earthweal weekly challenge: TOWARD AN ECOPOETRY

Gary Snyder


The poetry which is attracted to a forum like earthweal is what is called, in literary circles, eco-poetry, a poetry of Earth. As much as I may yammer on about political, environmental and philosophical issues which are driving and besetting our Anthropocene existence, the crafting of poems is the essential work here, and it helps to keep a north star in sight as earthweal rows deeper into its namesake.

In his essay “Gary Snyder and the Post-Pastoral,” Terry Gifford traces a path to earthweal that begins with pastoral poetry and its celebration of rural life. You can find it in ancient Sicily in the Idylls of Theocritus  (d. 260 BC), who wrote eidos or “little poems” — idylls — about bucolic settings where shepherds and classic deities sport. Theocritus’ back-to-naturei poems addressed a sophisticated court audience in Alexandria, and were written as a corrective for the excesses of that sophistication. “What was institutionally sponsored from the court produces a poetry that is counter-institutional,” Gifford writes. Pastoral poetry down the years continued to take this position from Sydney’s Arcadia (1590) to the plush romanticism of Alexander Popes’s Windsor Forest (1713). There is also in pastoral poetry a disconnect between art and life; “metaphors can remain aesthetic rather than conceptually challenging, endorsing complacency” — always a danger, especially now.

An “anti-pastoral” vein of poetry opened up to challenge such praise of the lord’s manor. Is nature pastoral? What does wilderness itself has to say? And so we get rough-hewns like Wordsworth and Whitman, Jeffers and Hughes—those whose unsponsored embrace of nature was revolutionary and anti-authoritarian. There are also “anti-romantics” whose modernism refuted the bucolic rococo — Frost, Eliot, Stevens, Moore, Williams.

Out of these lyric approaches to nature comes what Gifford identifies as “post-pastoral poetry”—“literature, like the best of Gary Snyder’s poetry, that avoids the traps of both idealization of the pastoral and of the simple corrective of the anti-pastoral.” Getting to this wild means leaving behind both nature and wilderness, and to accomplish this, the poets Gifford identifies as “post-pastoral” and which many now call “ecopoets” are learning to address six essential questions. Think of your own work as you read them.

  1. Can we gain the humility which comes from the awe we feel when tuning in to the energies of nature? Such humility dissolves human centrality; the ego that controls the writing has no ownership of the knowledge it gains. Mastery is ever foiled by humility; the ten thousand things just are. Patti Wolf’s “A Tale,” contributed to the Teeming challenge here at earthweal, makes everyday discoveries of a pond viewed from the back porch a source of astonishment. Kim Russell has almost religiously delivered deeply-crafted paeans to place (in her case, Norfolk in the United Kingdom), with sight and sound compressed in a wonder which is its own reward. “This Green and Pleasant Land” was a contribution to Sherry’s Re-Wilding Our Souls challenge last August:

So many shades of green,
with brown and ochre in between,
and flowers sewing up the edges
with wild brambles and tidy hedges.

I often long for higher hills,
a mountain would be better still,
but this flat landscape stretches wide,
and touches an enormous sky
on a horizon laced by wind-sculpted trees
that dips to kiss the cold North Sea.

The crumbling coast is bothered by waves
erasing our existence day by day,
while we walk its beaches in sun and cloud,
wrapped in its ghostly sea-fret shroud.

  1. What are the implications of recognizing the creative-destructive cycles of the universe of which we are a part? Can we accept the “fearful symmetry” of a nature which creates both killer whales and seal pups? Rilke dove headfirst into this in his Elegies and Sonnets to Orpheus; writing to a friend he put it this way: “Whoever does not, sometime or other, give his full consent, his full and joyous consent, to the dreadfulness of life, can never take possession of the unutterable abundance and power of our existence; can only walk on its edge, and one day, when the judgment is given, will have been neither alive nor dead.” Ghosts are difficult, but fire is worse, as we discovered early here. Rosemary Nissen-Wade submitted this from Australia for our first weekly challenge, Fire, in January 2020:

Red for Danger

Darkness lit by a red
more sinister than blood.

The sky a shriek of red,
trees and creatures dead.

The pungent smell of red
chokes throat and nostrils hard.

The new death-colour: red.
(Black comes afterward.)

  1. If our inner lives echo natural rhythms without, how can we come to understand the inner by growing closer to the outer? Ingrid’s “You and me, Sea” found breadth and depth inside facing the sea.

Ain’t it just like you and me, Sea
when we dance together,
I barefoot on the sand, you
lapping at my toes?

Ain’t it just like we’re two parts of
the same whole:
I was born of you, and you
bring me to life once more?

Ain’t it just like you and me, Sea?
And we’ve always been together
dancing a saline tango in the sun.

Ain’t it just like you and me, Sea?
When I hit stormy weather
on your shore I’ll wind up, by the wild winds

Say, it’s just like you and me, Sea;
I can hear you calling:
your echo fills my silent afternoon.

And that was all I wanted to say, Sea:
When I’m far away from you
I feel your surge in me which swells into
a tide to take me home.

Sarah Connor’s “Spring in the woods” , her contribution to the Imbolc challenge (Sarah will be back in a couple of weeks with a May Day challenge), finds human intimacy in the sacred embrace of the woods:

Let’s go to the woods. We should go now
because the woods are full of candles,
lit for a celebration. Small flames somehow
pushing up through thick soil, spangles
of red fire on dull brown twigs,
fat green candles, plump and swollen
gasping for life, waiting to be lit.
The woods are burning, green smoke rolling
over the hedgerows, just blurring those
sharp scratched winter lines. The woods are singing,
full of music. Don’t ask me how I know
I just know that we are candles, flinging
light across the space between us, light
that will burn and spread, flames that take flight.

  1. If we all live in one ecosystem of diverse cultures, isn’t nature culture and culture nature? The modern version of this question is: how can we use out culture, our imagination, specifically our poetic imagination, as a tool for healing alienation from culture? Gary Snyder makes this point in A Place in Space: “ … language as a wild system, mind as wild habitat, world as a ‘making’ (poem), poem as a creature of the wild animal.” We explored it here last June in our Culture and Nature challenge. I quote again briefly here from Wendell Berry’s 1982 contribution to A Timbered Choir, which makes the case for husbandry as mind in the active care of nature, something our best poems strive for.

My father’s father, whose namesake
you are, told my father this, he told me,
and I am telling you: we make
this healing, the land’s and ours:
it is our possibility. We may keep
this place, and be kept by it.

There is a mind of such an artistry
that grass will follow it,
and heal and hold, feed beasts
who will feed us and feed the soil.

Though we invite, this healing comes
in answer to another voice than ours;
a strength not ours returns
out of death beginning in our work.

Though the spring is late and cold,
though uproar of greed
and malice shudders in the sky,
pond, stream, and treetop raise
their ancient songs;

the robin molds her mud nest
with her breast; the air
is bright with breath
and bloom, wise loveliness that asks
nothing of the season but to be.

  1. If our evolved consciousness gives us conscience, how should we exercise our responsibilities toward our material home? The science of climate change moves fast: new atrocities and solutions come at us almost daily. How to be fleet of mind and active of foot? I take Sherry’s poem “Fairy Creek” as a fine example of this, struggling to accept the change with a full heart and an activist’s commitment to fight for what’s left.

I remember standing on the road
in the Summer of ’93,
hundreds of us, holding placards,
hearts high on hope, and singing.
We stopped the trucks from rolling in.
It took the love of thousands.

It is 28 years later (!!!)
There are only a few
ancient forests left
on this Island that I love.
And now they’re coming
for the big trees at Fairy Creek.

I can hear the Old Ones
sorrowing on the breeze.
Cry of raven, song of wolf
plead with us to save
their forest home.

The trees tremble in fear,
holding hands across
the forest floor,as the noisy
grappleyarders move in.

Bring out your drums,
fine people.
Put on your jingle-skirts;
don your medicine bundles.
Shore up your hearts with
love of wilderness,
of life, of the hope
of a tomorrow for all beings.
Shine up your courage;
fortify your hearts.
Meet us on the road;
there will be dancing
and fellowship
until the trucks roll in.

The law will tell you to disperse.
Stand strong! This is not
the time to falter or to bend.
Time to listen to the trees,
who are speaking with
their leafy tongues:

Thank you for coming.
We are with you.
We see the kindness
in your hearts.

The last of the Standing People
are calling. We place our bodies
on the road. We will stand firm.

If the Old Ones fall at Fairy Creek
there won’t be much of a story
left to tell.

I am ever reminded that my responsibility as a poet is always first to the poem, but the poetry of earth demands that poems grow roots in my life in this fast-changing earth. And there’s always news from science — permafrost melting too fast, a species of whale discovered just on the edge of its extinction, the Amazon rainforest developing emphysema for the world as it is burned down for agriculture and beef herds. That news is ever finding its way here, as it must.

  1. How can we best address the issue that our exploitation of our environment has emerged from the same mind set as our exploitation of each other? What about that old patriarchal, colonial, extractionist, capitalist mind? How other is it in all of us? I write from with the pleasure and leisure of the gentleman farmer who rises early to write at his convenience, or the sixteenth-century warlord in James Clavell’s novel Shōgun who contemplates the transitory nature of life while listening to a Portuguese sailor being boiled alive. Are poetic themes something to be consumed in the name of something next to do, or do they demand nurture and cultivation and indenture to its land? Lindi-Ann Hewitt-Coleman, who we used to hear from in South Africa, contributed a poem titled “re-visioning” to the Modernity’s Hero Quest challenge, about the universal need to revoke that old mindset in order to see the real world:

… we sit in the blue flicker light
of a telling of the world
that will surely
be the death of us
and somewhere outside the window
there is a sound almost familiar
half heard in the noise of the world
and strength of titans
you lean forward in your chair
find the remote
switch off the tv
and in the silence that buzzes
you wait breath held
until the bird outside your window
sings once more
and you remember
that you have forgotten something
and it lives like a hunger
waiting to be fed.

For this challenge, think about your poetry and consider how it works or doesn’t in relation to these six questions. You don’t have to address all—pick one, if you like—but give us a feel for what eco-poetry is about and where it should go.

Let’s get a feel for eco-poetics!

— Brendan


PS, A favorite poem of mine by Gary Snyder sets the tone of all ecopoetry —


Washing Kai in the sauna,
The kerosene lantern set on a box
outside the ground-level window,
Lights up the edge of the iron stove and the
washtub down on the slab
Steaming air and crackle of waterdrops
brushed by on the pile of rocks on top
He stands in warm water
Soap all over the smooth of his thigh and stomach
“Gary don’t soap my hair!”
—his eye-sting fear—
the soapy hand feeling
through and around the globes and curves of his body
up in the crotch,
And washing-tickling out the scrotum, little anus,
his penis curving up and getting hard
as I pull back skin and try to wash it
Laughing and jumping, flinging arms around,
I squat all naked too,

                                        is this our body?

Sweating and panting in the stove-steam hot-stone
cedar-planking wooden bucket water-splashing
kerosene lantern-flicker wind-in-the-pines-out
sierra forest ridges night—
Masa comes in, letting fresh cool air
sweep down from the door
a deep sweet breath
And she tips him over gripping neatly, one knee down
her hair falling hiding one whole side of
shoulder, breast, and belly,
Washes deftly Kai’s head-hair
as he gets mad and yells—
The body of my lady, the winding valley spine,
the space between the thighs I reach through,
cup her curving vulva arch and hold it from behind,
a soapy tickle                   a hand of grail
The gates of Awe
That open back a turning double-mirror world of
wombs in wombs, in rings,
that start in music,

                                         is this our body?

The hidden place of seed
The veins net flow across the ribs, that gathers
milk and peaks up in a nipple—fits
our mouth—
The sucking milk from this our body sends through
jolts of light; the son, the father,
sharing mother’s joy
That brings a softness to the flower of the awesome
open curling lotus gate I cup and kiss
As Kai laughs at his mother’s breast he now is weaned
from, we
wash each other,
                                         this our body

Kai’s little scrotum up close to his groin,
the seed still tucked away, that moved from us to him
In flows that lifted with the same joys forces
as his nursing Masa later,
playing with her breast,
Or me within her,
Or him emerging,

                                         this is our body:

Clean, and rinsed, and sweating more, we stretch
out on the redwood benches hearts all beating
Quiet to the simmer of the stove,
the scent of cedar
And then turn over,
murmuring gossip of the grasses,
talking firewood,
Wondering how Gen’s napping, how to bring him in
soon wash him too—
These boys who love their mother
who loves men, who passes on
her sons to other women;

The cloud across the sky. The windy pines.
the trickle gurgle in the swampy meadow

                                        this is our body.

Fire inside and boiling water on the stove
We sigh and slide ourselves down from the benches
wrap the babies, step outside,

black night & all the stars.

Pour cold water on the back and thighs
Go in the house—stand steaming by the center fire
Kai scampers on the sheepskin
Gen standing hanging on and shouting,

“Bao! bao! bao! bao! bao!”

This is our body. Drawn up crosslegged by the flames
drinking icy water
hugging babies, kissing bellies,

Laughing on the Great Earth

Come out from the bath.

—from Turtle Island (1969)