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This Compost

Ecological Imperatives in American Poetry

Jed Rasula

Publication Year: 2002

Poetry, for Jed Rasula, bears traces of our entanglement with our surroundings, and these traces define a collective voice in modern poetry independent of the more specific influences and backgrounds of the poets themselves. In This Compost Rasula surveys both the convictions asserted by American poets and the poetics they develop in their craft, all with an eye toward an emerging ecological worldview.

Rasula begins by examining poets associated with Black Mountain College in the 1950s--Charles Olson, Robert Creeley, and Robert Duncan--and their successors. But This Compost extends to include earlier poets like Robinson Jeffers, Ezra Pound, Louis Zukofsky, Kenneth Rexroth, and Muriel Rukeyser, as well as Clayton Eshleman, Gary Snyder, Michael McClure, and other contemporary poets. Walt Whitman and Emily Dickinson also make appearances. Rasula draws this diverse group of poets together, uncovering how the past is a "compost" fertilizing the present. He looks at the heritage of ancient lore and the legacy of modern history and colonial violence as factors contributing to ecological imperatives in modern poetry.

This Compost restores the dialogue between poetic language and the geophysical, biological realm of nature that so much postmodern discourse has sought to silence. It is a fully developed, carefully argued book that deals with an underrepresented element in modern American culture, where the natural world and those who write about it have been greatly neglected in contemporary literary history and theory.

Published by: University of Georgia Press

Title page copyright page

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pp. i-viii


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pp. ix-x

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pp. xi-xiv

...of, nor attempts to canonize, a particular set of poets. Insofar as I take poetry to be something more than the exercise of aesthetic self-expression, there are tacit limits to the poets included here. Robert Creeley reports Allen Ginsberg urging, "You don't really have to worry about writing a good poem any more, you can write what you want to" (Faas, 187). While Creeley overestimates...

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pp. xv-xviii

...Paul Naylor, who made a handy selection for Facture (2000) and also offered crucial guidance for final revisions. I owe special thanks to Lyn Hejinian for advice about the title and to Bob Grenier for giving it to me straight. Harvey Brown offered invaluable scrutiny of my first draft in 1981, and Mark Ruddick provided the setting for the second draft. Readers for the University of Georgia Press offered...

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pp. 1-10

...recycling Thoreau's remark "Decayed literature makes the richest of all soils," which he wrote in his journal after observing that "while we are clearing the forest in our westward progress, we are accumulating a forest of books in our rear, as wild and unexplored as any of nature's primitive wildernesses" (16 March 1852). While Thoreau's reading in the classics marked him as a Harvard...

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pp. 11-12

...The papyrus had long since decayed (taking with it perhaps the major literature of the time, since the most esteemed Mesopotamian texts were inscribed on elegant parchment rather than on the crude though durable clay tablets); but some twenty-thousand tablets of "splayed-wedge" script went to the British Museum, where the work of deciphering and translating eventually captured public interest...

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The library

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pp. 13-19

...The Romantic phase of English poetry is separated from that later branch we know as American by nothing less than the recovery of half the total span of the Western literary record. Champollion's decipherment of the Rosetta stone in the 18205, and the subsequent popularization of prebiblical civilizations, created the unique conditions in which a distinctively American literature arose. Emerson...

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pp. 20-22

...To his poet's sense, one word discloses three: actions are generative, as weather is (he values the Cro-Magnon for "not letting this weather of life fog on them"); generation is the climate of propagation—in which individuals are generated, and in which they pass the world on to the next "generation." The generative nurture implicit in the early Neolithic development of animal husbandry and agriculture is attributed by Lewis Mumford to a rising matriarchal urbanism: generation...

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The tropics, & the trope

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pp. 23-27

...For many generations "America" was sheer verbal invention: a provocation of the advertising circular and the conceptual challenge of a newly discovered realm. But" 'Discovery' was a double concept, since it referred both to the act of finding and to the later act of revealing what had been found" (Franklin, 182). In calling many of his Maximus poems "letters," Olson wedges himself into that exploratory...

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pp. 28-32

...It has not much been told from the perspective of those who suffered first epidemic and then actual invasion—the microbial assault that spread far more rapidly and pervasively than their human hosts.* For some, like Susan Howe, reflecting on early colonial history, "In the machinery of injustice / my whole being is Vision"— where Vision is the "understory of anotherword." The understory expanded from...

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Vomito cogito

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pp. 33-37

...calculus of a metaphysics of Being, an ideological countenance structured into a knot of presence-knowledge-language-law and its subsidiary fleet of orbiting satellites, "nature" and "culture," "self," and "other." "Ontology," writes Dussel, "the thinking that expresses Being—the Being of the reigning and central system—is the ideology of ideologies, the foundation of the ideologies of the empires, of the center...

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That origin which is act . . . that riddle which is awe

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pp. 38-42

...There are two images here to ponder: the hunt and the sacrifice. Since the domestication of plants and animals (and urbanized humans), hunting has become one of the great unconsidered constants of human instinct, to the point that now, post 1945, we have doubts about the ultimate identity of the victim: man or animal? After citing Jane Harrison on the link between Greek drama and animal...

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The archaic and the old lore

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pp. 43-47

...primer of poetics and practical wisdom—Howard McCord speaks of the need "to SHAPE expression beyond the bleating self." "You would know the whole?" he asks, and amidst his bibliocentric cartography urges a path "Through the force of love, by the heart's blind eye, in the swiftness of glimpsed forms, in lightness, in balance." McCord's references range widely, including...

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Indian skin

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pp. 48-50

..."The past is not a husk": it persists not only in our stories, but in and as us. We are the genetic monstrance of deep time, living demonstrations of what the past forged. "The human mind is the result of a long series of interactions with other animals," writes ethologist Paul Shepard...

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On the extremest verge

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pp. 51-56

...Culture is said to live, while its makers die. The unsettling terms of this respiratory system have a long history, in which themes of truth and beauty (all you know and all you need to know, the Grecian urn tells humbled John Keats) emerge as consolations in the face of unyielding laws of organic life. In the Western world this has fostered a psychological legacy of perennial inadequacy: surrounded on all sides by "classics," we're overburdened not only with the malady of belatedness...

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The rim, the sediment

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pp. 57-63

...In its first fire Whitman's verse was magnificently tropic, a crisp, biodegradable composition of the States (not yet "United" but cosmically chaotic) into a demonized poetic topos; a body of work that might have as its most fitting epigraph not the overconfident "Song of the Open Road" singled out by D. H. Lawrence, but "This Compost." Of the major poems, only "I Sing the Body Electric," "Song...

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pp. 64-68

...The face of the shore is under ceaseless erasure by overinscription, awash with spirit traffic in sublunary plenitude, composing in tidal rhythms "runes upon the sand / from sea-spume." These traces are nudges and winks from the dead. "They are dead. That is they do not answer. What is this busyness of theirs they do not...

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Muses' archetext

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pp. 69-75

...honeyed words are always initiatory detours, beginnings, and "a beginning shows us how much language, with its perpetual memories of silence, can do to summon fiction and reality to an equal space in the mind. In this space certain fiction and certain reality come together as identity. Yet we can never be certain what part of identity is true, what part fictional" (Said, 373). The founding myth of Hesiod's encounter with the Muses on Mount Helikon has proven enormously consequential...

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A skin of mouths

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pp. 76-82

...The issue of poetry is a placental hunger, a craving wonder harboring a question: "what, anyway / was that sticky infusion, that rank flavor of blood, that poetry, by which I lived?" "I, too, have eaten / the meals of the dark shore." The predatory heritage is at times evident in the carnivore's heavy breath, the animal pacing in the respiration of the text. Or it can be as simple as the paternal...

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The vessel

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pp. 83-90

...In scenes of inspiration, as in cases of shamanistic transport, language descends from a higher power to brutalize the human vessel who suffers it knowingly, gnawingly. To assent to this condition is to follow Robert Kelly in believing that "Language is the only genetics," or to follow Robert Duncan's faith in the somatic pantheon of biochemistry guiding the composition of the poem; or, with Jack Spicer...

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pp. 91-96

...A herm is a pile of commemorative stones left for Hermes, the Bringer, guide of soul from world to world (soul as message, Hermes the messenger), from vessel to vessel, moment to moment to endowment. Under Hermes's sponsorship, dice, bones, sticks, and quills begin to speak, forming a living body of graffiti, a graphic crypt of signs. The herm evoked in every roll of the dice enumerates the name of...

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From Saturn to Demeter

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pp. 97-99

...From emptiness or blank, a scene arises; there is always a scene, a presentiment of knowing, the viewer's gnosis in the prehensile grasp of the elements. But prior to the scene there is a mood, a predisposition, whether expectation or aversion. The mood is black bile; whatever its temperamental coloring, it does dark work, work in the dark. The black bile "obliges thought to penetrate and explore the center of...

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Milk light

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pp. 100-105

...In the region of the inarticulate cry, where all sensations reduce to blank dazzle, "Life is an ecstasy. Life is sweet as nitrous oxide," Emerson writes ("Illusions").* "Thus events grow on the same stem with persons; are sub-persons. The pleasure of life is according to the man that lives it . . . . Life is an ecstasy" ("Fate"). "We are extrusions, facets, auras, in vibratory flowing surge of infinite possibilities,"...

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The floor of the upside down

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pp. 106-111

...Robinson Jeffers documents a late encounter, "Vulture," in which the bird of prey sizes up the aged poet and savors him for another time. "I tell you solemnly / That I was sorry to have disappointed him. To be eaten by that beak and become part of him, to share those wings and those eyes— / What a sublime end of one's body, what an enskyment; what a life after death." And what else could this be but Hart...

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The starry horizon

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pp. 112-119

...I was no longer simply beneath the night sky, but also above it—the immediate impression was of weightlessness. I might have been able to reorient myself, to regain some sense of ground and gravity, were it not for a fact that confounded my senses entirely: between the constellations below and the constellations above drifted countless fireflies, their lights flickering like the stars, some drifting up to join the clusters of stars overhead, others...

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The frozen being

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pp. 120-122

...In Kenneth Irby's view, "man matured as a creature of ice." We see at the end of his poem "Delius" a new crisis, need of a new vocabulary (to absorb the deglaciation? agricultural urbanization? pastoral nomadism? the passing of Virgo in 10,080 B.C. or Taurus in 1800 B.C.?) The sights are set not on the mound underfoot, but on that starry horizon the alchemist beholds in the famous engraving, as he plunges through the sublunar curtain of...

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pp. 123-124

...Every act divides and multiplies. Heraclitus's proposal that nobody steps in the same river twice might be taken to mean that someone stepping into a river divides the river. The person multiplies, in turn, into one who knows the river as one, and another who knows the river as two.* As Edward Dorn writes of Creeley's "molecular consistency," "It assumes an address multiple to itself...

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Memoranda and signatures

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pp. 125-129

...This compost harbors another design, Johnson's aspiration "that poems / might be made as Harry Partch makes / music, his instruments / built by hand / —that we might determine our own / intervals between / objects, / as he constructs octaves." So Johnson fancies himself, like Thoreau...

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pp. 130-134

...The living word masks the crossroads where a mystery prevails, blending corporeal substance with inscrutable breath, apparent premonition of a spirit world corresponding, at the somatic level, with the equally inscrutable depths of the body....

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pp. 135-137

...If epic is the vision of action and sequence—the polecat's labor in climbing up the Nail of the North—then sliding down is the vision of voice, running the text through (like a tape in reverse) for the sound of it alone, the suddenness of its descent, the splinter in the flesh the perspective of voice becomes, vocalizing graphic stings: that perplexing nudging and suckling of moisture and dryness in...

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pp. 138-140

...in the poem: "I too had been struck from the float forever held in solution, / I too had receiv'd identity by my body." (This is more familiar as "Crossing Brooklyn Ferry": the change of title was the only major revision Whitman made.) "Let us build altars to the Blessed Unity which holds nature...

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Language obeyed

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pp. 141-144

..."Language obeyd flares tongues in obscure matter." These are the dicta of a poetics attentive to (and retentive of) crumplings of discourse into folds and redundancies, vulvic recesses and hollows, fluency become granular, textured. Verbalized, vocally strummed. Language, framed by the rivalry of law and desire, feeds on its own dispersal into elementary functions and particles ("eye net / / quoin own me"*), liberated into...

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pp. 145-148

...Language is inconceivable without a granary of words, a "mill of particulars" in Robert Kelly's parable. But particularity can run amok without an informing pattern, a disposing matrix. The pestilential vision of parts overrunning the whole takes the form of bacterial invasion in Kenneth Rexroth's vision of the onset of World War II...

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De rerum natura: epic's lyric absolute

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pp. 149-158

...The emblematic features of Rexroth's poem, the phoenix and the tortoise, are versions of history. In the dystopic vision the State is "the organization / Of the evil instincts of mankind"; "Its goal is the achievement / Of the completely atomic / Individual and the pure / Commodity relationship— / The windowless monad sustained / By Providence." In the perpetuum mobile of administered ecstasy, "The assumption of history / Is that the primary vehicle / Of social memory is...

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Ghosts of inner ecology

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pp. 159-164

...Imagination is the organ of inner ecology. In the nineteenth-century volkiscb view, the imagination transcended individuality, giving rise to the notion that great artists "belonged" to a nation, that intensity in an individual brightened the race. This short-circuited into a racial stinginess, a prophylactic urge to preserve the purity of imaginative expression, with nationalism as self-appointed custodian of purportedly "universal" values. The stage was set for the absorption of all cultural...

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pp. 165-171

...includes the ground on which it might otherwise be expected to stand out. And "if it were possible that a movement were lively enough it would exist so completely that it would not be necessary to see it moving against anything to know that it is moving. This is what we mean by life" (170). Credo: "if anything is alive there is no such thing as repetition" (174). Stein's practice in her portraits is cinematic; "in the Making of Americans, I was doing what the cinema was doing, I was making a continuous succession of the statement of what that person...

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Detritus pathways

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pp. 172-176

..."Life will show you masks that are worth all your carnivals. Yonder mountain must migrate into your mind" (Emerson, "Illusions"—reiterated in Aldo Leopold's famous exhortation to think like a mountain). This migration mimics the interplay of real and ideal in the "loom of time": "Illusion, Temperament, Succession, Surface, Surprise, Reality, Subjectiveness—these are threads on the loom of time, these are the lords of life" ("Experience"). The loom is a figure attracting not only Emerson...

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Scruples & superstition

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pp. 177-178

...art and literature that is "imaginative" yet possessed of "authority"—wondering, like Anne Waldman, "Was the agreement that words shine like sun, / or glint as weapons in moonlight?" We want authorities, not authors. This "we" is of course one I would prefer to disengage. Yet disaffiliation now—even from that which oppresses—results in exile into a worldview spooked by dread of chaos, driven astray in search of an autonomy that often turns out to camouflage authority and...

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pp. 179-181

...Stein celebrates Lansing's "genial occultism" as "an address from the contingency of intimate care that touches us not where we are Everyman—but where we are ourselves." He takes such work to be instructively Parmenidean in affirming that "Being exceeds the One" and that "Unity is a function of experience, not what funds it"; so, for Lansing, "concerns are not authorized by anything but the tropisms of a vitalized attention, and the work of setting to rights the...

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pp. 182-185

...Myth arises, reputedly, as participatory response: the interjected mu of onlookers in a circle around a performance or recitation. The mu of myth is the oracle of circularity: myth is psyche affirming a circulation and is as innate to the individual as the distinctive whorl of fingerprint by which we are identified: an implicating fold, a personal labyrinth, a diagram of detritus pathways. The very notions of psyche and myth are unambiguously concentric in their bias. Jacques Derrida's critique...

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The empty house

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pp. 186-187

...Paleolithic cave art represents approximately twenty thousand years of applied human perception. Hunting-gathering cultures made this graffiti panorama in the form of outlines, stains, dots, and meanders, in abstract and cryptic as well as recognizably mimetic figures. This was all produced well after hominid evolution had resulted in people like us, but with slightly larger cranial capacity. A relatively undocumented period followed, probably linked to deglaciation. This...

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The times promised

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pp. 188-192

...early formulation "polis is / eyes," Charles Olson comes twenty years later to "if you let the ape-side out the eyes / have died"; we are a species acquiring a distaste for itself, and our eyes no longer register the omnivorousness with which we devour the biological and ecological basis of our condition. "The universe is filld with eyes then, intensities . . . / benemaledictions of the dead." It's only within a framework like that of Maximus—proposed as the enlarged image of human capability—that Olson manages to pinpoint homo sapiens as transhistorical fatality...

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The uninterrupted tissue

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pp. 193-200

...favoring History as "a declaration of independence from the deep past" (Shepard, "Post-Historic Primitivism," 46). The previous fifteen hundred years had been devoted to examining the tissue called Jesus and Mary, Jehovah and Holy Ghost, Moses and Aaron, Saul and David. Yet traditions persisted—hermetic, sealing their preserves tight—that spoke of Zeus and Hera, Apollo and Dionysus, Isis and...


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pp. 201-222


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pp. 223-236

Biographical Glossary

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pp. 237-248


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pp. 249-259

E-ISBN-13: 9780820344805
E-ISBN-10: 0820323667
Print-ISBN-13: 9780820323664
Print-ISBN-10: 0820323667

Page Count: 280
Illustrations: 10 illus., 11 figures
Publication Year: 2002