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.


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


[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.

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