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The future of the past: the carboniferous & ecopoetics.

"The earth under our feet--We are not asked to begin nowhere."

--George Oppen

Lingering here, first decade of the twenty-first century, we find ourselves better than ever able to trawl through different voices and dialects, but we're aware that the language practices commandeering world history are increasingly standardized, utilitarian, and transcriptional. We're already experts at navigating sound bites. We absorb cliches and readymade phrases in newspapers, on television, in gossip and casual conversation. With text-messaging, grammar and spell-check programs, we're offered, in the middle of making a word or sentence, a range of choices for completing it. Those choices are programmed to the most likely possibilities among conventions. The full range is shoehorned into high-probability solutions. Shortcuts are useful, of course, but they nudge us toward predetermined expressions, presumptive ruts that circumscribe thinking and condition perception.

As globalization draws us together and industrialization and human population pressures take their toll on natural habitats, as species of plants and animals flicker and are snuffed from the earth, it may be worthwhile to ask whether an ethnocentric view of human beings as a species independent from others underpins our exploitation of natural resources and sets into motion dire consequences.

What we've perpetrated on our environment has certainly affected a poet's means and material. But can poetry be ecological? Can it display or be invested with values that acknowledge the economy of interrelationship between human and nonhuman realms? Aside from issues of theme and reference, how might syntax, line break, or the shape of the poem on the page express an ecological ethics? If our perceptual experience is mostly palimpsestic or endlessly juxtaposed and fragmented; if events rarely have discreet beginnings or endings but only layers, duration, and transitions; if natural processes are already altered by and responsive to human observation, how does poetry register the complex interdependency that draws us into a dialogue with the world?

There are, of course, long traditions of the pastoral, poetry centered on nature or landscape, in both Eastern and Western literature. I myself am less interested in "nature poetry"--where nature features as theme--than in poetry, sometimes called ecopoetry, that investigates--both thematically and formally--the relationship between nature and culture, language and perception.

I'm averse to proposing any particular aesthetic synthesis that embodies the union of linguistic meaning and phenomenal reality. Compost seems to me no more a model of nature than geometrical symmetry (the housefly's eye) or strict mathematical progression (the Fibonacci number sequence). It depends upon how we want to metaphorize nature. No definition can be authoritative. A strict Petrarchan sonnet might as readily suggest to a reader the rigid imposition of authorial control as the humbling sublimation of a writer's choices to a larger (because conventional) expressive pattern.

Just now, the United States and China are locked in a tug of war to determine which country can spew more carbon. For both, natural resources are plundered for immediate ends. Perhaps these facts place particular responsibilities on the poets of both countries. Maybe the development of environmental literacy, by which I mean a capacity for reading connections between the environment and its inhabitants, can be promoted by poetic literacy; maybe poetic literacy will be deepened through environmental literacy.

Poetry doesn't simply supplement the rational intellect, but provides inherently and sometimes incommensurable forms of insight. Because its meanings are neither quantitative nor verifiable, poetry may offer different, subtler, and more complex expressions than the language of information and commerce. An ecopoetry might even ...


The term ecopoetics has taken on a wide range of connotations. Among them has been a variable set of technical and conceptual strategies for writing during a time of ecological crisis. These strategies (which look a lot like innovative poetic strategies championed for the last hundred years) often make claims to initiating:

1. A dispersal of ego-centered agency.

2. A stance of self-reflexivity (so that, for instance, it is said that the poem originates not within the self but within the landscape to which it is given back).

3. A rejection of any attempt to "gather the world into some kind of unity and permanence" in favor of an "encounter" with the world marked by "entropic fluctuations." (Stuart Cooke). Ecopoetic texts are sometimes described as "open texts."

4. A rigorous attention to patterning.

5. A reinterpretation of objectivity as intersubjectivity.

To bolster this last intention, ecopoetics has been linked to studies in neurology. While the attempt to reinterpret objectivity as inter subjectivity goes back at least to the nineteenth century, lo Franz Brentano and Edmund Husserl, the contemporary neurologist Antonio Damasio helps provide a science for it with research that suggests that "consciousness consists of constructing knowledge about two facts: that the organism is involved in relation to some object and that the object in the relation causes a change in the organism."

The world, Damasio would say, is actively involved in our perception of it. The phenomenologist Maurice Merleau-Ponty was on to something quite similar when he wrote that the tree offers itself to our vision. In most eco-philosophies, traditional Western assumptions about the distinction between the controlling subject and serviceable object are reassessed. The ego-logical is redrafted as the eco-logical.

So eco-logic (as Felix Guattari claims in The Three Ecologies) is not focused on binaries; it isn't dialectical. Instead, it means to question "the whole of subjectivity" and rethink the self as "a collective singularity." As the poet/ philosopher Richard Deming puts it, "To suggest there is a subjectivity to which 'self refers is not necessarily to hold that, as such, an 'I' must be a continuity."

It isn't a radically new idea to consider that the "1" is multiple (Nietszche and Emily Dickinson both say as much) or that the self is interconnected with other things and beings (as animists believe and as Husserl proposed). But the founder of deep ecology, Arne Naess, extends the idea into his call for a worldwide and unimpeded "self-realization" for all subjects, human and nonhuman.

And here come some problems.

Guattari prods us to learn to see ourselves as a collective singularity, to "construct and in a permanent way re-construct this collectivity into a multivalent liberation project. Not in reference to a directing ideology, but within the articulation of the Real."

Some of the questions we might ask are: Who becomes responsible for separating the Real from ideology? Does that attempt lead us back to a notion of prelinguistic, primordial reality unstructured by language? Is there a way to perceive "the Real" transparently, without depending on deeply problematic translations of the world into word? Is there any foundational Reality apart from our constitutive and perspectival translation of it?

Many of the descriptions of the relation between poetry and ecology are metaphorical and the metaphors have been thoroughly mixed. A poem expressing a concern for ecology might be structured as compost, it might be developed rhizomatically, it might be described as a nest, a collectivity. Its structure might be cyclical, indeterminate, or strictly patterned. The formal possibilities are as infinite as ever, since there isn't any formal structure for representing ecology or nature. And writing is a constructed system.

Looking back for a moment at Naess's imagination of "self-realization" for all subjects, human and nonhuman, we are faced with another nagging question: how can our perception of nonhuman indications of "self-realization" be unimpeded by our interpretation? While it's true that many cultures--the Piraha, the Navajo, Australian aborigines--experience relatively more transparent relations with "the spirit world," there are still inherent translation problems.

And who determines, and by what criteria, that one poem "issues from the land" while another poem "issues from the self"? Who validates certain poetic techniques, approaches, forms as a priori ecologically ethical or unethical (like William Carlos Williams did when he called the sonnet "fascistic")?

It's interesting to consider classical Chinese poetry, which--with its absence of personal pronouns, simultaneous but nonhierarchical meanings, indeterminate term relations, and linkages between the natural world and the world of human emotion, perception, and experience--satisfies many ecopoetical aims. Yet the Chinese have a long, pervasive history of what the Western world calls animal abuse and environmental degradation, not to mention a deeply hierarchical social structure and oppressive political regimes.

Maybe there is no reason to expect that values purportedly connected to poetic form encourage behaviors structured by those values. Which is to say, maybe poetry makes nothing happen.

In linguistic circles, the Wittgensteinian argument that "the limits of my language mean the limits of my world" is still debated, often couched in attacks on (or variations of) the Sapir-Whorf theory (which proposes that the particularities of a language influence the thought of its speakers). Most ecopoetics are linked to some sense of political urgency and to the belief that language is centrally involved in both thinking and culture, a position calling into question anyone's claim to absolute certitude. It's been suggested that ecopoetries, by offering revised, less dogmatically binary perspectives of interaction between human and nonhuman realms, suggest ways of being in the world that might lead to less exploitative and destructive histories.

Two recent studies interest me and, although they aren't dog-in-the-sun proofs, they register support for the argument that language, perception, and conception are irrevocably interconnected. The first is the highly publicized field work of Daniel Everett, who reported, in "Cultural Constraints on Grammar and Cognition in Piraha" and in two subsequent books, on a Brazilian-Amazonian tribe for whom linguistic communication is restricted to "the immediate experience of the interlocutors." Their language doesn't have a perfect tense. It doesn't allow for the possibility of embedding, putting one phrase or sentence inside another They have no numbers, no concept of counting beyond one, two, and many, no color terms, no abstractions, no myths, and no sense of history going back beyond one or two generations.

Despite one hundred years of contact with Portuguese-speaking Brazilians, they are monolingual. Because their language does not allow for experience beyond the experience of the speakers, they don't say, when someone in a canoe disappears around the bend of a river, "He is gone from sight"; they say, "He is gone (from experience)." (1)

Another study involves the Aymara of Bolivia. This interests me in particular because I've cotranslated two books by the Bolivian poet Jaime Saenz, whose work is notably influenced by Aymara language and culture. In the Aymara language, it is impossible to say something like "Christopher Columbus discovered America in 1492," since that sentence is unqualified by anyone's experience and because every sentence must express whether an action or event was personally witnessed or not. According to Rafael Nunez, a cognitive scientist at University of California, San Diego, the Aymara is the "only studied culture for which the past is linguistically and conceptually in front of them while the future lies behind them."

To speak of the future, elderly Aymara thumb or wave back over their shoulder. To reference the past, they make "forward sweeping motions with their hands and arms. The main word for eye, front, and sight in Aymara means the past, while the basic word for back or behind also means the future."

It has been suggested that in a culture that privileges a distinction between seen/unseen and known/unknown to the extent that evidential requirements are requisites of the language, perhaps it makes sense to metaphorically place the past in front of you, in your field of view, and the unknown, unknowable future behind your back.

In these cases, there seems to be a close relation between the particularities of language and the perceptions and conceptions of the speakers of that language.

If language does affect the way we think about being in the world, poetry can make something happen. I would suggest that it does. I feel it has deeply influenced the way I experience the world. But it probably doesn't affect perception nearly as directly as poets might wish. Getting rid of the capital "I," eliminating pronouns altogether, deconstructing normative syntax, making the word "wordy," etc.--these techniques, all more than a century old, impact the reader. But the effects are complex and subtle, and may not correspond to a writer's intentions at all.

Perhaps, instead of modeling ecologies, poems might be seen to take responsibility for certain ways of thinking and writing, as Charles Altieri notes, "precisely by inviting audiences to see what powers they take on as they adapt themselves to how the texts ask to be read." (2)

What if structures of perception are not "subjective" (i.e., added by humans to raw data) or "objective" (i.e., provided by things in themselves), but are articulated within media of relation and interaction such that to speak is to surge up into a medium that isn't projected, but is ongoing, like an environment? Might we see ourselves then as participants in a noninstrumental language?

Would there be any way to know?

Forrest Gander

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Author:Gander, Forrest
Publication:Chicago Review
Article Type:Critical essay
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Sep 22, 2011
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