Friday, 24 June 2016

George Ttoouli says, “Because: No.” (Or, Why Ecopoetics?) (5/5)

Finally, GT rounds up his mad ranting about John Shoptaw's essay...

I'm trying to adapt from high modernist elitism here, to how we are morally expected to respond to impending climatic changes and catastrophes. The critic shouldn't demand we elevate ourselves to the level of the poem; instead, poetry demands we elevate ourselves to the level of the crisis we're living through. Literature is a training ground for citizenship, be that an environmentally activist citizenry, or a capitalist citizenry; the poetry isn't good or bad inherently, until we bring in our readerly values to appraise it. Shoptaw's essay shows an assimilation of certain key nodes, but effectively retains control by adopting a hieratic, hierarchical authoritative, gate-keeper role over which poems will pass through into his ivy-clad ivory tower.

Thematic change does not equal structural change and I've been invested in thinking about the latter for a while. OK, I admit I've a bugbear to bash just after I'm done grinding this axe. Poetry invites a better world by inviting people to think differently about their role in the world. On the other hand, if people begin to think and read and live better than some poetry allows, is capable of (as Shoptaw has done), then, regardless, the world gets better. We could learn to read, for ourselves, the ecological thinking at work in any poem, any government broadcast, any corporate advertising campaign, and decide for ourselves which path to follow.

Obviously I'm on the side of poets and editors and thinkers who argue against the formation of ecopoetry as a category (well argued, I feel, by Harriet Tarlo, when I once heard her speak about The GroundAslant: Radical Landscape Poetry [4]). It's unnecessary; it's business as usual. A similar thing happened with slipstream fiction, according to China Miéville: at a certain point, it simply lost the energy of its initial formation as an intellectual provocation, a realigning of certain boundaries and traditions. These things have a sell-by-date, in other words; and (contra to Miéville), I'd go so far as to say the whole premise of genre-definition is a rotten enterprise, serving not readers, but profit, creating and reinforcing an elite power base.

Ask instead what underlies the poetics, the processes, even the publishing mechanisms by which a poem lands on your lap or in your inbox. Ask yourself if, given the fact of our planet rumbling toward a hot hell in its greasy handcart, we should start reading poetry differently, asking what it is in those older nature poems that shows how we should have been thinking differently about our relationship to our home planet. And what if we start reading poetry afresh now, start examining our current cultural producers through these eyes?

Ashbery's poetry, as much as Cunningham's or Spahr's, offers a broad range of engagements for thinking about the world. And these poems might also be called humorous, or political; poems of life and death, of place and experience; they're all love poems, love of each other, love of cohabitants on the earth, and love of habitat. All these categories publishers and academics and students and readers and people have at their disposal for talking about a poem they've read: to what end? I don't want or need yet another straitjacket for how to read a poem, but I'm happy to expand the tools available to me for reading and enjoying poetry.

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That's it, it's done, well done, you've earned enough karma to kick a deer to death. Maybe even two.

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[4] Although, even that title has to try and justify the anthology's purpose by categorising loosely. I like that 'radical landscape poetry' is so clunky as to never catch on as a publishing buzzword/genre. See discussion about slipstream for a counter – therein, maybe, is a solution: call it 'contemporary ecologically-conscious poetry' and no one will bother genrifying it for market purposes.


Thursday, 23 June 2016

George Ttoouli says, “Because: No.” (Or, Why Ecopoetics?) (4/5)

GT yammering about John Shoptaw's essay, this time with his D&G hat on. No, the other D&G...

Another example of the problems in Shoptaw's taxonomic approach emerges in his reading of Brent Cunningham's 'Bird & Forest.' He criticises the echoes in Cunningham's line about how the bird “doesn't think, but uses the machine of instinct buried in its flesh, a device wrapped in an assembly.”

For Shoptaw, the word “machine” invokes Descartes' description of animals as “mere animated automatons, devoid of thought or emotion.” So the essay argues against an anthropocentric stance in Cunningham's poem, which “soars above vulgar reality into postmodern pastiche.” Initially I'm in agreement with Shoptaw's stance, which takes against Descartes, and, thereby indirectly, the hierarchical, anthropocentric divisions between animal and human.

But can 'Bird & Forest' be both postmodern pastiche and grounded in early modern philosophy, without demonstrating some criticality about Descartes? (No, obvs.) The line about the bird as 'machine' and 'assembly' should trigger the nervous tic of anyone who's read Deleuze and Guattari. Shoptaw has overlooked the contemporary philosophical vocabulary referenced by Cunningham's piece, which is very likely a better channel for reading the line.

Taken through D&G's philosophical readings of material experience, their refutation of binary, or Cartesian, logic, their postmodern approach to reading all 'nature' not as a series of discrete boxes, but as a continuous series of processual becomings and imbrications (plateaus, planes of immanence, assemblages, machines, and so on), Cunningham's poem evokes a very different sense of the bird and the forest in those lines. That's a long sentence, I know, but I prefer to condense D&G into near-meaningless sound bites because it gets funny reactions from D&G scholars.

My reading of the poem through D&G, and critique of taxonomic philosophical approaches, bears out if you return to the extract from 'Bird & Forest' included in The Arcadia Project. It's a far more complex work than the two lines Shoptaw quotes. Those two lines are even taken from two separate sections in a poem with several parts, the last several of which are all notes to the first two (called, respectively, PRINCIPLE OF THE FOREST and PRINCIPLE OF THE BIRD). As the poem offers in Note 10:
I began by writing anything, in any order, as awkwardly as it could be, at any time. And I discovered, as I wanted to, a method. Not a perfected one, but one day
…................
Language doesn't become strange by torturing it. It becomes strange by giving it a task too simple to complete. Look at the poor thing, pressed by the illogics of being, trying to fly between some clearing and other.
Cunningham's poem addresses at least some of the philosophical methodologies underpinning how to read nature, by which we describe something as 'bird' and another thing as 'thought.' Through D&G, or (perhaps more accessibly) recent material ecocriticism, eco-thinkers have begun to consider not just the material qualities of language – the subjectile qualities of pen, paper, ink, the toxicity of production processes, the energy that goes into making a book – but also the material qualities of thought: the neurons that fire off in delight when you see a bird flying through branches and the contrast of light and shadow in a forest; the way we have constructed a series of material, natural-based metaphors for flights of fancy and trains of thinking, or twittering for social interactions, to ground the line from matter to mental processes. What about the ideological frames through which we relate to the world? Material processes drive thought, what happens when we think of thought as matter?

Underpinning 'Bird & Forest' is an interrogation of rational philosophical processes, a challenge to the idea of an axiomatic, human-centric, non-messy, dematerialised understanding of the real world and how we relate to it. How self and world co-produce each other, even as we pretend otherwise. How this pretence filters out into ecological damage.

Perhaps the poem isn't explicit enough for Shoptaw's argument; perhaps it allows me to reach a similar point of ecological thinking as that allowed by Juliana Spahr's poem, but by other means, because of my particular training, thinking, development; because of my ecopoetics. Perhaps, more importantly, the taxonomic approach ignores the structural environmental politics because it does not require the reader elevate to the level of current ecological thinking necessitated by climate change, instead bogging itself down in mere content, subject matter, themes.

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Last part tomorrow, you're a trooper!


Wednesday, 22 June 2016

George Ttoouli says, “Because: No.” (Or, Why Ecopoetics?) (3/5)

GT does go on some, doesn't he? He's still responding to John Shoptaw's essay...

Yes, some poetry is more rewarding, according to personal tastes. Some poems offer a better sense than others, of the key challenges we face today as a species: climate, culture, ecology, the whole sociopolitical shebang. I disagree with the fundamental principle that says the 'better' poems require a whole new category, marked 'ecopoetry,' to distinguish them from earlier, now-redundant 'nature poetry.' Shoptaw is building a wall and I want to know why he wants to keep a certain kind of poetry out: cui bono? All of it says something about our relationship to the planet, even one of Fred Seidel's love poems to a motorcycle.

Time and again I've found the motivation for grounding new genre categories in literature, as with any technological advance, serves to stake out market territory and gain power and profit (or both, as today's cultural norm has it). G&P co-editor ST has often bemoaned my reaction to markets and commercialism as a knee-jerk analysis. So I'll not go too far into a speculative rant about Shoptaw's motives, biases; there is a fundamental problem in the imbroglio of capital and intellect, humanism and pornography, which I feel should be tackled head on in articles that descend into the quaggy depths of taxonomising.

Instead I'll focus on the structural problem Shoptaw raises in attempting to define a genre. Let's ask again: What is ecopoetry? Shoptaw states: “an ecopoem needs to be environmental and it needs to be environmentalist”.

Where I come from, 'enviromental' is olde worlde ecologic, theoretically unpicked for its Cartesian separation of nature and culture, human and animal, inside and outside. Recent critics, such as Timothy Morton (Ecology without Nature), have quite substantially argued against the idea of a separation between nature and us: there is no standpoint, no imaginary position 'outside' of nature, from which we can objectively view and understand what nature is. DonnaHaraway calls what we live in 'naturecultures', to demonstrate the yin-yang mess of our own posthuman statuses.

We are not pure humans: we are bacteria-carrying, symbiotic messes, both dwellers and dwellings, always cohabitants in shared space. We can't hold up an 'environment' like an imaginary truth, to study it objectively, from afar. Throw Bill McKibben's The End of Nature into the mix, and you realise the idea of a pristine, wild nature is also a fantasy; the anthropocene is here, and it is both us, and is killing us, which is also a kind of slow motion suicide leap into a burning lake of oil.[2]

There is no spot on the planet untouched by the atmospheric changes caused by human activity; even if you want to argue the insignificance of these changes in some geographies, you have to accept that nature and culture (by which term, too often, we interpret an exclusively human culture) are utterly, inextricably imbricated, in a messy, mutual process of co-production. Just as the 'natural' existence of certain resources might drive human activity to follow, or focus on, particular geographical locations on the planet, allow for a variety of settlements and situations to arise in 'human cultures', so too we have chosen to remake the places we dwell in according to our own visions, landscaping lawns and putting in infrastructures for the transportation of food, energy and labour. (I'm drawing on Jason W. Moore's work; see for example Capitalism in the Web of Life, which distils his work into one handy book-for-the-uninitiated.)

At this point, a brief pause: I'm ranting about research I've done, time invested and possibly you know it all already. John Shoptaw probably knows all this already; but, maybe not, maybe this is a helpful reading list, a way of thinking how, when you next go to mow the lawn, or water a flower pot, you might think how natural selection of certain grasses, certain prettier flowers over others we might call weeds, is a human process. We are natural selectors. (Think: Michael Pollan's Botany of Desire, or his TED talk on what the lawn wants.)

Ask yourself: did you write that poem about that nightingale singing because there's something (the muse!) in you that decided that was what you needed, or did the nightingale learn to sing just like that to mess with your head? If we could translate the nightingale's song, wouldn't it really just be unspooling a tickertape of pornography about how big its sexual organs are and, Come get some, luvvrrrbrrrrds!

I'd completely side with Shoptaw on his disagreement with Morton's reading of Bernstein's poem. Bernstein's piece is just having a larf, as they say, and that's OK. No amount of excessive critical analysis can do away with the fact that it's an amuse bouche, so why spend so much energy on this, rather than one of Bernstein's more substantial offerings?

But let's not devalue Morton's right to choose to display his ecocritical perspective where he so wishes. That in itself is the point: you can read a depth of relevant, ecological thinking, into just about anything, and why not? Morton's attention to how a material space is constructed by the poem demonstrates a particularly expansive (ha-ha!) capacity for ecopoetics. Shoptaw's rejection of this in favour of taxonomising ecopoems suggests critical closure, an attempt to control discourse.

Instead of Morton, let's draw on some recent thinking in material ecocriticism (see Iovino and Oppermann's edited book of that title). Naturecultures can (should!) be thought of as collections of imbricated spectra and relations. Note the plural: there's more than one way to gut a (canoe)fish, or read/write ('wread' sayeth Jed Rasula in This Compost [3]) about the world.

We might separate between things that are more man-made than not, we might attempt to invent a language for the non-human, or extra-human (see, e.g. Les Murray's 'Bats Ultrasound' which captures a piece of bat-prayer in recorded ultrasound, really an attempt to empathise within the language of bats). But you ignore the natural elements informing even the most man-made built environment at your own risk, as much as vice versa, particularly in the fraught realms of current ecological destruction. That cobweb in the corner of the room might be holding the building up.

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Srsly, you've read this far, just tune in again tomorrow.

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[2] Reading this book gave me nightmares. I once failed to remember the title, some months after reading it because I had repressed it, so overwhelmingly depressing it was. And I read the revised edition, where, in the intervening space of 20 years, humanity had done nothing to slow down carbon emissions or fossil fuel dependency – in fact had increased usage exponentially – and McKibben noted the irrational failure of our species to curb its oil addiction. Hence, now, I feel the metaphor is apt: a slow-motion suicide leap; inevitable now. Get used to hopelessness, there's only planning for collapse left to us. (Also, have you changed the oil in your car recently?)

[3] This one's a little more esoteric. I treat it as poetry, of sorts, something to be enjoyed for its language, for its play, as much as the ideas it infers.

Tuesday, 21 June 2016

George Ttoouli says, “Because: No.” (Or, Why Ecopoetics?) (2/5)

GT responding to John Shoptaw's essay.

Take Shoptaw's analysis of an Ashbery poem. The reading is, at first glance, open, engaging and, by bringing in Forrest Gander's Redstart, provides a waypoint for thinking about contemporary US ecopoetics. Shoptaw uses Ashbery's poem to establish differences between 'ecopoem' and 'nature poem,' and 'environmental' and 'environmentalism,' setting up his good/bad dichotomies.

The taxonomising underlying the approach, however, is a fundamentally un-ecopoetic method. The urge to define, box, distinguish, means the categories falsely and crudely set up boundaries where there are none. For a poem exploring the problems of sexual taxonomy, the parallel problems emerging in the article's attempts to box up ecopoetry are unavoidably ironic.

For every example Shoptaw provides for why Ashbery's poem isn't an ecopoem, the same text offers counters which trouble the nuances between ecopoetry and nature poetry. In reading Ashbery's use of erotic language in 'River of the Canoefish' Shoptaw concludes, “Ashbery’s culture poem is still fine and fun. But in my terms it can’t count as an ecopoem.” However, in the first line quoted in the essay – “These wilds came naturally by their monicker” – the poem constructs an ideological ground in which gay culture and wild, uncivilised naturecultures are mutually condemned by a dominant ideological position.[1] And, if you want to take Bill McKibben or similar into account, we're a part of nature; our culture, all taxonomies of human culture, are natural phenomena. Anything less than taking it as such, calling one culture 'unnatural', or whatever else, is tantamount to an ideological position of elitism.

Through transposition (metonymy rather than metaphor, or association by cohabitation, perhaps) to the wilds, the poem introduces a longevity to homosexuality in North America and indirectly offers a counter to homophobia, or worse, the sense that there have always been 'wilds' (gays) and 'tames' - ideological opposition to variations of sexuality.

These imaginary fish are an imposition, albeit likely a self-imposition in some cases, on gay identities, hence a construct. So too the idea of 'wilderness', wilds: the idea that a bunch of trees in a national park might self-identify as wild is ridiculous, unnecessary to the sense of self a tree might have. These imaginaries are related to, informed by, subjective versions of material experience, just as ideas about nature are constructed, some supposedly 'better' than others. The poem invites readers to think about where this nomenclature comes from and, if you want to follow that logic, invites you to think about the power of naming.

The question of how we value nature, the relationships we affirm, are reflected in how Ashbery's poem appraises different responses to homosexuality. That the Canoefish are “generally immune to sorrow” invites irony into how to read the poem's interrogation of ideological values. That the speaker decides not to “gather at the river” suggests a refutation of an ideological ground which relegates gays to a social level equal to fish. And rightly so: zoomorphism has long been a strategy for reducing some humans to subhuman status, from the metaphors of dogs fighting over a corpse in The Iliad, to any genocidal abuse which relegates some humans to subhuman status.

I bring in these last, broader comparisons to show the relevance of an ecopoetic analysis, as opposed to a taxonomic exercise between ecopoetry and nature poetry. I don't mean to argue the status of Ashbery's poem as an ecopoem, but to argue the merits of reading the poem ecopoetically.

Herein lies my problem with Shoptaw's position: there are numerous mechanisms by which ecopoetic trends, themes and concepts might be read into any poem, be it a poem in an anthology of urban-themed poetry, such as City State: New London Poetry (which I've used for teaching ecopoetics), or Emily Bronte's love poems. Raymond Williams used Hesiod's 'Worksand Days' for one of his chapters in The Country and the City and does a fine job of reading out ideas of pastorality and nostalgia.

And yes, I don't entirely approve of the 'urban poetry' label either, given how built environments are as much habitats as a farm field; the dusty corner of a library, or the human body; an overgrown brownfield waste land or an AONB.

Ecopoetics adds a set of shiny new tools for reading any text, not just poetry. I've used ecopoetic tools and methods to read insect handbooks and UN climate reports, poems from The Arcadia Project (which Shoptaw draws upon in his essay), William Wordsworth's poetry and even marketing language attached to supermarket vegetable selections.

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Tune in tomorrow for part 3!

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[1] Interestingly enough, at the Berkeley Conference on Ecopoetics in 2013, Joshua Corey records Shoptaw's objection to the poem's inclusion in The Ecopoetry Anthology. Note the confusion even here over the differences between ecopoetic and ecopoetry. I'm firmly on the side of ecopoetics being a way of reading poetry; and the definition of poems as ecopoetic, or a category of ecopoetry, is an unnecessary distraction – I'm as opposed to the Fisher-Wirth and Street's anthology title as to Shoptaw's attempt to define a new taxonomy.

Monday, 20 June 2016

George Ttoouli says, “Because: No.” (Or, Why Ecopoetics?) (1/5)

GT's Essay B: a response to John Shoptaw's essay on ecopoetry

Published in the January 2016 issue of Poetry (Chicago), John Shoptaw's essay, 'Why Ecopoetry?' covers some helpful ground in accounting for this relatively new poetry genre. Mulching over several key plots in the current veg patch of US poetry, he points out the raised beds of promise, the fecund spring bursts of colour and scent, the weedy, gone-to-seed and bolted poems of yesteryear, the fallow ground where environmental activism has taken hold in language.

By now you're quite rightly thinking to yourself, 'You've exhausted the soil of this metaphor, George. Get to the point!' For readers like me, sceptical of the notion of poetry genres, there's a problem in how a critical value system emerges through taxonomy. The unacknowledged legislation in Shoptaw's essay is mainly signalled to me by the failure to address why there's a need to genrify ecopoetry.

A key problem I have with 'ecopoetry' is that it struggles to separate itself from 'nature poetry.' The same is true in Shoptaw's essay: ecopoetry is both a subset of, but also distinct from, nature poetry. Do we really need to say that the world has changed its way of writing about nature because of climate catastrophe and environmentalist awareness? Has every nature poem up to the invention of the genre of ecopoetry been one bland long grass field mowed to a fine metric, without variation? Every 'ecopoem' is also a 'nature poem,' isn't it?

Shoptaw's article starts from a negative response to that last question: an ecopoem does, and must, challenge its readers to think morally and politically about how we relate to nature, or relate culture and nature. And not all nature poetry challenges. But, but, I counter: every poem referencing 'nature', or, preferably, human and nonhuman, matter living and nonliving, invites engagement with the political and moral ramifications of the poet's, the poem's and our own readerly values with respect to ecological themes. This is Jameson 101, right? Even the avoidance of natural imagery suggests a disengagement.

The article sets out to establish a fourlegsgood/twolegsbad dichotomy to evaluate poems. But this is critical elitism and does a mischief to readers. Who's to say we can't think for ourselves, according to our own terms? Argumentative readers, like me, might prefer to engage afresh with eco-themes in poetry from any time or place, thinking about today's particular eco-concerns by comparison. Instead, the article hands over a badly made flail and tells us to start threshing wheat from chaff.

A covert problem behind genrifying ecopoetry is the lack of standards in environmentalism. To say that you can define good and bad environmentalism is like saying you could convince the CEO of Shell to say, “You know, what the heck, I think we will keep it in the ground!” Sure, there might be some extremes most of us would agree on, but the question is decided by power structures, not some distinct moral truth-object you can rub and make wishes come true with. And I'd rather be allowed to formulate my own opinions on how successfully any poem meets my highly subjective ecological standards, than told what is wheat, what is chaff.

Every nature poem can easily be argued to carry a response to the climatic conditions, changes, developments, structural and content problems inherent in the environment at the time of writing. Conscious or unconscious, right or wrong. Even if the response now is to note there's a bigger picture than the rough winds shaking May's darling haws.

John Clare's poem in the voice of Swordy Well lamenting the enclosure of a piece of Northampton's commons doesn't need jazzing up by an ecopoet for today. It's already a version of an environmental stance and readers aren't so dumb as to be incapable of transposing a 200yr old poem's message into relevant contexts today, be they digital (as, e.g. Lewis Hyde noted of the new enclosures), or corporate land grabs in developing countries.

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Next part tomorrow!