teacher can find favorites. The expected leaders are here: Wendell Berry, Gary Snyder, Jane Hirshfield, Alison Hawthorne Deming, W.S. Merwin. A complete listing in this review would be its own, very long paragraph. Then there is a solid representation of newer, younger poets and naturalists, the next generation from our 1960s activist forefathers: Karen Leona Anderson, Elizabeth Bradfield, Camille Dungy, Derek Sheffield, Jeffrey Thomson.
Of course, in such a large representation, there are poets one might consider oddities for a selection of ecopoets. John Ashbery, for instance. Is John Ashbery an ecopoet? A nature poet? Why is he included here? Is it because he has a list poem, a litany, a gorgeous ballad, really, about rivers? Ashbery is here with four poems, while Richard Hugo, a poet whose work at times intimately dove into the rivers and landscapes of the world, has only one. We are getting to questions of what might be left out of the book, of what the anthology might have done differently. Charlie Smith is here, and this reviewer is a huge fan of Smith’s work, and owns all his books, so I’m comfortable saying I’ve never thought of Charlie Smith as an ecopoet. He’s one of our best, most interesting poets with a stunning mastery of language, but he strikes me as a poet of addiction, dysfunction, of family, of relationship(s,) of struggle to survive on a very human plane, nature aside. And where are Sandra Alcosser and Chris Dombrowski, two poets whose work is so fundamentally tied to landscape, the earth, the natural world, that to not have them in here seems like an oversight. I’ll trade you a Smith for an Alcosser. My ecopoet fantasy team will have Dombrowski at running back. Another way to think of this question is to imagine a young reader finding a poem here and looking for similar work in the books of the author. The reaction to browsing Pattiann Rogers’s books might be different than that of diving into John Ashbery’s. Still, to be fair, this collection is titled Ecopoetry, not Ecopoets, and we should perhaps judge the contents accordingly. And isn’t it better if poets not typically aligned with ecowriting actually contribute to the spectrum of ecopoetry?
A few other questions might be asked: Why is Barbara Guest a “historical poet” while A.R. Ammons, a writer who died five years before Guest, is labeled contemporary? The anthology, too, is defined by American poetry, essentially the last 150 years or so, back to Whitman, Eliot being perhaps the only standout non-American poet. One might recall the legacy of ancient Chinese poets, Li Po, Tu Fu, poets who journeyed to mountaintops, into the wilderness to write poetry about the trees, rivers, the mountains. Poets who wrote poems—characters—in snow, poems that would disappear the very next day. Are these not ecopoets? Obviously, that tradition had no contact with the modern industrial world, so the idea of the human race destroying the natural world didn’t exist for those writers. But their integration of man and nature was absolute, was taken for granted, and perhaps the scope of ecopoetry goes far beyond any invention or creation of American writers in recent decades.
But in addressing the tradition of mountaintop poets in ancient China, we’re stepping outside the boundaries as defined by the anthology, and had the editors expanded their scope, it might be another five years of work, and we would not have this successful object in hand to read. Nor might this anthology be as useful. And we must acknowledge that the editors likely worked very hard in trying to address the very questions we ask. A reviewer’s job is remarkably easy, an arm-chair, Monday-morning quarterback, and the tribute we pay with our questions or praise comes from a very close reading of what amounts to the product of extremely difficult work done for us by the editors. Questions of inclusion or exclusion likely broach issues of submission, of license, of business, or simple human time and subjectivity. The facts of making any object are defined by scope, beginning, end. We must imagine some heated debate in the ongoing production of this book.
The Ecopoetry Anthology is an impressive collection of poetry that has succeeded in inclusively and impressively nudging the dial further toward collecting, understanding, and redefining the interaction of poetry, poets, and the natural world. And it’s an anthology that’s accessible to a wide range of audiences, something that benefits the art of poetry, and ideally can benefit the world as we continue to learn about and fight for the survival of all things nature. That also can benefit our appreciation of the range of expression available to us as poets and writers when considering the natural world. Its core lies perhaps in trying to identify the vision as Kenneth Rexroth puts it:
The chain of dependence which runs through creation,
And links the roll of a planet alike with the interests
Of marmots and men.
It’s a core also defined visibly and simply (linking thought and action) in the monostich stanzas that begin Brenda Hillman’s longer poem, “Practical Water”:
What does it mean to live a moral life?
It is nearly impossible to think about this.
We went down to the creek…
Photo credit: Andrew C. Gottlieb