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.
Next part tomorrow!