Bonny Cassidy reviews The Ecopoetry Anthology

Ann Fisher-Wirth and Laura-Gray Street, eds, The Ecopoetry Anthology. San Antonio, Texas: Trinity University Press, 2013. ISBN 978-159534146-4

Bonny Cassidy

This anthology is narrow and deep. Despite the definitive nature of its title, The Ecopoetry Anthology is strictly American. Its editors, poets Laura-Gray Street and Ann Fisher-Wirth, reconstruct a story that ecopoetry was born American, and that its present and future quite possibly reside there.

The myopic quality of this editorial vision might be maddening to some readers. For me, it certainly seems an inauthentic way of presenting poetic lineage, eco- or not. The Ecopoetry Anthology reveals the invisible web between Walt Whitman and A.R. Ammons, or Emily Dickinson and Rae Armantrout—but what about the international lines of influence that reach from John Ashbery to Michael Farrell, or Ted Hughes to Richard Hugo?

However, while the book’s focus is confined it enables a cohesive collection that will no doubt find commercial appeal. It complements other nationally focused ecopoetry anthologies such as Outcrop and The Ground Aslant; and eschews the culturally comparative approach of another like Entanglements: New Ecopoetry, for a more localised project of extending the American ecopoetic canon.

Apparently prompted by Robert Hass, who contributes an introduction, Street and Fisher-Wirth open the anthology with an “historical” selection that predates the post-war ecological consciousness commonly identified with ecopoetry. Presenting the field as an organically developed concern in America, they demonstrate that it not only includes the proleptic ecopoetics of Whitman, Emily Dickinson and Robert Frost, but that it also steadily develops all the way through American modernist poetry.

The editors are not occupied by trying to reveal lesser known voices. Perhaps they commence their history of ecopoetry with Whitman’s “Song of Myself” because its composition coincides with the rise of the industrial age as we know it; or it may be that they want to place particular emphasis on Whitman as the founding father of the American ecopoetry tradition—particularly its paradoxically all-consuming vision of “self”. At any rate, the absence of indigenous texts from this history is a bit baffling.

This is soon interrupted by the editors’ sizeable representation of modernist poetry, including more heterogeneous historical voices such as Jean Toomer, Sterling A. Brown and Langston Hughes. Hass’ introduction draws particular attention to the way that modernism has shaped ecocritical discourse, not only through its particular preoccupation with delineating and exploring the limits of the human eye and voice, but also by its neo-romantic strains. Imagist gems like Williams’ “Between Walls” have long been part of ecopoetic discourse, as have Robinson Jeffers’ jagged songs:

 You making haste haste on decay: not blameworthy; life is good, be it

stubbornly long or suddenly

A mortal splendour: meteors are not needed less than mountains: shine,

perishing republic.

(“Shine, Perishing Republic”, 42)

Less expected, the extraordinary narrative poem by Stephen Vincent Benét, “Metropolitan Nightmare”, reads more like a current news update on climate change than a speculative fiction. A similar voice of witness comes from George Oppen, who, writing from California, signals virtually global consciousness: “Out there is China. Somewhere out in air”  (“California”, 89). And whilst Lorine Niedecker is afforded just two poems, the editors’ long excerpt from her “Paean to Place” is one of the most haunting notes of the anthology’s first section. It seems to draw Dickinson and Charles Olsen into strange conversation through Niedecker’s self-mythologising attention to place:

My mother and I

born

in swale and swamp and sworn

to water

 

My father

thru marsh and fog

sculled down

from high ground

saw her face

at the organ

bore the weight of lake water

and the cold—

(“from Paean to Place”, 74-75)

Curiously, while the anthology’s historical section is chronologically ordered, its contemporary selection is alphabetical. An interesting tension results. The historical chapter of ecopoetry ends somewhat arbitrarily with James Schuyler, the last of the deceased poets (born 1923) selected by Street and Fisher-Wirth. The contemporary chapter then progresses through the late twentieth and early twenty-first century with a non-linear sequence of chance leaps and synergies.

The rhythm of this contemporary selection is pleasing: some contributors, including but not exclusively stars like Gary Snyder and Jonathan Skinner and Forrest Gander, have a run of four or more poems; other poets might shoot past in just one short page. This structure itself is a kind of ecology: a cohort, of varying lengths of appearance, each passing the question of worlding along to the next.

I found myself wondering what narrative(s) could have been drawn out of the last forty odd years of American ecopoetry, and why the editors shied away from constructing one; the reasons are probably political (living egos need to be bypassed by some objective taxonomy), and it would have taken a more scholarly engagement than this anthology seeks to make. Regardless, the chosen approach produces an engaging sequence of surprises and questions. To this extent the larger, contemporary thrust of the collection does what an anthology should: it liberates both the texts and their readers from familiar frameworks, throwing the poems into unusual comparative contexts.

For example, the laconic lines of Lois Beardslee, interspersed with Ojibwa language as she slowly proceeds through the uses of a specific berry, seem to dance with Sandra Beasley’s “Unit of Measure”, another kind of catalogue. Side by side in the reader’s hand, Beardslee’s refrain is “Leave”, “Maybe” (“Wawaskwanmiinan”, 163); Beasley’s is “Everything”, “Everyone”, “Consider”, “Accept” (“Unit of Measure”, 164-65). By the same token, there is a temptation to contrast Mary Oliver’s prim pronouncement that “You only have to let the soft animal of your body / love what it loves” (“Wild Geese”, 418), with Inuit poet dg nanouk okpik’s painstaking representation of a raven dance, which “waits   / waits              for something to break” (“Tulunigraq: Something Like a Raven”, 415). Then again, when okpik tells us that “all things / and all beings reach            back into time / before iron and oil”, perhaps she is describing the same material vision as Oliver’s “family of things”.

The contemporary selection is diverse but established. There are some bum notes, of course, which represent the editorial scope and the typical pitfalls of this field. Ronald Johnson’s concrete poem, “[earthearthearth]” is twee, and Deborah Miranda’s “Eating a Mountain” trots out the kind of self-righteous and formally slack celebration of survival that deflects rather than involves the reader: “Oh, / we are blessed!” (“Eating a Mountain”, 405). Street and Fisher-Wirth are liberal in their understanding of what constitutes ecopoetry, as Street writes in her foreword:

Of a way of thinking ecocentrically rather than anthropocentrically. Of seeing the same things we’ve always seen, stuck on the same preoccupations, humming the same tunes off key, but with humankind as a contingent part of a much larger whole rather than the be-all and end-all of everything. (“The Roots of It”, xxxviii).

Embedded in contemporary poetry for which ecology is a conscious preoccupation, we are invited by Street and Fisher-Wirth to climb up and get some perspective on what that consciousness does to the formations of poetic language. How does it filter into the tropes of Language poetry; how, for instance, are the baroque, cluttered lines of Robert Duncan and Barbara Guest a different representation of organic existence than the clean, efficient images of Williams and Oppen? Does the historical lyric voice persist or dissolve, and what does this reflect about changing philosophies of being? Do we see an unfolding progression, as it were, towards a more “true” ecopoetics?

A joint editors’ preface, two individual editors’ forewords and Hass’ guest introduction offer differentiated angles on these questions. Street’s view is philosophical; Fisher-Wirth’s is reflective; jointly, they are definitive; Hass sees the educational and critical use of lengthening the ecopoetic chronology. All in all, this amount of introductory material seems excessive to the private reader’s needs and detracts from the anthology’s powerfully constructed first act. Though it might have been more critically radical and culturally informative, The Ecopoetry Anthology is clearly directed towards students and teachers. It is concerned less with scholarly delineations of tradition, and more with thematic expansiveness. It tells us again, that story of how a monument to individualist consumerism has produced some of modernity’s most arresting perspectives on ecology.

Bibliography

Knowles, David and Sharon Blackie, eds. Entanglements: New Ecopoetry. Isle of Lewis: Two Ravens Press, 2012.

Balius, Jeremy, and Corey Wakeling, eds. Outcrop: Radical Australian Poetry of Land. Fremantle: Black Rider, 2013.

Tarlo, Harriet, ed. The Ground Aslant: An Anthology of Radical Landscape Poetry. Bristol: Shearsman, 2011.

 

Bonny Cassidy is a poet living in Melbourne, where she teaches creative writing at RMIT University. Her first collection, Certain Fathoms (Puncher & Wattmann, 2012), was shortlisted for the WA Premier’s Book Awards. A new book is forthcoming from Giramondo Publishing in July.

3 replies

  1. What a review! I must admit, when I read this anthology I was so enraptured by the poetry – especially the contributions by AR Ammons, Gary Synder and William Stafford – that I was unaware of the book’s ‘myopic focus’. In retrospect, after reading Bonny’s review, it is so obvious. It would be wonderful to read non-American poets such as Judith Wright, Judith Beveridge, Samuel Wagan-Watson, Sarah Day, James K Baxter and Robert Adamson within the wider contexts of cross-cultural poetry.

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  2. Originally this anthology was to be international in scope (I submitted poems to the first call for submissions). I believe the editors struggled to keep that vision, but in the end it was a decision by the publishers (and no doubt marketing department) who restricted it to North American content. A pity!

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    • Yes, I recall the initial call for submissions. I and many others took it up, but I think there is room for region specific collections such as the Ecopoetry Anthology.

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