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.


Tune in tomorrow for part 3!

[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.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Even better than 1/5 this