A couple of weeks ago the poet Ted Mathys gave a well received talk about ecocriticism and poetry at the Poet’s House. In one strand of his complex argument he implies that ecocriticism is not just interested in ecological imagery or subject matter. He examines the ways in which several poets conceptualize our planet, and how images such as the Earth taken from outer space fundamentally altered our mental and ethical relationship with Earth. In other words, a nature poem can no longer maintain an innocent stance toward its subject matter.
Though the history of ecocriticism was beyond the scope of Ted’s talk, it seems to me that Gary Snyder has been not only writing ecological poetry, or ecopoetry, for a long time, but also ecocriticism before it was called such. In a groundbreaking way that has become familiar to so many of us, Snyder folds Buddhist thought and ecological thought together to examine not just our relationship to the Earth but to how we make language with regard to the Earth. He demands a reconsideration of how we conceptualize nature. Often Snyder’s poetics are embedded in his poems:
A small cricket
on the typescript page of
"Kyoto born in spring song"
in time with The Well-Tempered Clavier.
I quit typing and watch him through a glass.
How well articulated! How neat!
Nobody understands the ANIMAL KINGDOM.
I’m neither Buddhist nor an eco-philosopher; I just try to be an environmentally-minded citizen. For a long time I had wanted to write about the land and what is happening to it, but couldn’t. I didn’t feel I could write poems of place, landscapes, or any kind of nature poem. Neither did I think simply representing environmental degradation was enough. Then one day, in conversation with my brother, a property attorney, I was introduced to the discourse of what is called “real property rights,” and had my own, not particularly profound, ecocritical moment: part of the problem with our civilization is that we conceptualize land mainly as property. The terminology I learned is rich and bizarre: “blackacre,” “faggot of rights,” “fertile octogenarian,” “hereditament,” etc. I misremembered “blackacre” as “darkacre,” and this kept resonating for me, and became the basis for my most recent book, darkacre. The opening series is, in part, a parody of the language of property law, but with the lyrical dialed way up. There are some environmentally disturbing images, such as poor boys melting plastic from computers to smelt the heavy and precious metals inside, but mostly these poems draw attention to language we use to define the Earth. Later in the book comes a poem about an oil pipeline that has been breached, destroying a village and delta. In another, the Gulf sky is “pierced by oil platforms,” and now—though I did not intend this—they can only be read in light of Deepwater Horizon, as if they might explode.
After darkacre was in production, I came across a term in the New York Times that describes maybe what I was getting at: solastalgia. It’s a neologism created by the followers of the philosopher Gregory Bateson, and it refers to psychological and existential grief experienced by those living amid environmental degradation (all of us?), for example West Virginians seeing their mountaintops lopped off for coal, family farmers ceding their fields and woods to parking lots and shopping malls, and now perhaps most acutely, the Gulf state residents recoiling at the growing oil spill.