Prosopopoeia and the ethics of ecological advocacy in the poetry of Denise Levertov and Gary Snyder.
The ecological poetry of Levertov and Snyder speaks for nature by creating the illusion of intersubjective relationships between the poetic speaker and the world.(1) In order to construct the nonhuman other as subject, Levertov and Snyder fashion the poet as visionary, as one who can hear and transcribe the "voices" of nature.(2) Visionary poems of ecological advocacy rely on prosopopoeia: the personifying tropes grant nature those voices that the visionary-poet hears. Recent lyric theory - such as Jonathan Culler's on romantic and symbolist apostrophe and Mary Jacobus's on Wordsworth's construction of the voice of nature - explores the relationship between the personifying tropes and the construction of the poet as visionary.(3) This theory is therefore indispensable for readings of Levertov's and Snyder's ecological poetry. However, the postmodern poetry of Snyder and Levertov uses the personifying tropes in ways that elude lyric theory. Jacobus and Culler read prosopopoeia as neoromantic self-involvement, an endless cycle of inward turnings. In contrast, Levertov and Snyder construct historicized and politicized voices that reach beyond the vocational anxieties and self-dramatization described by lyric theory.
For both Jacobus and Culler, the personifying tropes are primarily "self-constituting" acts (Jacobus 172). According to Culler, apostrophe cannot reveal a poet-visionary communing with nature but instead records a scene of self-dramatization: the writer creates an apostrophizing poem in order to construct "himself [as] poet, visionary" (142).(4) By addressing the inanimate, the poet acts with an embarrassing strangeness that draws his audience's attention to himself as much as (or more than) to nature. In order to emphasize the melodrama of this poetic self-constitution, Culler reminds us of the vocative of apostrophe. We should, he tells us, imagine a man waiting at a bus stop, talking aloud to the late bus in the presence of onlookers.(5) Jacobus also focuses on self-dramatization as the primary impetus for Wordsworth's construction of the voice of nature. Wordsworth fashions the voice of nature so that he might, by establishing a poetics of his own, overcome the anxiety of influence. Jacobus and Culler share their focus on the solipsistic functions of the personifying tropes with Paul de Man. De Man points out that prosopopoeia announces its imaginary status by its very name: "prosopon-poiein means to give a face and therefore implies that the original face can be missing or nonexistent" (57). In other words, "prosopopoeia" implies that the nonconscious other is granted consciousness only in the poetic act. The term "prosopopoeia" underlines the fact that the conscious other is a fiction, that the poetic speaker is actually talking about herself.
Like Culler's self-dramatizing poet, Levertov and Snyder use prosopopoeia to construct nonhuman entities as subjects in order to establish their own visionary credentials. However, Levertov and Snyder construct the poet as visionary for political motives, and not just out of the desire to cut an impressive literary figure. A reading that does not divorce poetry from praxis recognizes that the speakers of Levertov's and Snyder's ecological poems are not visionaries in Culler's sense; they are not neoromantics escaping into lyrical raptures that reflect primarily the poet's vocational anxieties. When poetic constructions of the nonhuman intersect with extrapoetic goals, the self-dramatization of ecological prosopopoeia becomes a step toward changing public policy.
In the extraliterary political arena, Snyder lectures as an environmentalist on topics such as bioregionalism, population control, pollution policy, and problems with the concept of economic development. Levertov protests nuclear arms and nuclear power policy She also links environmental issues with economic and military ones in such a way that when she participates in demonstrations against certain aspects of U.S. foreign policy (for example, policy regarding Vietnam in the sixties and seventies, or El Salvador in the eighties) she is making indirect environmental statements.(6) Correspondingly, the poetry of Levertov and Snyder posits that the nonhuman other has values and rights we usually accord only to human beings. For Levertov, these include the right to exist and be shielded from pain; in Snyder's case, they also include the right to be represented in governmental chambers. Levertov's and Snyder's ecological poetry does not so much give face (grant human attributes to the nonhuman) as argue that the nonhuman is, in terms of value and rights, in many ways the same as the human.
This radical ontology disturbs the conventional use of prosopopoeia, because it challenges the absoluteness of the line between the human and the nonhuman on which the definition of the personifying tropes relies. They are tropes (etymologically, turns) because they transfer something human to an alien realm - they turn the other into the human. But if traditional divisions between the human subject and nonhuman object are disturbed, then the border between the figurative and literal in prosopopoeia is blurred. In Snyder's and Levertov's poems of ecological advocacy, the characteristic literary tool is a personifying trope that challenges its own status as fiction by playing with the line between literality and figurality. Seeming to personify, Snyder's and Levertov's poems actually perform, before the reader's very eyes, an ecopolitical investigation and rewriting of the convention of speaking for nature.
Although these political poets move beyond the "radical interiorization" (Culler 146) that Culler and Jacobus find in the self-dramatizing romantic poet, they do not avoid anthropocentrism entirely. Paradoxically, their environmentalism involves the ultimate anthropocentric move. While the construction of the nonhuman other as subject resists placing the human being at the center of the universe, it measures the other in the terms it uses to measure itself.(7) This paradox of ecological poetry parallels the problems of representation and projection involved in any act of speaking for others. Feminist and postcolonial theory draw attention to the practical and ethical obstacles inherent in political and literary advocacy While purporting to be for the good of the other, an act of advocacy may be in complicity with the silencing of the other. As Elizabeth Harvey demonstrates in her reading of Donne's fashioning of the voice of Sappho, the adoption of a female voice by a male can help perpetuate the basic oppression of women that has required their silence. In poetry, for example, the speaker's representation of the other depends on the other's silence (123). Marlene Nourbese Philip writes that the "right" to speak in the voice of the oppressed is "bought at great price - the silencing of the Other; it is, in fact, neatly posited on that very silencing" (212).
Of course, silencing the other is not an issue in ecological advocacy. But projection is. Again, feminist and postcolonial theory explores the issue. Poet and theorist Daphne Marlatt notes that representing the exotic other involves "a hidden imperialism ... making the other the same and therefore plausible, i.e., plausibly me" (189). The construction of the exotic is only the most obvious case in which it is impossible to represent the other without projecting the self onto it. In any situation, the advocate is limited by the boundaries of his or her own experience. As Linda Alcoff points out in a recent article, "a speaker's location (which I take here to refer to their social location, or social identity) has an epistemically significant impact on that speaker's claims" (7). The effect of location on advocacy is one of the rationales, she notes, for founding women's studies and African-American studies departments. The academy has begun to acknowledge that "systematic divergences in social location between speakers and those spoken for will have a significant effect on the content of what is said" and that therefore "the study of and the advocacy for the oppressed must come to be done principally by the oppressed themselves" (7). Analyses of advocacy recognize that representation in the sense of "speaking for" intersects with representation in the epistemological sense: in speaking about others' needs, goals, situations, "I am participating in the construction of their subject-positions" (Alcoff 9). Therefore, we must wonder how effective advocatory representation can be. Does the advocate ever really speak for the other, or does she always end up speaking about herself?
Applying the theory of speaking for others to the ecological poetry of Levertov and Snyder, we return to lyric theory's comments about the solipsism of prosopopoeia. Culler argues that in speaking about the other, the apostrophizing poet cannot avoid peopling "the universe with fragments of himself." Apostrophe "seems to establish relations between the self and the other," but it "can in fact be read as an act of radical interiorization and solipsism" in which the poet "preempt[s] the place of the you" by projecting human attributes onto it (146; first emphasis added). Culler is reading prosopopoeia as a kind of ontological colonialism that purports to represent the other while it actually talks about the self. Once again, however, Levertov's and Snyder's postmodern poetry marks itself off from the poetry of radical interiorization that Culler describes. It reaches beyond the solipsism of neoromanticism either by foregrounding the issues of projection and anthropocentrism or by politicizing the construction of the visionary voice.
In this article I employ theorized close reading to explore the ways in which Levertov's poetry uses personification in its attempts to avoid anthropocentrism. Levertov's earliest ecological poetry admits its inability to escape the projection inherent in its medium. At the same time, it defies these limits by continuing to speak for the nonhuman other with personifying tropes. Levertov's later poetry discovers in the act of troping an opportunity to question the ethics of drawing absolute lines between the human and the nonhuman.
In contrast, Snyder's construction of the political visionary does not directly confront the problems of language, projection, and anthropocentrism. Instead, it rewrites the convention of voice according to a paradigm that evades the charge of solipsistic projection. Snyder's scientific/anthropological model of speaking in the voice of nature assumes that the poet is not creating a subjective projection onto nonhuman nature but rather is repeating biological information that originates in nature. Snyder describes a chain of biological data that comes from the earth, is absorbed by indigenous cultures, and then is passed on to the poet by Native mentors. Ironically, however, Snyder's ethnopoetics reintroduces the problems of advocacy at a cultural level. His model of voice does suggest a possible reason that Snyder and First Nations' spokespersons do not see eye to eye on his "representation" of Native American issues.(8) However, I will argue that his model of voice does not cancel the problems inherent in his use of Native spiritual traditions.
Charles Olson's theory of objectism was a technique for avoiding anthropocentrism. He wanted to level the poetic playing field by making the poet just another "object" among a field of objects (Olson 60). In contrast, Levertov's poetry attempts to dehierarchize human to nonhuman relationships by constructing the other as a subject and by fashioning the relationship between the speaker and other as a kind of intersubjectivism. In Culler's reading, the other is a presence "only in relation to a poetic act, only in the moment when the poetic voice constitutes itself" (143). Levertov's ecological poems question just this confident division between the fictional moment of prosopopoeia and the actual presence of the nonhuman being.
In these intersubjective poems one can trace the influence that Hasidism has had on Levertov. She has credited Martin Buber, the Jewish philosopher, for helping her learn about her Hasidic roots and bring them to her poetry.(9) Hasidism, a Jewish mystical sect that sees God as immanent in creation, emphasizes the holiness of the here and now. Buber's I-Thou philosophy is influenced by Hasidism: Hasidic respect for nature grounds his belief that a person should treat any other being - human or nonhuman - as a subject rather than an object, as a "Thou" rather than an "it." For Buber, other forms of life are deserving of attention and respect and are capable of relationship.(10)
Levertov's process poetics, forged in the late fifties and early sixties, reflects these Hasidic beliefs. She fashions the poem as a record of the speaker's interaction with nonhuman presences. For Levertov, the page is a "score" that records the "thinking/feeling process," or "the inner voice," of the poetic speaker (Light Up the Cave 64, 62, 68).(11) Levertov uses line endings to mark pauses in her line that correspond to the inner-voice pauses that are not marked by punctuation (62). Because Levertov's poetics emphasizes process, it complements the phenomenological bent of many of her poems, in which she creates the illusion that the speaker responds to nonhuman presences "thrusting" themselves into her awareness (an idea repeated twice in the poem "Martins," from The Jacob's Ladder).(12)
Long before Levertov began to write antianthropocentric poems specifically about the environmental crisis, she was considering the ethical and poetic implications of Hasidic ontology. In "The Cat as Cat" (The Sorrow Dance 40) the speaker meditates on the colonizing effects of using an animal as a comparison for a human state of mind. The speaker decides her cat "is a metaphor only if I / force him to be one, / looking too long in his pale, fond, / dilating, contracting eyes." She uses terms from Buber's writings to characterize her relationship with the animal: "I-Thou, cat, I-Thou."
While "The Cat as Cat" concerns itself with the ethics of metaphor, it does not question human ability to interpret the cat's experience. During the seventies Levertov's poetry begins to struggle with the paradox of the anthropocentric projection involved in purportedly antianthropocentric prosopopoeia. "The Life around Us" (Footprints 57) is the first poem that constructs the line between the literality and figurality of prosopopoeia as an ethical one. In "The Life around Us" the speaker begins to posit a "consciousness" for trees in order to celebrate their inherent value. But at the same moment she realizes that the creation of the nonhuman as a subject involves anthropocentric projection:
Poplar and oak awake all night. And through all weathers of the days of the year. There is a consciousness undefined.
In the first line the speaker uses prosopopoeia, but she does not settle into a conventional poetic relationship between speaker and trees, in which personified description would imply the speaker's role as visionary. Instead, the poem disturbs the convention by foregrounding the issue of troping. The speaker insists on the literality of personification: "there is a consciousness" in "the life around us"; in other words, the trees can be "awake" insofar as that term is a synonym for "conscious." "Undefined" placed after "consciousness" problematizes that very claim, of course, as do reminders that the trees are "sightless" and "without braincells." The poem can be read as a self-reflexive debate on whether "awake" is literal or figurative. The location of the term "undefined" following the term "consciousness" is an acknowledgment that the term "consciousness" applied to a tree involves unavoidable figural residue. Because any claim that the nonhuman is conscious involves projection, we cannot even define the consciousness that a nonhuman being would have. At best the speaker-visionary is a kind of translator. She must try to capture nonhuman "experience" in the inescapably human realm of language.
Later in the poem the speaker fuses her awareness of this limitation with an assertion that implies that she can nonetheless speak for the trees:
No human saw the night in this garden, sliding blue into morning. Only the sightless trees, without braincells, lived it and wholly knew it.
The speaker acknowledges her limitation with "no human saw the night in this garden" and therefore underlines the state of this assertion as projection. She reminds us that the trees have no brain cells; therefore, terms such as "knew" are anthropomorphic projections. At the same time she insists on telling what no language can tell: what happened to a nonhuman entity. The verb in the last line reminds us that the speaker has claimed that the trees have a consciousness, and it therefore legitimizes the filtering of their "experience" through the speaker's own consciousness. In short, the poem reverses itself repeatedly on the question of the nature of the personification. "Know" is figurative but is also literal: the trees have a sort of consciousness, so we can say that they "lived" and "knew" the night. The terms must be qualified by the reminder that trees have no brain cells and that therefore the terms are imprecise. The title, "The Life around Us," gives a clue to the reason that the poet is willing to exist in this kind of blatant self-contradiction. The poem wants to suggest the invaluableness of the other. Therefore, despite its frustration at the anthropocentrism of language, the poem won't give up its construction of the other as a subject, as an entity that merits a language of respect.
In Levertov's explicitly environmentalist poetry this kind of alternating between literal and figurative uses of prosopopoeia helps construct the other as a subject with rights and values. The poem "Gathered at the River" (Oblique Prayers 40-42) begins with images that personify, then insists that they are not figurative. This poem, describing a memorial service for victims of the Hiroshima and Nagasaki bombings, speaks for the trees that surrounded the service in order to emphasize their stake in the antinuclear cause: if there is another nuclear war, they too will be victims. By opening with the phrase "as if," "Gathered at the River" emphasizes the figurative and the hypothetical status of the application to the trees of words like "listening," "indifferent" (and in a later passage, "attention"):
As if the trees were not indifferent ... A breeze flutters the candles but the trees give off a sense of listening, of hush.
However, these terms have literal overtones when the poem begins to insist on the trees' actual awareness of the threat to their existence. Early in the poem, the speaker drops the reminder of the hypothetical, as she continues to personify: the trees "leaning in towards us" are "a half-circle of attention" who "listen" because "the war against earth ... is a war against them." Then as the description of the ceremony proceeds, the speaker reverses her original emphasis on the figurative status of the Prosopopoeia. She repeats the first line but without the "as if": "The trees, / the trees are not indifferent." The effect of dropping "as if" and of the repetition is a tone of insistence on the literal and the actual interest. In other words, this speaker, like the speaker of "The Life around Us," is positing some sort of awareness on the trees, part. Suddenly, terms like "ponder" and "wisdom" and "listen" are carrying literal weight. A tone of chastisement is created by means of the "as if" and the repetition of the line "As if the trees were not indifferent." This scolding suggests impatience with the opposing point of view - the idea that trees have no stake in peace issues. Unlike "The Life around Us," this poem does not focus on the line between literality and figurality in order to question its own representational limits. Instead its speaker disturbs that line in order to rebuke anyone - either herself or the reader - who would be lulled by neoromantic intertexts into forgetting that the trees are actuary victims, that they are living entities that will die.
Culler shows how readers are tricked into acceptance of the embarrassing oddness of apostrophe by the intertextual presence of romantic poetic convention. This literary context makes such claims for communion with the subjects of nature seem like normal, ff somewhat melodramatic behavior But Levertov's personifying poetry is stranger than anything that Culler has imagined. In "Gathered at the River" Levertov uses prosopopoeia not only to fictionalize poet as visionary but also to suggest that antinuclear policy should be designed to protect the rights of nonhuman life. Furthermore, she describes a political protest that aims at protecting these nonhuman rights. As "Gathered at the River" indicates, Levertov's belief that nonhuman entities are presences rather than objects politically as well as poetically is one reason for her participation in antinuclear protests. The political visionary adopts a pose that has practical, political, public - not just personal, vocational, literary - implications.(13)
In some ways the most interesting of Levertov's explorations of the ethics of troping occurs in a poem that itself uses no prosopopoeia. Levertov's "Watching Dark Circle" (Oblique Prayers 39) foregrounds the issue of the line between the figurative and the literal, condemning the absolute distinction between the nonhuman and the human realms on which the personifying tropes rely. This poem makes a connection between objectification of animals in scientific experimentation and the belief that words like "pain" and "agony" cannot be applied literally to the nonhuman. Written in response to a documentary film about nuclear experimentation, "Watching Dark Circle" is both an antinuclear protest and a poem of advocacy for animal rights, specifically, the rights of the pigs that were being used in a Pentagon-sponsored experiment concerning nuclear war. The poem implies a connection between a basic disrespect for human and nonhuman nature reflected in the unchecked development of nuclear technology and a more specific disrespect for the animals being used in these experiments. The opening of the second stanza implies that objectification inherent in the experimental method has caused the scientists to lose sight of the animals' ability to experience pain:
Men are willing to call the roasting of five pigs a simulation of certain conditions. It is not a simulation. The pigs (with their high-rated intelligence, their uncanny precognition of disaster) are real, their agony real agony ....
Since human beings could not be tested for the results of nuclear war, animals were used as substitutes in the experiment. The speaker argues that although the pain is inflicted on a substitute, it does not follow that it is not actual pain. In other words, she indicts the experimenters and policymakers who treat animal pain simply as a kind of metaphor for human pain rather than as a nonhuman experience in its own right. According to her, when they use terminology such as "simulation" of pain, they confuse literal, measurable "agony" with a trope.
The experimenters rely on their confidence in the absolute otherness of the nonhuman as an alien who has no rights, values, or even physiological experience comparable to the human. Levertov's ecological poetry demonstrates a radically different attitude toward the nonhuman other, and since the early fifties Levertov has explored the implications of that attitude for poetic language. In overtly environmental poetry, she rarely uses prosopopoeia without unsettling its conventions in some way, by questioning its colonizing effects, or by foregrounding the issue of its ontological validity, or by disturbing the line between the human and the nonhuman on which it turns.
Turtle Island includes poetry and essays that concentrate on the environmental crisis and on a program for facing it. By incorporating essays like "The Wilderness," which is the transcript of a statement made at a seminar at The Center for the Study of Democratic Institutions, Snyder makes it clear that he sees no absolute distinction between poetic and political texts. Since the speaker of Turtle Island talks both poetry and politics, it is apparent that literary vocation is not Snyder's only reason for constructing a visionary voice. The poems of Turtle Island are not private lyrical raptures providing a release from the harshness of contemporary life into an apolitical, mystical haven called "Nature." This text marks itself off from neoromantic escapist poetry by means of its complex intersection of voice with praxis, biology, and anthropology.
We can best understand the way that Snyder's postmodern fusion of the political and the "poetic" realms functions by contrasting his writing to Jacobus's reading of Wordsworth. According to Jacobus, Wordsworth seeks to avoid "dismemberment" "by the clamor of all the other voices" of his predecessors, "by which [he] risks being possessed." Unlike the voices of his literary forebears, "the voice of Nature permits a loss of individuality which is at once safe and unifying. In Nature, the poet can take refuge against dismemberment" (170). In other words, Jacobus describes a vocational conflict whose site is a closed world of literature. But for Snyder, even more directly than for Levertov, "nature poetry" engages public policy as well as literary tradition. Turtle Island is divided into four sections, three of poetry and one of prose essays. However, this generic division does not correspond to a division between poetry and politics; the two discourses are woven together throughout the volume. Spiritual and economic ideas are fused in both the poems and the prose. The first three sections of poetry include Buddhist and North American Indian prayers as well as less conventional poetic material: "Facts" lists economic statistics reflecting environmental problems; "The Dead by the Side of the Road" explains how to avoid wasting animal carcasses. As do the essays, the poems advocate bioregionalism and steady state (zero growth) economics and criticize consumer culture. Moreover, the essay section, "Plain Talk," includes traditionally "poetic" material: meditations on Snyder's ethnopoetics and on the spiritual roots - in North American Indian traditions and Zen Buddhism - of his poetry and environmental views.(14)
The politics of Turtle Island shape Snyder's prosopopoeia, layering the signifying effects of the convention of speaking in the "voice of Nature." Usually "speak" is a metaphor for "write" and, at the same time, a reference to the convention that the lyric poem is overheard utterance, the fiction that voice is somehow made present by means of the text. In contrast, for Snyder "voice" and "speak" also refer to the action of a political representative. In "The Wilderness" Snyder explains his extraliterary connotations for the idea of "speaking for Nature." He believes that the nonhuman world actually needs a political advocate, that unless we "incorporate" other creatures "into the councils of government" the earth will become uninhabitable for human beings (108). Snyder views his vocation of visionary poet as a step toward establishing a political representative for the nonhuman: "I wish to bring a voice from the wilderness, my constituency. I wish to be a spokesman for a realm that is not usually represented either in intellectual chambers or in the chambers of government" (106). Here "voice" is a metaphor for a vote. It also refers, literally, to the voices of the political representative and the intellectual advocate.
Snyder's desire to be a spokesman for nature in government and in the intellectual arena is based on his literalization of another aspect of the convention, for it relies on a biological theory that the earth actually has some sort of "knowledge" that can be communicated to human beings. "Biomass," the evolutionary data stored in all biological life, is a kind of "intelligence," Snyder argues, following the theories of scientist Eugene Odum:
"Intelligence" is not reany the right word .... Life-biomass, [Odum] says, is stored information; living matter is stored information in the cells and in the genes .... Obviously, that is a different order of information [than that in all the libraries]. It is the information of the universe we live in. It is the information that has been flowing for millions of years.
According to Snyder, this "knowledge" can be communicated to competent "readers" of nonhuman nature, and the best readers are not scientists in the laboratory but those who live close to the land. In other words, less technologically developed cultures, because they are more aware of their dependency on the land for biological life, have a more direct informational source than the so-called civilized cultures. Snyder believes "there is a wisdom in the worldview of primitive peoples that we have to refer ourselves to, and learn from" (107).
In other words, for Snyder the "voice of Nature" is not only a trope for inspiration but also represents something more "real." He writes: "the voice that speaks to me as a poet, what Westerners have called the Muse, is the voice of nature herself, whom the ancient poets called the great goddess, the Magna Mater. I regard that voice as a very real entity" (107; emphasis added). Although "voice" is a figure - of course Snyder does not mean that bioregions have vocal chords - it does not stand for inspirational imaginary mystical communication, as it does in Jacobus's reading of Wordsworth's poetry. The "voice of Nature" may have a kind of private imaginary reality for Wordsworth, but for Snyder it has another layer of reality as well; it is a scientific, practical actuality as well as a matter for public policy. Snyder's personifying tropes, transformed by science and politics, are - like Levertov's - stranger than anything Jacobus or Culler find in romantic and symbolist poetry.
Unlike Levertov's poetry, Snyder's theory of voice never confronts the problem of projection directly; instead, it diverts attention away from the issue. Snyder evades the problem of projection by fashioning a model of information-transfer not from the human to the other but from the other to the human - a model proposing that nonhuman organic matter imparts actual information to the human being. Moreover, instead of focusing on the anthropocentrism inherent in his medium, Snyder distracts his readers from the problematics of language by theorizing writing as a link in a chain of representation that passes on biological "intelligence" from the earth. His model makes writing only one of several media (dance, ritual, visual symbol, sculpture, hunting, agricultural technique, and so on) that encode this biological information in Native cultures. In the poet's case, written language is obviously the final and necessary step in the transference of intelligence from the earth to the audience. Even so, Snyder's model assumes that the writer is not locked into a medium that necessarily projects human categories onto the earth. Instead, the poet translates into his poetry data that originates in the earth and is presented to him by means of extralinguistic as well as linguistic media. Of course, in order to preclude its own deconstruction, Snyder's model of voice would have to acknowledge the problem of language at every stage and in every medium of translation of the biological information. But even though Snyder's model does not confront the problem of projection at every level, it is rhetorically effective in providing authority for the poet's ecological advocacy.
Granting that nature has rights that need to be defended, Snyder's task becomes one comparable to the election process. Much of "The Wilderness" is concerned with establishing the poet-visionary of Turtle Island as a qualified ecological representative. Snyder's essay implies a necessary connection between the role of the visionary poet and the role of the political advocate for the environment. It fuses the idea of the Muse with the idea of political representation and biological reality: the representative "voice" on public occasions of policymaking and intellectual debate has knowledge that originates in a communication from the biosphere to the poet. Snyder begins "The Wilderness" by listing his ecological and poetic teachers: "I am a poet. My teachers are other poets, American Indians, and a few Buddhist priests in Japan" (106). The second entry in the list helps him establish his authority, since Sioux is one of the cultures he will cite as an example of wise world view.(15)
At the same time that Snyder's model of voice provides ecological and poetic self-justification, it introduces other problems of authority. Turtle Island recognizes some of them. The ecological advocate must challenge those who claim authority in place of the visionary, those who currently make environmental decisions. While in "The Wilderness" one of Snyder's primary concerns is to establish the advocatory credibility of the poet-visionary, in "Mother Earth: Her Whales" (Turtle Island 47-49), Snyder presents the flip side of the argument for his own authority. He questions those who acted as representatives for the earth at the United Nations Conference on Human Environment in Stockholm in 1972:
How can the head-heavy power-hungry politic scientist Government two-world Capitalist-Imperialist Third-World Communist paper-shuffling male non-farmer jet-set bureaucrats Speak for the green of the leaf? Speak for the soil?
While condemning those whose power and position give them the opportunity to speak for nature, Snyder reinforces his own claim on the role of advocate: he names the attributes he considers opposite to those he has been displaying throughout the poetry and prose in Turtle Island. The speakers of these poems are not markedly intellectual, are neither capitalist nor communist, are not bureaucrats, and are not - like the "jet-set" nonfarmers - alienated from the land that supplies their biological needs.
By locating his source of ecological authority in his knowledge about indigenous cultures, Snyder's ethnopoetics introduces a whole new set of advocatorial problems that Turtle Island does not address. As a non-Native, he must interpret and retell stories from a culture other than his own. Snyder's environmentalist poetry not only "speaks for Nature" but also speaks for - by speaking about (Alcoff 9) - First Nations cultures. Since the late seventies, First Nations' spokespersons like Leslie Marmon Silko and Geary Hobson have protested Snyder's literary use of Native American stories and rituals. In the words of Michael Castro, these Native readers see Snyder's Turtle Island and Myths and Texts as "part of a new cavalry charge into their territory by wild-eyed neo-romantics seeking to possess not merely their land, as had the invaders of the previous century, but their very spirit" (Interpreting 159).
To a degree, Snyder's model of voice and his conception of poetry (that is, his fusion of praxis, anthropology, science, and poetry throughout Turtle Island) take him beyond neoromantic escapism. As Castro argues, Snyder transcends neoromantic representations of both nature and First Nations cultures. Castro examines the effect of Snyder's fusion of science and wisdom philosophies and contends that "Snyder does not advocate in his poetry and prose, as many of his critics believe, nostalgic return to a past that is forever gone ... he is an avid student of modern science" (147). Castro contrasts Snyder's attitudes toward nature and First Nations cultures with those of poets like Vachel Lindsay. Unlike neoromantics, Snyder wishes to "master the archaic and primitive as models of basic nature-related cultures - as well as the most imaginative extensions of science - and build a community where these two vectors cross" (Turtle Island 102).
However, as Castro acknowledges, even if ecological poetry avoids simplistic representations of nature and Indians, it can threaten Native cultures. It is not surprising, then, that a Native writer such as Geary Hobson should have both praise for and reservations about Turtle Island. Hobson, along with other Native commentators, has worried about the way that texts like Turtle Island tend to inspire less respectful or knowledgeable writers. Hobson observes:
The "white shaman" fad seems to have begun inadvertently with Gary Snyder in his "Shaman Songs" sections of Myths and Texts, in which the poet speaks through the persona of an Indian shaman .... The poems contain great vitality and are, I believe, sincere efforts on Snyder's behalf to incorporate an essential part of American Indian philosophy into his work. Importantly, nowhere does Snyder refer to himself as a "shaman." But, along came the bastard chiidren of Snyder who began to imitate him .. began to call themselves shamans - which, as I understand it, Snyder still refuses to do. Not so with Fowler, Cody, Norman Moser, and Barry Gifford.
Native spokespersons have pointed out a host of problems with Snyder's use of American Indian material. For example, Hobson and Leslie Marmon Silko have challenged the view that chants, prayers, and stories from First Nations' cultures are unproblematically available for literary reproduction outside their original settings. To Hobson, the retelling of these stories, "even if in the name of Truth or Scholarship or whatever, is as imperialistic as those simpler forms of theft such as the theft of homeland by treaty" (101). Silko also challenges "the assumption that the white man, through some innate cultural or racial superiority, has the ability to perceive and master the essential beliefs, values, and emotions of persons from Native American communities" (211). Both Silko and Hobson have urged Snyder to make connections "with his own roots and origins" rather than relying on Native culture to fashion his voice (Silko 214; cf. Hobson 107).(16)
North American Indian stories, prayers, chants seem to represent something different to Snyder than to these Indian writers. Those First Nations commentators who object to Snyder's use of their stories talk about them as cultural artifacts - not abandoned artifacts from dead civilizations but the artistic and religious properties of contemporary minorities who rely on these artifacts to resist assimilation and obliteration. Hobson is distressed that Snyder and the "white shamans" seem to forget "that Indian cultures still exist" (103). In contrast, Snyder's scientific/anthropological model of voice depicts the stories and prayers as media that translate biological information. His ethnopoetics emphasizes the power of Native American spiritual traditions to translate knowledge into a code that can teach the technically developed world how to survive on the planet. He assumes that the nature poet, regardless of ethnic background, has the responsibility to transcribe this information into his or her own language.
Even if we grant Snyder the ecological truth of his model of voice, however, and assume that First Nations cultures are the guardians of invaluable information, the ethical problems persist. If Native culture is a medium that has the potential to help Western civilization understand the biological complexities of life on earth, it does not therefore cease to be the religious and artistic "property" of an oppressed minority. In order to assess the ethics of Snyder's poetic advocacy we must, as Linda Alcoff suggests (26-27), consider the specific situation of each of these acts of representation and weigh the effects that each instance of borrowing has on the culture. It is not enough to say that ideally all cultures should freely exchange artifacts. When Dell Hymes defends Snyder's use of Native material, for example, he ignores differences among cultures in power and vulnerability:
a world in which traditions are exclusive property - Chinese literature exclusively the property of the Chinese, French of the French, Greek of the Greeks, all others stay out, would be a world of cultures as fortresses, of compartments at a time when human beings need to unite. And understanding is a dialectic. Outsiders miss what insiders intuitively grasp; insiders miss what they take for granted or cannot observe. Either perspective alone is inevitably partial, inevitably biased.
Hymes's examples are from traditions that, unlike those Snyder draws on, are not fragile minorities facing extinction. Artifacts from China, France, and Greece do not presently require the careful handling requested by Native American spokespersons. Turtle Island involves a particular set of dangers. Snyder's transcriptions and translations of prayers and chants - accurate as they may be - are still part of a trend in publishing that defines Native culture from the outside. Hobson is concerned "for the great need which Indian people have of being the ones to speak for themselves, of being the ones to define themselves and their cultures" (103). Snyder's representation of Indian culture can also contribute to a paradoxically harmful positive stereotype. Native and non-Native thinkers describe the detrimental effects of idealized stereotypes such as the medicine man or the noble Indian. The image of an Indian as someone with mystical knowledge that can heal the earth - whether constructed that way by Native or non-Native texts - is just as dangerous as the savage stereotype, argue Rayna Green, Deborah Doxtator, and Maureen Matthews ("Isinamowin" transcript 14). It sets up an unattainable ideal of behavior for First Nations people. In the ecological context, the stereotype might also end up delegating responsibility for environmental cleanup to Native culture.(17) Finally, by contributing to the prejudice that non-Natives have the ability to best interpret Native culture, works like Turtle Island can indirectly contribute to suppression of authentic native publication (Hobson 103). It is a cruel irony that oral cultures, which usually don't have a tradition of literary ownership, are often most vulnerable to loss of their stories in a literary marketplace.
Like Snyder and many other environmentalists, Levertov also believes that First Nations' spiritual traditions can help the environmental movement. A recent poem, "El Salvador: Requiem and Invocation" (A Door in the Hive 15-39), laments the effects of colonization of the "Third World" by the "First," which has led to the destruction of "the mystery of the land, / the sacred harmony" (20). "Requiem and Invocation" includes a Kakehi Indian prayer. In another poem from the same volume, the despairing speaker finds hope for human species in thinking about "the wise, the earthen elders / humble before the grass" (49). While Levertov's poetry about Vietnam has been criticized for its "poetic colonialism," that kind of charge has not been made against these passages linking First Nations cultures and ecological thinking. It is possible that the collagist method of "Requiem and Invocation" (which is a libretto) has forestalled charges of cultural imperialism in the ecological poetry. In "Requiem and Invocation" Levertov fuses fragments of various voices, setting off each with quotation marks rather than filtering the prayers through a single poetic speaker's voice. In Snyder's poetry, it is the unproblematized adoption of another tradition into his own poetic voice that seems to be one of the primary worries of these Native commentators. Snyder's weaving of Native American traditions into his own voice certainly reinforces the ecological authority claimed by his poetry; however, the environmentalist success of this writing is bought at a potentially high price for those Native cultures. Ecological poetry teaches respect for biological diversity. If we extend this concern for diversity to the cultural sphere, then a text like Turtle Island encodes its own critique.
(1.) In general, I follow the convention of using the term "nature" to refer to nonhuman, atechnologized areas of the earth and its atmosphere. I do not mean to imply by using the term that nature is a transparent category, simply the opposite of culture. I hope rather to begin an investigation of the construct here, by showing how Levertov and Snyder tend to fashion nature as subjective. (2.) In my readings of the poems, I refer to the voice of the speaker, rather than of the poet. However, since in most poems about ecological issues by Levertov and Snyder, the speaker bears some concrete connection to the biographical poet, the two identities tend to overlap (3.) Culler does not claim that his reading of apostrophe is limited to poets from these eras/movements; however, he takes his examples from British romanticism and symbolism (German, French, and Irish).
The convention of speaking in the voice of nature personifies because, of course, it grants nature a voice. Apostrophe, the trope of address (or of turning to address, as J. Douglas Kneale reminds us [142,144]) implies prosopopoeia because it grants the other the ability to hear and sometimes implies that the other has spoken or will speak. (4.) Many of Culler's remarks on apostrophe also apply to other personifying tropes. In fact, Kneale argues that throughout this chapter on apostrophe in The Pursuit of Signs, Culler is actually talking about prosopopoeia, not apostrophe or a turn in address (147-48). (5.) In order to demonstrate the "radical interiorization" of the figures that "give face" or voice, Culler divides his reading of apostrophe into four levels. At the first level of "strangeness" (140), "the apostrophizing poet identifies his universe as a world of sentient forces" (139). At the second, even stranger, level, one notices that the vocative of apostrophe "posits a relationship between two subjects" (141; emphasis added). The third level of interpretation points out that the speaker is engaged in self-dramatization for the sake of his audience; he is making "a spectacle of himself" (142). At the fourth level, one notices that this figure "which seems to establish relations between the self and the other can in fact be read as an act of radical interiorization and solipsism" (146). The poet is not communing with the other, but rather is projecting human attributes onto it. (6.) Levertov has written that she protested against the Vietnam War partly because it was "only the inevitable expression" of "the whole system of insane greed, of racism and imperialism" that threatens to "destroy all life on earth" (To Stay Alive viii, ix). (7.) As Don McKay puts it: "In fact, nature poetry should not be taken to be avoiding anthropocentrism, but, to be enacting it, thoughtfully. It performs the translation which is at the heart of being human" (17). (8.) "First Nations" is a preferred term in Canada for Native peoples, because it emphasizes that members of these groups lived in North America before its Colonization by European countries. (9.) Levertov mentions Buber's influence directly in the autobiographical note to Donald Allen's anthology (441) and indirectly by noting the importance of Hasidism to her poetry in the poem "Illustrious Ancestors" (The Jacob's Ladder 83). (10.) For further exploration of the influence of Hasidism on Levertov's poetry, see Hallisey and Younkins. (11.) Adapting Olson's projective verse, Levertov relocates the breathing Olson sought to capture with his line endings in the silent inner voice (The Poet in the World 23-24). (12.) The most obvious example is "Matins," but there are many poems in which the theme is interactive encounter between the speaker and the things around her. See, for example, "Come into Animal Presence" (The Jacob's Ladder 21); "The May Mornings" and "Rain Spirit Passing" (Candles in Babylon 21, 22); and "Variation on a Theme by Rilke" (Breathing the Water 3). (13.) As in "Gathered at the River," in other ecological poems from the eighties a blurring between the figurative and the literal underlines the ontological and political assumptions that the nonhuman has rights. "Urgent Whisper" (Breathing the Water 38) starts out by personifying the earth without problematizing the figurative status of that trope. Soon, however, the speaker obscures the line between the visionary and the scientific by using technology to "listen" to Earth's voice. She dismisses the possibility that what she feels is an earthquake, since "there's no news from the seismographs." Suddenly she switches back to a visionary listening, when instead of an earthquake, she posits a conscious Earth, who is trembling because "she" is terrorized by environmental destruction. Personifying similes and similes from the animal world are intertwined: the earth trembles "as if a beaten child or a captive animal / lay waiting the next blow." Both similes underline the literal weight carried by the prosopopoeia throughout the poem: because both similes are images of terrorization of creatures whose rights we are accustomed to hearing about, these turns emphasize the assumption that the earth has a right to be preserved. Furthermore, because both similes come from conscious creatures, they imply that the earth has an awareness of its own destruction. (14.) For the connections between Buddhism and Snyder's environmentalism, see Steuding 55, as well as Almon and Castro. For an exploration of the influences of Native American traditions on Snyder, see Castro's Interpreting the Indian, chapter 6. (15.) Snyder draws on Sioux traditions throughout Turtle Island, in poems such as "The Dead by the Side of the Road,, and "Prayer for the Great Family." (16.) As Hobson puts it, Snyder must "restore [himself] to [his] own house" (107). (17.) For example, some Native groups (Castro uses the Hopi as an example) "hold that their teaching and responsibility is for the whole world" (Interpreting 160).
Green, Doxtator, and Matthews use the example of Black Elk Speaks as a text that perpetuates the stereotype.
Alcoff, Linda. "The Problem of Speaking for Others." Cultural Critique 20 (1991-92): 5-32. Allen, Donald M., ed. The New American Poetry. New York: Grove, 1960. Almost, Bert. "Buddhism and Energy in the Recent Poetry of Gary Snyder." Critical Essays on Gary Snyder. Ed. Patrick Murphy. Boston: Hall, 1990. 80-89. Altieri, Charles. "From Symbolist Thought to Immanence: The Ground of Postmodern American Poetics." Boundary 21 (1973): 605-41. Buber, Martin. I and Thou. Trans. Walter Kaufmann. New York: Scribner, 1970. Castro, Michael. "Gary Snyder: The Lessons of Turtle Island." Critical Essays on Gary Snyder. Ed. Patrick Murphy. Boston: Hall, 1990. 131-44. _____. Interpreting the Indian: Twentieth-Century Poets and the Native American. Albuquerque: U of New Mexico P, 1983. Culler, Jonathan. The Pursuit of Signs: Semiotics, Literature, Deconstruction. Ithaca: Cornell UP, 1981. De Man, Paul. "Lyrical Voice in Contemporary Theory: Riffaterre and Jauss." Lyric Poetry: Beyond New Criticism. Ed. Chaviva Hosek and Patricia Parker. Ithaca: Cornell UP, 1985. 38-54. Hallisey, Joan. "Denise Levertov's 1Illustrious Ancestors': The Hassidic Influence." Journal of the Society for the Study of the Multi-Ethnic Literature of the United States (MELUS)9.4 (1982): 5-11. Harvey, Elizabeth D. "Ventriloquizing Sappho: Ovid, Donne, and the Erotics of the Feminine Voice." Criticism 31.2 (1989): 115-38. Hobson, Geary. "The Rise of the White Shaman as a New Version of Cultural Imperialism." The Remembered Earth: An Anthology of Contemporary Native American Literature. Ed. Geary Hobson. Albuquerque: Red Earth, 1970. 100-108. Hymes, Dell. "A Coyote Who Can Sing." Gary Snyder: Dimensions of a Life. Ed. Jon Halper. San Francisco: Sierra Club, 1991. 392-4-4. "Isinamowin: The White Man's Indian." Part 2, by Maureen Matthews. With Rayna Green and Deborah Doxotator. Ideas. Introd. Lister Sinclair. Prod. Bernie Lucht. Canadian Broadcasting Corporation, Toronto. 11, 12 Dec. 1991. Jacobus, Mary. "Apostrophe and Lyric Voice in The Prelude." Lyric Poetry: Beyond New Criticism. Ed. Chaviva Hosek and Patricia Parker. Ithaca: Cornell UP, 1985. Kneale, J. Douglas. "Romantic Aversions: Apostrophe Reconsidered." ELH 58 (1991):141-65. Levertov, Denise. Breathing the Water. New York: New Directions, 1987. _____. Candles in Babylon. New York: New Directions, 1981. _____. A Door in the Hive. New York: New Directions, 1989. _____. Footprints. New York: New Directions, 1972. _____. The Jacob's Ladder. New York: New Directions, 1961. _____. Light Up the Cave. New York: New Directions, 1981. _____. Oblique Prayers: New Poems with Fourteen Translations from Jean Joubert. New York: New Directions, 1984. _____. The Poet in the World. New York: New Directions, 1973. _____. The Sorrow Dance. New York: New Directions, 1967. _____. To Stay Alive. New York: New Directions, 1971. Marlatt, Daphne. "Difference (Em)bracing." Language in Her Eye: Views on Writing and Gender, Voices by Canadian Women Writing in English. Ed. Libby Scheier, Sarah Sheard, Eleanor Wachtel. Toronto: Coach House, 1990. 188-93. McKay, Don. "Baler Twine." Unpublished ms. 1992. Olson, Charles. Human Universe and Other Essays. Ed. Donald Allen. New York: Grove, 1967. Philip, Marlene Nourbese. "The Disappearing Debate: Racism and Censorship." Language in Her Eye: Views on Writing and Gender, Voices by Canadian Women Writing in English. Ed. Libby Scheier, Sarah Sheard, Eleanor Wachtel. Toronto: Coach House, 1990. 171-77 Silko, Leslie Marmon. "An Old-time Indian Attack Conducted in Two Parts." The Remembered Earth: An Anthology of Contemporary Native American Literature. Ed. Geary Hobson. Albuquerque: Red Earth, 1979. 211-16. Snyder, Gary. Myths and Texts. New York: Totem, 1960. _____. Turtle Island. New York: New Directions, 1974. Steuding, Bob. Gary Snyder. Boston: Twayne-Hall, 1976. Younkins, Ronald. "Denise Levertov and the Hasidic Tradition." Descant 19.1 (1974): 40-48.
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|Author:||Nielsen, Dorothy M.|
|Date:||Dec 22, 1993|
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