What is Ecopoetry and why write it?
We know the planet is in trouble, right? We hear every day on the news about wildfires, floods, landslides, extinctions and droughts and every month that passes is the hottest month on record. And while we can’t argue with this (and the 97% of scientists who corroborate it) it also seems very difficult to know what we can do about it in our everyday lives that will make a measurable difference. Is buying a takeaway cup really going to change anything in the face of all these terrifying facts or will the planet go on melting at the same rate it already was?
After that rather gloomy and futile start to this piece, I’m going to suggest something radically optimistic: write about it. Write about your everyday experience of what is changing in the world around you and the environmental issues you feel passionate about. Because while facts feel slippery and inaccessible and make us feel helpless, experiences can help us understand the world from our own perspective, and artists of all kinds can create experiences better than anyone else. As Jorie Graham puts it:
‘[Readers] feel they “know this information already, so why do they need it in a poem.” That is precisely the point. They “know” it. They are not “feeling it.” That is what activists in the environmental movement are asking of us: help it be felt, help it be imagined.’
But haven’t poets been writing ecopoetry for centuries? Wasn’t this what Wordsworth was up to with those daffodils? Not quite. Nature for the Romantic poets was all about fuel for the imagination. Really The Daffodils is all about memory, about how the daffodils are bringing pleasure to the human mind or ‘inward eye’ in the present of the poem. It is much more about how nature benefits the human than about how nature might exist on its own, or have its own voice.
Similarly, in a lot of contemporary lyric poems the natural world becomes a metaphor for something human. Take the stunning poem by Niall Campbell, The Day The Whales Beached which does exactly this. The whales in the poem are juxtaposed against the human beings; the whales’ deaths emphasise the tragedy of the humans’. It would be an entirely different poem were the humans not there, but it would be more of an ecopoem.
Eco-poetry, then, in the sense I’m talking about, takes the human and the natural world as undeniably connected and does not prioritise one over the other. The human and natural worlds are not exclusive of one another, and the natural is not something to be ‘conquered.’ Eco-poetry does not centre on a human viewpoint; it is inclusive of plant, animal, landscape. It can make us look at the experiences of the life we share the planet with in a completely new way.
A writing exercise: try flipping your viewpoint to something else’s: a plant, an animal, a landscape. How does its view of the world differ to yours? Does it see differently, hear differently, smell differently? Does it have experiences that you as a human might have no words to express? Is it time to make up some new words?
A short reading list:
- Garry MacKenzie’s piece on this blog about writing Mountains.
- John Shoptaw ‘Why Ecopoetry?’ on the Poetry Foundation website.
- Jorie Graham, Place, Carcanet Press 2014
- Timothy Morton Being Ecological Pelican Books 2017