Statement of Ecopoetics

red-tailed hawk close-up

An editor asked me for a “statement of ecopoetics” to accompany a poem in an as-yet unpublished anthology. (More on that if/when it becomes a reality.) I’m not normally given to these kinds of academic exercises, but I did in fact have such a statement that I’d written back in 2010, and I initially thought it was good enough to use again, because I still agree with its premise: that poets should add extinction to our roster of the great subjects, right up there with love and death. But it didn’t say anything about the sort of nature poetry I most enjoy reading and trying to write — not to mention what, if anything, might differentiate ecopoetry from traditional English-language nature poetry. So I’ve just come up with the following new statement which, believe it or not, represents me being as concise as possible.

For ecopoetry to become more than a simple re-branding of nature poetry, it must begin with an avoidance of easy pieties and recycled myths. It must be grounded not only in the writer’s felt contact with the non-human world, but also in actual knowledge of that world and its inhabitants and processes. It will share with science a passion for careful observation and discovery and a full awareness of the tentative nature of human understanding. For models, it will look less to Ovid, Wordsworth and Gary Snyder than to Lucretius, John Clare, Kenji Miyazawa and Pattiann Rogers.

Ecopoetry should be humble, recognizing that humans are far from the only makers; other species are also capable of tool-making, habitat-shaping, empathy, deception, and art. Most of all, it should abandon the traditional Western dualistic understanding of nature. The Mandarin Chinese word for nature, ziran, literally means “of-itself thus,” and it’s this sense of a world with its own laws, of beings with their own integrity and trajectories that also lies behind our word wild (a cognate with willed, according to some). Nature poetry may be pastoral, but ecopoetry is always wild.

5 Comments


  1. As in many great prosaic statements, the one bolded sentence will do as epigram. “Pastoral,” yes, is the thing to leave behind. The implied image of the shepherd may reek of humility and piety, but it’s still the Abrahamic claim of dominion.

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    1. Exactly. And overgrazing has devastated such large sections areas for so long, we take many goat- or sheep-wrecked landscapes as natural, and even idealize them (those light-filled Greek islands and desolate British moorlands). But the fact that they are biologically depauperate cannot be denied.

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  2. I got the same “assignment” and am struggling a bit. My first response was, “ugh, another genre to pigeon-hole things into.” I’ll check out the FB discussion. I remember you writing about extinction a few years back. That really stuck with me.

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    1. You’re going to have something in that anthology too? Excellent. I’m sure they won’t have the budget to send free copies to contributors, but now I have a good reason to buy one.

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