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The Language of Nature, the Nature of Language

Scott Knickerbocker

Publication Year: 2012

Ecocritics and other literary scholars interested in the environment have tended to examine writings that pertain directly to nature and to focus on subject matter more than expression. In this book, Scott Knickerbocker argues that it is time for the next step in ecocriticism: scholars need to explore the figurative and aural capacity of language to evoke the natural world in powerful ways. Ecopoetics probes the complex relationship between artifice and the natural world in the work of modern American poets—in particular Wallace Stevens, Elizabeth Bishop, Richard Wilbur, and Sylvia Plath. These poets relate to nature as a deep wellspring of meaning, although they all avoid using language the way most nature writers do, merely to reflect or refer directly to the world. Each of these poets, in his or her own distinct way, employs instead what Knickerbocker terms sensuous poesis, the process of rematerializing language through sound effects and other formal devices as a sophisticated response to nonhuman nature. Rather than attempt to erase the artifice of their own poems, to make them seem more natural and thus supposedly closer to nature, the poets in this book unapologetically embrace artifice—not for its own sake but in order to perform and enact the natural world. Indeed, for them, artifice is natural. In examining their work, Knickerbocker charts a new direction for ecocriticism.

Published by: University of Massachusetts Press


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Title Page, Copyright, Dedication, Quote

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p. vii

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pp. ix-x

My immediate gratitude goes to Karen Ford of the English Department at the University of Oregon. She has given my writing more careful, rigorous attention than it has ever received before. Discussing poetry with her—in person and on the page—made this project an invigorating experience. For reading my...

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Introduction: The Language of Nature, the Nature of Language

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pp. 1-18

My thirteen-month-old-son Rowan reaches out from my back to a towering hemlock and attempts to echo my latest denotation, “tree.” I am huffing up the basalt-riddled trail along Multnomah Creek to the top of Larch Mountain, pointing to the flora that I recognize and reciting the common names of wildflowers...

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1. Wallace Stevens, Eco-Aesthete

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pp. 19-55

According to most of Wallace Stevens’s prominent critics, the poet is anything but ecologically oriented. Helen Vendler, for example, describes Stevens as expressing three “large manners” in his poetry: his “ecstatic idiom” of secular and earthy joys, a “despairing” mood that “anatomizes a stale and withered life,” and a...

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2. Elizabeth Bishop’s Strange Reality

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pp. 56-83

Insofar as environmentally inclined poetry is based in fidelity to a real natural world, any ecocritical account of Elizabeth Bishop must surely start with her “famous eye”—her extremely close attention to the visual details of the natural world. This familiar characterization of Bishop alone makes her an obvious choice for a study in...

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3. Richard Wilbur’s Natural Artifice

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pp. 84-122

Utter the phrase “contemporary ecopoet,” and most people will immediately think not of Richard Wilbur but of Gary Snyder, and for good reasons. Not only have critics categorized Snyder this way, but also Snyder refers to himself as an ecologist (as well as a student of anthropology, literature, Native American mythology...

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4. Sylvia Plath’s Physical Words

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pp. 123-158

Despite the New Criticism’s warning against the “intentional fallacy,” poststructuralism’s assertion that the author is “dead,” and the New Historicism’s emphasis on ideology and historical context, much of the literary criticism devoted to Sylvia Plath has relied heavily on her biography. This is partly due to Plath’s unfortunate...

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Conclusion: Organic Formalism and Contemporary Poetry

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pp. 159-185

The poems of Wallace Stevens, Elizabeth Bishop, Richard Wilbur, and Sylvia Plath clearly demonstrate the double nature of poetic form, which both restrains language from imposing itself on the natural world and reveals meaningful entanglements with that world. For all of these poets, the most meaningful contact with nature...


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pp. 187-191

Works Cited

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pp. 193-200


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pp. 201-203

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About the Author, Back Cover

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p. 204

Scott Knickerbocker is assistant professor of English and environmental studies at The College of Idaho. Originally from Ashland, Oregon, Knickerbocker earned a BA at Principia College in Elsah, Illinois, and an MA and a PhD at the University of Oregon in Eugene. At The College of Idaho, Knickerbocker teaches courses...

E-ISBN-13: 9781613761984
E-ISBN-10: 1613761988
Print-ISBN-13: 9781558499546
Print-ISBN-10: 1558499547

Page Count: 208
Publication Year: 2012

OCLC Number: 830023871
MUSE Marc Record: Download for Ecopoetics

Research Areas


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Subject Headings

  • American poetry -- 20th century -- History and criticism.
  • Nature conservation in literature.
  • Ecocriticism.
  • Philosophy of nature in literature.
  • Ecology in literature.
  • Poetics -- History -- 20th century.
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