Contemporary Literature 45.3 (2004) 557-562
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Bridging Ecology, Poetry, and Community
Jed Rasula's 1996 American Poetry Wax Museum: Reality Effects, 1940-1990 was a groundbreaking work of institutional literary history. In it, Rasula used the figure of the wax museum to spark a detailed account of the forces that brought the personal lyric and its practitioners to dominance in the latter half of the twentieth century, exploring such phenomena as the Bollingen controversy, the anthology wars, and the rise of the Associated Writing Programs. Seeking to develop "a sense of poetry in America as a matrix of lives lived, not a Jurassic Park of spectacular behemoths," he broke from the traditional literary historical monograph's poet-per-chapter format to produce a rangy, idiosyncratic work that hovers, in his words, "between documentary and polemic."1 With its section of cross-referenced appendices, including inventories of American poetry anthologies and the poets who appeared in them, prizes and awards, and "critical industries" (a list of poets ranked by the number of hits each received in the MLA bibliography from 1981 to 1994), Wax Museum stands as a remarkable archive of the regulatory practices that it argues so forcefully against. [End Page 557]
Rasula's first book's exhaustive documentation of what he calls "the institutional custodianship of literature" seems to have freed him to explore what falls out of literary bounds and launched a project of methodological innovation whose stakes have become increasingly high. His next work, Imagining Language: An Anthology, co-edited with Steve McCaffery, collects three millennia of language practices that have either been excluded from or gleefully flouted the sanctioned literary. This Compost: Ecological Imperatives in American Poetry, his most recent book of new work, uses generic fluidity to perhaps the greatest effect. Both an anthology and an extended essay, it's also a poem including history in which Rasula glosses, performs, and celebrates a poetics governed by the ecological principle of "solidarity in anonymity" (9). As anyone who has read Wax Museum well knows, this is not an easy feat in an American literary landscape governed more by Parnassian hierarchy than by the fungal egalitarianism of the climax forest. But the depredations of humanism reach far beyond its mortifying effects in the literary world, Rasula's purview in Wax Museum; they encompass ten thousand years, he argues here, of species and planetary destruction. American poetry of a certain post-Poundian order has the unique capacity to change things, he suggests, and This Compost makes the challenging case that to do so is nothing less than imperative. "I . . . think of poems as ecosystems, precariously adjusted to the surrounding biomass," Rasula writes in his introduction (7). The book's argument for what poetry can do hinges on the nature and effects of this adjustment.
This Compost could hardly feel more different from Wax Museum. But there's an interesting congruence between the earlier work's model of literary history as a "matrix of lives lived" and this book's "compost library"—the layered conceit that interweaves the text's methodology with its ecological argument about literary, human, and natural history. On the page, "the compost library" names Rasula's citational practice of placing texts side by side, mostly without authorial identification, an act of foregrounding poetry, not poets, "the system, not the signet," designed to demonstrate and sustain "poetry as ecology in the community of words" (7). The community that Rasula gathers in This Compost constellates around Black Mountain but reaches back through Emerson, [End Page 558] Whitman, and Dickinson and makes surprising lateral moves to include Wallace Stevens and Robert Frost, even A. R. Ammons and Jorie Graham. All are united in their affinity for what Gary Snyder calls "the practice of the wild." For Rasula, this embraces not only the recognition of what Charles Olson terms our "ape-side" and the realm of nature, but also such counterphilosophies...